In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Midwifery

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Renaissance and Reformation Midwifery
Valerie Worth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0366


Midwifery was a subject of both popular and scientific interest and often of regular scrutiny through the early modern period. While many births continued to be conducted by a local midwife, and family and religious rituals often remained constant, in other respects there were significant changes. However, their extent and the speed at which they affected different countries, even different regions, were extremely varied. The advent of print culture led to a sharp increase, from the 16th century onward, in the number of midwifery manuals available; those in the vernacular rather than Latin particularly found a wider, lay readership, especially when they contained descriptions and illustrations of “monstrous” births. Although most manuals were authored by male surgeons and physicians, in the 17th and 18th centuries some female midwives also kept detailed case notes and published textbooks. This contribution from women coincided in part with the rise of the male midwife, a phenomenon that challenged traditional midwifery, especially in England and France, and led to hotly contested debates over the use by male surgeons of the newly invented forceps, rather than relying on the skills of the expert female midwife. The period thus saw the emergence in some places of a medicalization of normal as well as complicated childbirth, and a potential diminution in the authority of the female midwife. Nonetheless, midwives, like surgeons and physicians, continued to be key members of the community, and midwifery was one of the limited number of remunerated, professional roles open to women. The regulation of midwifery varied by country and state/town, and was often a matter for both ecclesiastical and medical authorities: the former became critical after the Reformations because of the midwife’s potential role in baptizing the newborn. Although ecclesiastical licensing and medical regulations were undoubtedly sometimes more honored in the breach than in the observance, in some cities some formal training was provided for midwives. While the stereotypes of ignorant midwives and the associations of midwifery with witchcraft persisted in the popular imagination, by the 18th century Louis XV of France charged one midwife, Madame du Coudray (c. 1712–1794), with touring the provinces to teach midwifery skills in order to halt the decline in the population. In the cultural imagination, as well as in practice, the midwife remained a powerful if contested figure.

General Overviews

Since the author of Donnison 1977 traced the history of professional rivalries between midwives and male medical practitioners (both surgeons and physicians), the professional skills and range of expertise of midwives have been detailed across early modern Europe (Marland 1993), and in specific countries, notably England (Evenden 2000) and France (Perkins 1996) (see also Midwifery in England and Midwifery in France). The rise of male midwifery from the 17th century onward, documented by Gélis 1988 and Wilson 1995, inevitably challenged the midwife’s social and professional position. Although the change did not affect all localities equally, or at the same pace, Green 2008 argues that for the first time male practitioners assumed authority over women’s sexual healthcare. The rise of print culture led to a large number of works by medical men (see Primary Texts by Men Midwives, Surgeons, or Physicians) and some of the first treatises by midwives (see Primary Texts by Women Midwives). The complexities of authorship and the circulation of information are well illustrated by King 2007, in respect to the most widely circulating Latin compendium of gynecological and obstetrical texts. Printed works also allowed authors to display their individual authority, whether through their imposing style or the manner of illustrations, as explored by McTavish 2005. Yet, despite these changes in favor of male practitioners, most deliveries—especially outside large towns—continued to be undertaken by female midwives, who thus retained a prominent cultural presence both in practice and in fictions, including the plays of Shakespeare, as evidenced by Bicks 2003.

  • Bicks, Caroline. Midwiving Subjects in Shakespeare’s England. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003.

    Explores the activities and status of English midwives in midwifery manuals and other texts to analyze their representations in Shakespeare’s and contemporaries’ plays. Proposes the innovative thesis that, in Renaissance theater and society, midwives enjoyed a powerful cultural role, e.g., pronouncing the sex of the newborn; shaping future sexuality when cutting the umbilical cord. Has insufficient engagement with the context of medical texts, but fresh insights into the cultural presence of Renaissance midwives.

  • Donnison, Jean. Midwives and Medical Men: A History of Inter-professional Rivalries and Women’s Rights. London: Heinemann Educational, 1977.

