Were midwives singled out, or focused on, in the European witch-hunts? And if so, was it because they possessed “special knowledge” about birth control and abortion? That’s the question I set out to answer, after I came upon a provocative passage, one that struck me as implausible, in an otherwise excellent book.
First, let me say that as someone who studied history, in particular religious history, in graduate school, I got pretty well acquainted with the historiography of witchcraft, from John Demos to Lyndal Roper to Carlo Ginzburg and others. Although it was never my focus, I was interested in it (as indeed how could one not be?). And I was also very interested in the histories of women, gender/sexual minorities, and other marginalized people. So I am someone who likely would have come across the claim that midwives were a special focus of the witch hunts, if that claim were taken seriously by historians.
So when I read, in Roxane Gay’s new book Bad Feminist, that
[t]he politicians and their ilk forget that women, and to a certain extent men, have always done what they needed to do to protect female bodies from unwanted pregnancy. During ancient times, women used jellies, gums, and plants both for contraception and to abort unwanted pregnancies. These practices continued until the 1300s when Europe needed to repopulate and started to hunt “witches” and midwives who shared their valuable knowledge about these contraceptive methods ...
I was skeptical. (Note: the essay collected in Gay’s book was originally published in Rumpus in 2012, here). It sounded like a politically useful claim, useful perhaps for certain feminist narratives, but perhaps one that was made by activists, rather than scholars deeply knowledgeable of the source material (not that one can’t be a scholar and activist — one can).
But as I said, this was never my field. So I began to poke around. First, I gave some Twitter shout-outs to the author, Roxane Gay, and heard back from her and a couple other women, who told me enough to figure out, after a little research of my own, that the claim, or something like it, was probably first made by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English in their 1973 pamphlet Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. (Maybe the claim was made earlier or elsewhere; I am happy to be corrected. This post is quite preliminary.) Ehrenreich is a very fine journalist, but her training is as a biologist. English, like Ehrenreich a former editor of Mother Jones, is also a very fine journalist, but again, not a historian. That is not to say that amateurs can’t do excellent work (I’m an amateur in many fields I write in!). It’s just to say that they may have made leaps based on sources they understood imperfectly. And so I was unpersuaded by tweets like this one
Anyway, I decided to reach out to some scholars who really, really know this stuff. I started with my old Yale teacher Carlos Eire, one of the great scholars of early modern Europe. I wrote:
Carlos, am trying to fact-check a claim that it's “well-known” that persecution of witches and of midwives (if they too were persecuted?) were due to the special knowledge those women had of abortion techniques — because after the Plague, Europe needed to repopulate, so abortionists were targeted for special attack. A writer I know put this out there, and cited some popular writers to this effect. Any sense of how to check it with historians?
And he wrote back:
This is one of those troublesome “facts” that don't really square with the historical evidence. Yes, some midwives ended up being tried for witchcraft, but not really because they were midwives or could perform abortions. Witches were rounded up for performing "maleficium," that is, harmful magic against their neighbors. Some midwives were herbalists too, and the line between herbal medicine and sorcery or magic/maleficium was very blurry. Sometimes midwives were rounded up along with bishops, tailors, milkmaids, and — you name it — a wide assortment of people, simply because in some of the massive witch hunts the accusations went out of control.
How did this “well known” fact become well known? Probably because some women persecuted as witches were midwives/herbalists. Did they perform abortions? We don't really know. No one knows how high or low the incidence of abortions might have been. Infanticide was much more common than abortions (which were extremely risky for the mother), and the most common types of infanticide were faked "accidents" such as smothering and drowning (oops I dropped the baby down the well ... or ... into the fireplace ... or I rolled over it in my sleep, etc...). It was also common for infants to be abandoned by their mothers, as still happens nowadays. This last type of infanticide, known as exposure, was most common. Most abandoned children could not survive, even when taken in by orphanages, where the death rate was astronomically high.
One of my current PhD students is writing her dissertation on infanticide in early modern Spain and she has found plenty of infanticide cases, but virtually no evidence of abortions. She has also found extremely few cases of midwives accused of infanticide or witchcraft.Then — back to witchcraft — there was also the common belief that witches sacrificed and ate infants during their Satanic rituals. (I’m waiting for this tidbit to pop up in connection with the postponed Black Mass at Harvard).
