Why I Love Seventeenth Century Midwives
If there’s any group of women anywhere I have the greatest respect for, it’s the midwives. The job they do, even now, requires different roles. They support a pregnant woman before birth; they can be present at the birth and then they often provide post-birth advice and care. This means they are frequently the source of the most constant contact between the mother, her children and the medical profession throughout large portions of her childbearing years. Having a good midwife can make the difference between being comfortable and happy with the new role of motherhood, help recovering physically, and mentally and emotionally adapting to a life with a new dependent. A good midwife can help make that transition smooth; a more disengaged one can leave a new mother feeling uncertain, insecure, unhappy.
And that’s now.
Three hundred years ago, many women could act as a midwife for the birth of a family member, friend or neighbour. And, indeed, it often fell on ladies of quality to tend to births not only one of their own household, but also of those working for them. For many of these women, the only experience they might have is of being present at other births, perhaps watching their mother or another female relative at the bedside. There was no formal training, only networking. Any woman might fall into this group.
But there was another group: midwives who regularly attended births both near and far away, and were paid for it, made a living from it. A decent living at that, in many cases. Good midwives were highly sought after, and when a woman found one, they continued to retain them for future births, as well as spread the word this was a midwife you could trust. These woman often learned their trade through apprenticeships lasting many years, and obtained a licence to practice based on the testimonials of several different women who had been birthed by them.
I’ve discovered something special about this group of women. They have certain qualities that make them stand out at a time when women were supposed to be subservient. Perhaps it is because they were able to retain a certain level of independence, or perhaps it is because they were given certain privileges of entry into places other women were forbidden (if the wife of a coffee house owner was having a baby, the midwife was bound to be allowed entry, when they wouldn’t otherwise be). Or perhaps it is because they had to bravely walk to and from births whether by day or through dark, unlit streets at all hours of the night. Something made this group ofwomen brave.
As I did my seventeenth century research for The Popish Midwife, delving into the life of Elizabeth Cellier who stood up in court for her belief, I came across Anne Hutchinson in Boston, famous for defending the right of a person to think for herself. At least three others wrote a book (Louise Bourgeois in France; and Jane Sharp and Elizabeth Cellier in England). There were many more outstanding midwives.
The story I’m currently writing is different from these. It’s about infamous rather than famous midwife, Marie Desormeaux. She murdered her husband and planted bits of his body to be found all over London. However, I argue that, after years of abuse, she was desperate enough to take her life into her own hands. I no way condone murder, but in that time beating your wife was condoned, desirable even, to bring her under control. And when that power fell into the hands of a man who physically, emotionally and sexually abused his wife, several times to the point of near-death, I can understand her desperation. It was either him or her.
Even in this awful situation, Marie showed aspects of character similar to the other midwives of the time – that inner strength, confidence and belief in herself.
So many midwives of the time stood out, whether for good or for bad; accused of witchcraft but more likely employed to search for witch-marks; of being a whore, yet conversely of their wisdom in the lore of nature and birth; of being drunks or for their calm in dealing with births going wrong. Whatever their reputation, there was something about them that brought forth strong feelings one way or another. And for that I’m grateful. It means they were talked about, recorded, for good or ill, leaving traces and trails to follow today.
I came upon Elizabeth Cellier’s story by accident (I won pages recording her trial in an auction), but once I saw what an interesting person she was, her notoriety, that she was talked about, made fun of, I was able to find clues about her in so many different places, all waiting for me to put together and create her story. I think you’ll agree her story is exciting and worth reading.