08 May 2012

Midwives and the Catholic Church

Witches, Midwives, and Nurses by Ehrenreich and English, 1973, Excerpts

Three central accusations emerge repeatedly in the history of witchcraft throughout northern Europe: First, witches are accused of every conceivable sexual crime against men. Second, they are accused of being organized. Third, they are accused of having magical powers affecting health – of harming, but also of healing. They were often charged specifically with possessing medical and obstetrical skills, i.e. midwives.

While witches practiced among the people, the ruling classes were cultivating their own breed of secular healers: the university-trained physicians. The church imposed strict controls on the new profession, and allowed it to develop only within the terms set by Catholic doctrine. University-trained physicians were not permitted to practice without calling in a priest to aid and advise them, or to treat a patient who refused confession.

The establishment of medicine as a profession, requiring university training, made it easy to bar women legally from practice. It was impossible to enforce the licensing laws consistently since there was only a handful of university-trained doctors compared to the great mass of lay healers. But the laws could be used selectively. Their first target was not the peasant healer, but the better off, literate woman healer who competed for the same urban clientele as that of the university-trained doctors.

By the 14th century, the medical profession’s campaign against urban, educated women healers was virtually complete throughout Europe. Male doctors had won a clear monopoly over the practice of medicine among the upper classes, except for obstetrics, which remained the province of female midwives even among the upper classes for another three centuries. They were ready to take on a key role in the elimination of the great mass of female healers – the “witches.”

The distinction between “female” superstition and “male” medicine was made final by the very roles of the doctor and the witch at the trial. The trial in one stroke established the male physician on a moral and intellectual plane vastly above the female healer he was called to judge. It placed him on the side of God and Law, a professional on par with lawyers and theologians, while it placed her on the side of darkness, evil and magic. He owed his new status not to medical or scientific achievements of his own, but to the Church and State he served so well.

In the witch-hunts, the Church explicitly legitimized the doctors’ professionalism, denouncing non-professional healing as equivalent to heresy. “If a woman dares to cure without having studied, she is a witch and must die.” The Church saw its attack on peasant healers as an attack on magic, not medicine.

The Malleus Maleficarum by Kramer and Sprenger, 1489, Excerpts

No one does more harm to the Catholic Faith than midwives. For when they do not kill children, then, as if for some other purpose, they take them out of the room and, raising them up in the air, offer them to devils. Witch midwives surpass all other witches in their crimes. Midwives cause the greatest damage, either killing children or sacrilegiously offering them to devils.

We must not omit to mention the injuries done to children by witch midwives, first by killing them, and secondly by blasphemously offering them to devils. For in the diocese of Basel at the town of Dann, a witch who was burned confessed that she had killed more than forty children, by sticking a needle through the crowns of their heads into their brains, as they came out from the womb.

As soon as the child is born, the midwife, if the mother herself is not a witch, carries it out of the room on the pretext of warming it, raises it up, and offers it to the Prince of Devils, that is Lucifer, and to all the devils. And this is done by the kitchen fire.

To sum up. Witch-midwives, like other witches, are to be condemned and sentences according to the nature of their crimes; and this is true also of those who remove spells of witchcraft superstitiously and by the help of devils; for it can hardly be doubted that, just as they are able to remove them, so can they inflict them.

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