Since the dawning of time, it has been the traditional role of women to attend other women in labor and birth.
Midwives were the doctors, the counselors, the shaman, the healers, the pediatricians, the birth professionals, the mashkiki and the midewikwe. Doulas were the women-helpers; women of age who had been-there-done-that, were old enough to understand the work being done, the servants of the heart and body.
Midwives and Doulas are the two roles as taken by the women attending other women during their labor and birthing times. From the earliest manuscripts and portrayals of birth, we see one, if not more, women attending the woman in labor. In this post, we are going to look at the global and historical roles of these beloved women.
|Birth of Edmund c 1433|
The Hebrew people called her yalad - meaning 'bringing forth'. The Latin term cum-mater, along with the Spanish/Portuguese term comadre, all mean 'with woman'.
References to midwives are found in ancient Hindu records, in Greek and Roman manuscripts, and even in the Bible:
"The ancient Jews called her the 'wise woman', just as she is known in France as the sage-femme, and in Germany, the weise frau and also Hebamme or 'mother's adviser, helper, or friend'. The English 'midwife' is derived from mid wif, or 'with-woman'" - J.H. Aveling
Childbirth from Al Maqamat by Al-Hariri circa 1054-1122
"And when she (Rachel) was in her hard labor, the midwife said to her, 'Fear not, for now you will have another son.'" - Genesis 35:17In ancient times, a midwife was considered both the magical/mystical/holistical practitioner, and the medical/herbal practitioner. She was often revered as a necessary part of the community, sometimes considered a leader in the community. Other times, depending on the social and political climate, she was considered someone to be feared, tortured, or even killed.
"Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty." - Exodus 1:20
|Angkor Wat Cambodia|
|Nativity, Antonio Veneziano|
They were herbal and medicinal healers, knew how to bring down fevers, slow a hurried pulse, set a bone, bring forth a stubborn baby from labor, diminish rashes, stop diarrhea, and bring on periods. And they did it all while counseling the families personal and emotional needs as well.
|"Childbirth" Antonio pur Gonzalez, Mayan painting|
|Der Frauen 1513 book by Eucharius Roeslin Renaissance|
Unfortunately, the Middle Ages brought the infamous witch hunts of Europe. These spread, primarily, from Germany through to England. The Medieval Church and civic authorities (often one and the same) mandated that citizens turn in anyone suspected of 'witch-like' behavior. In fact, if you lived during that time and you did not accuse at least one person of witchcraft, you were at risk of accusation, excommunication, or banishment.
"... Because the Medieval Church, with the support of kings, princes and secular authorities, controlled medical education and practice, the Inquisition constitutes, among other things, an early instance of the "professional" repudiating the skills and interfering with the rights of the "nonprofessional" to minister to the poor." - Thomas Szasz
|Medieval artwork of midwife preparing pennyroyal|
From the standpoint of the Medieval Church, they touted that witches, those deserving of death, were not only those known to murder and poison, commit sex crimes and conspiracy ( which included 'thinking independent of a man'), but even those who were known to help the less fortunate and needy, those known to be healers.
Because midwives were not from rich families, and their knowledge passed down from woman to woman, generation to generation, and because the majority of midwives were illiterate and willing to barter their wisdom for food and clothing, midwives served the people, regardless of class or wealth.
""And if it is asked how it is possible to distinguish whether an illness is caused by witchcraft or by some natural physical defect, we answer that the first is by means of the judgement of doctors..."... Whereas, "If a woman dare to cure without having studied she is a witch and must die." - Malleus Maleficarum
Cypress Childbirth Statuette
|Roman 4 AD|
|Chinese print of women attending mother|
|Childbirth Scene of Or San Michele Florence, Italy © David Lees|
Subversively, midwives still practiced their craft, as there were still those who did not have the means to pay the wealthy, male professionals. And, even when they did, generations of midwifery-attended birthers refused to go quietly into the night as more aggressive and less educated 'doctors' sought to lift the skirts of local women.
