Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: English Midwives in the late 17th Century
Midwives posed a serious problem in seventeenth-century England. Excluded from formal medical training, these women were largely lower-class and self-taught, working from experience rather than theory. According to the elite doctors of the 1690s, this made them a threat: their ignorance and negligence endangered the women they delivered, and their very practice was a base betrayal of Christian duty.
In 1688, English politics was turned upside-down; James II’s queen, Mary of Modena, had given birth to a healthy baby boy after six years of ill health. The major problem here was that James and Mary were Catholics, presiding over a staunchly Protestant nation. The spectre of Popish tyranny that had haunted England since Henry VIII’s break from Rome reared its ugly head once again, but the prospect of a Catholic dynasty was feared to have sealed England’s fate. Mary’s health problems were used as evidence for wild rumours that she had faked her pregnancy, and that her midwife had duplicitously smuggled a live boy into the birthing chamber. Midwives were set aside as dangerous conspirators, willing to facilitate dishonesty for their own gain. The dynastic dynamics of the late 1680s soon flooded down into popular rhetoric; in public discourse, midwives became mad, bad and dangerous people.
Crucially, midwives operated in the birthing chamber, a distinct physical and social space within a household, created out of a bedchamber. Medical treatises offered insights into how such a space ought to be constructed; the curtains were drawn to keep out light, the bed was moved to the centre of the room so the attendants could move freely, and keyholes blocked up to prevent any external contamination. The father was physically excluded; this was a time for the expectant mother to be surrounded by her closest female friends and family. Modern births take place in hospitals, surrounded by doctors and surgeons, but in seventeenth century England, birth was a social occasion that championed female solidarity and strength.
Therefore, midwives occupied a position of unique authority, in an all-female environment. Except for absolute emergencies, the midwife presided over events alone without a male doctor, and had exclusive access to women of all ranks. Disputes between female midwives and male doctors arose out of this unique authority, and the question soon became one about whether male doctors should disrupt the traditional sanctity of childbirth. This of course left midwives vulnerable to criticism from their formally trained counterparts, but the debate was not confined solely to medical technique. During the final decades of the seventeenth century, popular texts began to appear that cast the midwife as murderous mercenary.
Sexual misdemeanour was crucial to this representation of the midwife. In The Male and Female Husband, a midwife reportedly gave birth to a “Hermaphrodite”, whom she raised as a woman and trained to be her assistant. The midwife’s ploy unravelled, however, when the hermaphrodite impregnated a maid, and was forced to assume a masculine identity in order to marry the disgraced girl. The midwife here was an agent of disorder, facilitating chaos and transgression by her secretiveness.
In the ‘The Lass of Lynn’, a midwife lied to one husband about the paternity of his wife’s child. Despite knowing full well the husband was not the father, the midwife assured the “fool” that “The Child’s all your own, by my truth”. Illegitimacy was dangerous in the 1680s, not only because it implied sin, but because the government itself had come under attack from Charles II’s illegitimate son in 1686, who tried to wrest the throne from James II. Illegitimacy threatened the future of the state as well as individual families, and concerns about how to prove the validity of a birth became a national priority. The midwife thus became a conspiratorial, deceitful character for her role in illicit encounters.
This theme became even darker in ballads and broadsheets that claimed to truthfully report several violent crimes committed by midwives. In one such text, a house was disturbed by the tormented spirit of a midwife who had murdered innumerable “Bastard-Children” charged to her care, their bodies buried beneath the fireplace. After the current inhabitants dug up the mass grave, the midwife’s ghost returned, “Desiring Midwives to take heed, How they dispose their Bastard-Breed”.
The crimes of Madam Compton ten years later also included the murder of six “bastards” that she had secretly been paid to care for. When some of the corpses were discovered, they were so deformed that they “were liker to the Carkasses of Catts or Doggs” than humans. Compton had evidently committed these crimes over a long period of time, yet the secrecy that surrounded the very existence of these children provided ample cover. The published confession of Mary Hobry, a French midwife resident in London, detailed how she had murdered and then dismembered her abusive husband . The cold account of how she disfigured the corpse resonated with one doctor’s description of careless midwives as “Slaughterers of Oxen” .
The violence of these crimes was exclusive to female midwives. While men-midwives occasionally appeared, their crimes were comparatively less severe. One ballad detailed how a man-midwife “Deliver’d the Land-Bank” of its money; the fact the author was willing to pun on the criminal’s occupation alluded to the fact that the novelty lay with his profession, rather than the theft (Ward, 1699). In another, a man-midwife was brought to “Disgrace” after he was falsely accused of rape . In these incidents, the charges against the man-midwife were either trivial or entirely fabricated.
Mary Hobry and Madam Compton had, briefly, toppled the hierarchy under which they struggled. In these examples, the midwife was a dangerous figure because she sacrificed all sense of duty to her violent revenge. Whereas the midwives of medical texts were destructive out of ignorance, the midwives of popular literature were bloodthirsty and ruthless. Yet they also exposed a dark underworld within English society itself. The midwife’s ghost and Madam Compton were able to cover up their crimes because they operated in the realm of the desperate and the impoverished, who were despised and ignored by polite society. These notorious midwives dealt with illegitimacy and horrific abuse, and their stories were so striking because they forced society to stare the consequences of their own failings in the face.
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