The Midwife-Witch on Trial: Historical Fact or Myth?

Elizabeth Allemang, RM, MA (C)

New developments in social history have generated scholarly work re-evaluating the history of the witch trials of early modern Europe. This paper explores the claim that the European witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries persecuted midwives. Multiple historical theories of the persecuted midwife-witch are discussed, including those that construct the midwife-witch as a skilled, respected member of a local female healing culture and alternately as a marginal figure in her community who was ignorant, disrespected, impoverished and therefore vulnerable. Medical histories of the midwife-witch have often relied on a construct of the marginal figure to champion the progress of medicine from earlier discredited and unscientific practices. Feminist analysis poses the witch trials as the suppression of women healers and the midwife-witch as symbolic of the threat of female control of reproduction to powerful patriarchal forces. Although these theories have been important to the revival of midwifery in North America specifically and to feminism more broadly, there is limited evidence to support these claims. The figure of the witch, like many myths, may tell us more about the interpreter of history than the witch herself.

KEYWORDS midwives, witches, witchcraft, midwifery history, historiography, social movements

This article has been peer-reviewed.


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