Midwives traditionally delivered all babies, and had important legal duties in terms of witnessing births. These duties were enshrined in Roman and later medieval law and enforced by the Church. Because they were women, midwives were not allowed to establish guilds and in cities and towns the work was regulated through a licensing system. Outside of the towns, local midwives would not have been affected by this kind of regulation.
The midwife worked alone, travelling as required and staying in the house until after the birth. Legally, she was only allowed to deliver ‘natural’ births, and had to call in a doctor or surgeon when there were problems. Like barber-surgeons, many midwives had no formal education but gained their experience working with older practitioners. During the Renaissance educated women such as Jane Sharp began to produce midwifery manuals.
In the 1700s male midwives began to promote themselves as the modern and safer option for childbirth. The invention of the forceps helped male practitioners argue that they were more advanced than their female competitors. In England and America upper- and middle-class women switched en masse to male midwifery. However, the silent majority stayed with the midwife. Elsewhere in Europe in the 1800s successful efforts had been made to improve female midwifery training. The status of female midwives rose again, and home birth was supported by public-health policies.
There was no professional support for female midwifery until the 1950s in Britain and the USA. By then the successful hospitalisation of birth had already begun, and midwives were sidelined. In the 1960s and 1970s, women's groups in Britain and the USA began a home birth movement, which argued that childbirth had become over-medicalised. These groups lobbied for more childbirth to take place in the home with midwives rather than doctors.
Wealthy nations aside, midwives continue to play a central role in childbirth. In fact, in developing countries, about 40% of births continue to take place at home, without any help from a midwife, nurse or doctor.
Related Themes and Topics
H Marland (ed.), The Art of Midwifery. Early Modern Midwives in Europe (London: Routledge 1993)
R McGrew, ‘Midwifery’, Encyclopedia of Medical History (London: Macmillan 1985), pp 203-208
J Towler and J Bramall, Midwives in History and Society (London: Croom Helm, 1986)