"Louyse (or Louise) Bourgeois (c. 1563 - 1636) was a medical pioneer who paved the way for the modern profession of nurse - midwifery. As royal midwife in the early 16th century to King Henry IV of France and his wife Marie de Médicis, Bourgeois raised midwifery from folklore to science. For many years she delivered the babies of the top echelons of the French aristocracy, accumulating knowledge of the anatomy of childbirth and asserting the value of the knowledge of midwives as compared with that of the male surgeons who controlled the childbirth setting. Possessed of strong scientific instincts, she wrote voluminously, making important contributions to obstetrics. But at the root of her methods were common - sense convictions: each birth, she felt, was an individual experience unlike any other, and natural processes ought to be trusted, with birth attendants in most cases intervening, if at all, only to help nature along." - Encyclopedia.com
|Roman birth sculpture|
As the new doctoring professionals started to realize that they would not be able to take over this profession, instead they began taking charge of the profession. Governments and universities began regulating the education and training of midwives. Even though most of the knowledge continued to be passed through apprenticeship, early licensing and training began to take a more formal route - which, duplicitly, allowed for the male-dominated field of sciences to begin to get a glimpse into the world of birthing women.
|chinese home birth|
As early as 1560, Parisian midwives had to pass a licensing examination and abide by regulations to practice. During the 17th Century, France started a school for midwifery, while dutch midwives were held in high esteem, protected by surgeon's guilds and practicing under strict rules and regulations.
|Juedisches Ceremoniel J. G. Puschner 1716 Germany|
“cannot deny, that men in some things may come to a greater perfection of knowledge than women ordinarily can by reason of the former helps that women want, yet the holy scriptures hath recorded midwives to the perpetual hour of the female sex. There being not so much as one word concerning men-midwives mentioned there that we can find, it being the natural propriety of women to be much seeing into that art…" - The Midwife's Book.
|Italian scodella, Francesco Xanto Avelli, ca 1486-1582|
|Hindu birth art|
|Indian Birth Art from Kalpa Sutra The Birth of Mahavira, c 1375-1400|
|Gustave Witkowski, Pioneer Birth Scene, 1877|
|Wisconsin College of Midwifery|
|French oil painting c 1800|
|The 17th Century Birthing Chamber - by Lawrence Alma Tadema|
|Midwife Mary Gerrard, 1886, at her clinic - http://ebling.library.wisc.edu/historical/wi-women/index.cfm|
|Granny Hill, 1920's, midwife, photo courtesy of Mrs. Echol Smith|
By 1900, physicians attended around half of the nation's births. Midwives were reserved for those who could not afford a doctor. Prejudices ran rampant and the name of midwifery once again became muddied by bigotry, greed, and hatred. Doctors soon saw that there was much money in the field of childbirth, not just a science to conquer, and began a smear campaign, building on the prejudices already in place.
|Granny Midwife Albany, GA, 1952. Courtesy Robert Galbraith|
|1944 midwife in FL|
|The Renaissance of the Apprentice-trained Midwife in North America ~ One Midwife’s Saga, Carol Leonard|
I have heard many women talk about how doulas are a new fad in our culture. Yet, when you look at the artwork throughout this post, you will see that women surrounded themselves with other women during labor and birth. They had a midwife there, yes, but they also had other women there to help them on the journey.
|Hellenistic Cypriot from the temple at Golgoi ca 310 30 BC (see the hands at her head and at baby)|
|Isola Dell'Sacra Ostia 1st Century AD|
"You are a birth servant. Do good without show or fuss. If you must take the lead, lead so that the mother is helped, yet still free and in charge. When the baby is born, they will rightly say: "We did it ourselves!"' - Lao Tzu, "Tao Te Ching", 6th Century BC
|Italian The Birth of Cupid School of Fontainebleau ca 16th century|
|Hellenistic relief from late 4th early 3rd century BC Ibrahimieh Necropolis Alexandria|
"at Cowens Still, Shee unwell yet. Jonas Clearks infant had a fitt; they Calld me to See it. mrs Cowen Calld her women together this Eving. was Safely Delivd of a Dafter about ye middle of ye night & is Comfortable. fee & medisin 10/. May 5, 18001 recd 10/ by his Dagt [bitsy]." - Martha Ballard
|isis giving birth with the help of demi gods|
Science, again, is slowly coming full circle to realize what we, as women, have known since women first squatted in the dust of the earth. Women who are supported, encouraged, and educated by other women have the healthiest and safest outcomes.
Witches, Midwives, and Nurses
History of Midwifery
Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook
The History of Midwifery and Childbirth in America: A Time Line
A Short History of Midwifery
No Catty Bitches
Doula Support and Attitudes of Intrapartum Nurses: A Qualitative Study from the Patient's Perspective
Womb Ecology - The Masculinisation of the Birth Environment
Womb Ecology - the physiological reference