Clio Reads

Midwives represent one of the oldest professions for women in world history. Long before Ptah-Merit (c. 2700 BCE) was hailed on a stone column as the Chief Physician of an Egyptian temple, women earned their medical credentials through honorable medical service to other women and their progeny. From the Tudor era to recent decades, increasing male domination of medical education and practice, as well as governmental regulation, eclipsed much knowledge of the historical role of women in medicine. The role of the midwife, often legally or illegally, was relegated to the poor and to the back street of society. In recent years, the popular PBS series, "Call the Midwife," set in the late fifties and the docklands of London, has become an eye opener for British and American audiences. In recent decades, a large number of excellent novels and scholarly studies have been published on the role of midwives in history. Clio recommends a few works to those who want to put the profession into an historical frame.

The King's Midwife

Nina Rattner Gelbart's The King's Midwife is one of the most unusual biographies in the last two centuries.  The King is Louis XV and the Midwife is Madame Du Coudray. Louis, often portrayed as a lazy, self-indulgent, mistress dominated ruler, had his moments of real concern.  In 1759, worried over the rising numbers in infant mortality, he appointed an obscure woman, Madame Du Coudray, as royal midwife.  Her assignment? It was to train French midwives in safer practices, tools and even sanitation in delivering living, healthy babies.  Who she was, why the  King chose her, her private family, her own personal life remain almost a total mystery.  There are virtually no letters or comments about her own feelings, her immediate family, her views on the government or the coming revolution.  Instead for three and a half decades, what we know of Madame Du Coudray comes from her accounts and records sent to provincial and Parisian administrators.  She reports on her classes, techniques, urges new equipment, reports dispassionately on local support or opposition. From these dry, formal, records, Gelbart builds a terrific read, full of social, cultural, and class conflict.  Du Coudray, trained over 10,000 midwives, gave classes in over 40 cities in France, invented early reproductive manuals,  and wrote a book on training more women for a noble profession.

The Art of Midwifery

Hilary Marland edits The Art of Midwifery in Europe  which offers a series of essays on the role of the nineteenth century midwife(primarily in western Europe). The authors provide an historical overview, that while dealing with different countries and customs, ably and readably shows a unity of problems, attitudes and laws that shaped and often restricted the midwife to a social and professional second class status.  The essays are erudite and well documented and provide a good foundation for developing the type of scholarly study, that The Midwives of Seventeenth Century London illustrates so well, what can and needs to be done.

Midwives of London

Doreen Evendenís, The Midwives of Seventeenth Century London is a scholarly and valuable study.  As is so often the case in womenís history, the evidence is there.  It  has been, at worst, ignored as irrelevant or uninteresting  or, at best, relegated to the footnote or the italicized comment.  This study lists the names of at least a thousand midwives practicing in the church parishes of London.  It fleshes out a significant number of them by address and family information, diaries and records as well as controversies and law suits. The choice of London is excellent, not only because of the large number of midwives whose careers can be studied, but also because the city is the focal point of much of the social, legal, political and cultural issues  of the century.  The struggle between Kings and Parliaments, the civil wars, the Great Fire of London, the invasions of plague, the tightening medical laws, all created challenges and conditions for birth and survival that women, often with limited training and funding had to overcome. This type of historical study in many fields should change for the better the knowledge and writing of history in the future.  

The Midwife's Tale Mystery

Sam Thomas' A Midwife's Tale is an interesting novel set in the city of York in the midst of the English Civil War.  Johnson manages to build a suspense story, a murder mystery, and the dangers of child birth and professional  rivalries in a historical setting of chaos. An aristocratic woman and her outspoken servant midwife make a splendid team.  Indeed they would make a fine PBS program  for a series. Thomas is a writer to watch if you like mysteries, humor and history, always a good mix.
Call The Midwife
Jennifer Worth wrote Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, based on her experiences in the later fifties when she found, at age 22, the poverty ridden lives of the London poor. The PBS series makes a fascinating voyage to visit docklands (you wouldn't want to live there), a world so different from today that it seems as wretched and plague ridden as fourteenth century London. Her generous compassion and common sense makes the program even more interesting and raises many of the still relevant moral and ethical issues Worth faced. Her second memoir, equally moving, In the Midst of Life is a study of dying patients she cared for later as a ward sister.

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