The real fear behind witch persecutions was not abortion or infanticide, but the devil. In our day and age it's hard to conceive of the devil and witchcraft as real, but in the early modern age, it was all very, very real. Just as it's real to this day in Africa and parts of Latin America. To attribute witchcraft persecutions to some top-down crusade against abortions is to misunderstand medieval and early modern culture and the power of belief at that time.
But that’s just one scholar. So I asked another, the eminent Robin Briggs of Oxford, who replied:
The short answer to your question is that no serious historian known to me gives the slightest credence to these preposterous claims. It is hard to imagine that anyone could get things more wrong than this! The great majority of accusations came from other people in the local communities, so the idea of a witch-hunt is very unhelpful for most cases, since it implies direction from above. Midwives are actually very uncommon among those charged with witchcraft. In my own sample of about 400 richly documented cases from Lorraine there are only I think three midwives, for two of whom the charges had little to do with their semi-professional role. Just one of them was supposed to have killed lots of babies, but you can hardly generalise from a singe case of that type.
If I remember correctly Ehrenreich took all her evidence from British and North American cases. In 1990 David Harley published a devastating article on 'Historians as Demonologists: the myth of the midwife-witch', in Social History of Medicine volume 3. [Oppenheimer note: see here.] Harley showed that almost all Ehrenreich's identifications were either highly dubious or plain wrong; the true number of midwives accused was derisory, indeed far fewer than necessary to match their numbers in relation to the population.
The chronology is also all wrong for the argument to work. The vast majority of trials in western Europe occurred in the period 1570-1630, in the final phase of the great population increase of the sixteenth century, which had by then led to a sharp decline in living standards. It is likely that many people tried to control fertility by the use of herbal medicines, precisely because too many children were becoming a problem for impoverished families; knowledge of those herbs was widespread, and nothing suggests that midwives took a leading part in advocating their use. It is also unlikely, in parenthesis, that they were notably effective, because people understood so little about appropriate dosage, or indeed the reproductive system itself.
... of the same kind that led to the crazy claim that 9 million women were executed. It is horribly unpleasant to think that perhaps 60,000 individuals were put to death as witches, 15,000 of them being men, but that is hardly in the same ball-park.
[t]here is no question that some midwives were accused of witchcraft, mainly because infants often died during delivery and some parents sought to explain this misfortune by accusing the women who had performed the delivery of using magic to cause their death. Demonologists, who were more concerned with the diabolical as opposed to the magical aspects of witchcraft, claimed that midwives killed the unbaptized infants as sacrifices to the Devil. In 1990 David Harley wrote a revisionist article about the myth of the midwife witch in Social History of Medicine, 3:1-26, showing how highly regarded midwives were in early modern communities and how the historical identification of them as witches has tarnished their reputation. Harley discredits the claim that most accused witches were midwives, but the fact remains that some midwives were in fact accused of killing newborns by means of witchcraft. One of the most famous cases was that of Walpurga Hausmännin in Dillingen, which I refer to in my book The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (3rd ed, 2006). Lyndal Roper, who also minimizers the number of midwife-witches, explains their prominence in the historical literature by the fact that midwifery was one of the few occupations by which accused witches could be identified in the judicial record, whereas most accused witches, including healers, did not have “occupations." Midwives were in fact licensed in many communities. The claim that midwife-witches were trying to limit population growth was first advanced by Gunnar Heinsohn and Otto Steiger in "Birth Control: The Political-Economic Rationale behind Jean Bodin's Demonomanie”, History of Political Economy 31 (1999): 423–48. This interpretation is implausible for many reasons, including the relatively small number of midwives who were actually tried for witchcraft and the unlikelihood that secular or ecclesiastical judges were concerned about repopulating Europe, a process that was well underway by the time witch-hunting became intense in the late sixteenth century. I don’t think Ehrenreich made this claim in her widely circulated pamphlet [Oppenheimer note: Levack is right — Ehrenreich did not]; she was concerned mainly with the conflict between midwives and the medical establishment. But in any case, historians don’t give her argument much credence.
There were a lot of things we got wrong back then, at the time we were writing that pamphlet. The sources were so limited then compared to now. I haven’t kept up with the intervening 40 years of scholarship. I am not going to defend every point we’ve made. If some of the points have been superseded, then they’ve been superseded. For example, we portrayed it as a campaign by a monolithic church, when we now know it was tied up with the Reformation.