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Jane Sharp (1641-71)

Jane Sharp was a midwife in the 1600s who wrote one of the best-known English textbooks on midwifery. Nothing is known about Jane Sharp other than what she wrote in her book. It is thought she may have come from the west of England, since there is no record of her practising anywhere in London. Her book was expensive and so was evidently intended to reach a middle-class audience.

The Midwives Book; or, The Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered, which told women how to manage their births, was published in 1671. There were four editions by 1725. The book was addressed to the mother, the father and the midwife, with practical advice to each. It book was divided into easy-to-use chronological sections which covered conception, pregnancy, the birth and postnatal care. Difficult births were described, and there were anatomical illustrations to study. There was also a discussion about the problems of venereal diseasesyphilis was an ever-present threat in the 1600s.

Sharp relied heavily on work by the London herbalist Nicholas Culpeper and other contemporary writers, but she wove them together with her own experiences and comments. She was especially critical of the use of man-midwives, arguing that they were expensive and unnecessary. Midwifery, she argued, was based on experience, not words.

Although not as sophisticated as other European works of the same period, The Complete Midwife’s Companion (as it became known) gave enlightened advice at a time when midwifery was changing. Its status as a bestseller meant that it would probably be on the bookshelf in many homes well into the 1700s.

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Bibliography

O Moscucci, ‘Jane Sharp’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004)

J Sharp, The Midwives Book, or, The Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered, edited by E Hobby (New York: Oxford University Press,1999)

Glossary:

Syphilis

A sexually transmitted infection resulting in the formation of lesions throughout the body.