    Seminal history of midwifery in Europe, with particular attention to England, and rich detail on the 17th century. Has the political purpose of showing how medical men denigrated and ultimately displaced or marginalized midwives by their long-standing association with witchcraft and immoral sexuality (see Professional Status, Satires, and Stereotypes of Midwives). More recent studies of early modern midwifery have added substantial primary evidence and nuanced Donnison’s conclusions, but her book remains a milestone.

  • Evenden, Doreen. The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Significant for its engagement with a very broad range of primary documents, previously unstudied by historians of midwifery. Provides valuable new evidence about the social context of the paid work of over 1000 midwives in 17th-century London. Strongly argues against the stereotype of the ignorant, unprofessional midwife. Very strong on the midwife’s medical role, but does not treat her duty as witness.

  • Gélis, Jacques. La sage-femme ou le médecin: Une nouvelle conception de la vie. Paris: Fayard, 1988.

    Foundational survey of the rise of male midwifery across much of Europe over the 17th and 18th centuries. Primarily an insightful narrative social and cultural history, with detailed descriptions of individual practitioners and recorded cases. Sensitive to differences in practice between confessional groups. The general conclusions can now be nuanced by subsequent studies of specific locations and periods (e.g., Evenden 2000 and Perkins 1996).

  • Green, Monica H. Making Women’s Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-modern Gynaecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Indispensable, impeccably scholarly study of the transition from medieval to early modern practices of women’s medicine across Europe. Closely referencing manuscript and printed sources, shows how literate, text-based medical men came to dominate gynecology, previously the domain of women; infertility cures in particular became the domain of the male expert. Important for realigning critical focus from obstetrics to gynecology, and for reading across the Middle Ages/Renaissance divide.

  • King, Helen. Midwifery, Obstetrics and the Rise of Gynaecology: The Uses of a Sixteenth-Century Compendium. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

    Excellent study of major Latin medical compendium of classical and later texts on women’s health, the Gynaeciorum Libri (see Primary Texts by Men Midwives, Surgeons, or Physicians). Sensitive to the book’s history, including provenance and ownership; traces the reception and varied use of the compendium through to the 19th century, with particular reference to the man midwife William Smellie (1697–1763) and the obstetrician Sir James Young Simpson (1811–1870). Also probes changes in medical understandings of sexual difference, including a critique of the one-sex model for the Renaissance.

  • Marland, Hilary, ed. The Art of Midwifery: Early Modern Midwives in Europe. Wellcome Institute Series in the History of Medicine. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

    Groundbreaking study of the difference in midwifery practices across early modern Europe. A major strength is that each chapter (dedicated to one English region, or one other European country) is written by an expert. No chapters on eastern Europe, and the chronological range varies from one to several centuries. However, each chapter provides a model for further studies, while yielding valuable insights into the area and period discussed.

  • McTavish, Lianne. Childbirth and the Display of Authority in Early Modern France. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

    Approaches early modern printed midwifery texts published in French from the multiple perspectives of art history, cultural, and feminist studies, defining them as sites of contested authority and rivalry among individual female midwives, male surgeon-midwives, and physicians. Particularly strong in its analysis of printed images and visual culture, and for opening up new readings of the professional anxieties exhibited in these texts; less comprehensive in the book’s historical research.

  • Perkins, Wendy. Midwifery and Medicine in Early Modern France: Louise Bourgeois. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1996.

    Only complete study of Bourgeois (1563–1636), the first European midwife to publish a professional treatise (see Primary Texts by Women Midwives), thus breaking essential ground. The book has been followed but not superseded by a series of other studies (see Midwifery in France). Carefully draws together all known evidence of Bourgeois’s biography and analyzes all her writings, including the often-neglected Recueil des secrets (1536), essentially her medical recipe book.

  • Wilson, Adrian. The Making of Man-Midwifery: Childbirth in England, 1660–1770. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

    Establishes how male midwives in London in this period took an ever-increasing proportion of normal and difficult births from female midwives, and how far political allegiance (Tory/ Whig) shaped their practice. Argues, against earlier consensus, that this development had less to do with the invention of forceps than with women choosing male practitioners. (Compare Mauquest de la Motte 1989, cited under Primary Texts by Men Midwives, Surgeons, or Physicians). Should be read alongside Evenden 2000 for the professional debate.

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