Midwives and Magic
By Katie Card (she/they) University of Maine Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies student and Mabel Wadsworth Center intern
When one thinks of witches, they probably think of a few common characteristics: a woman with a pointed hat, riding a broomstick, stirring a cauldron, living in the woods and casting hexes. The dominant understanding of witches and witchcraft has not been a positive one– people, typically women, accused of witchcraft were said to be in league with the devil, indulging in “sexual sins,” and causing the death of others, particularly children, as well as famine and disease.
Not very feminist, right? The exact definition of witch varies from person to person, culture to culture, and experience to experience–but there is the common link of existing outside of societal norms while engaging in nature-based spirituality. ‘Witch’ itself was often used as a catchall to justify the persecution and demonization of specific populations, such as women (an estimated 75-80% of those killed during witch hunts were women), those belonging to non-Catholic faiths, and those who show some sort of ‘power,’ like healing.
It is this power that leads witches to be feared– women with power threatened patriarchal systems. Of course, this in and of itself shows how our concept of witches is heavily influenced by white, Western colonial gender binaries, where men and masculinity were seen as inherently superior, and women and femininity were seen as inherently inferior. Going against or living outside of these norms was seen as deviant and dangerous. Even then, many accused of witchcraft were healers– the popular iconography of a witch over a cauldron mixing together potions ties into cooking and herbalist practices, tasks associated with the domestic sphere women were commonly relegated to.
Before going on to discuss herbalism and midwifery, it is incredibly important to note that witch trials and accusations of witchcraft were anti-Semitic in nature, along with being misogynistic (although those terms would not have been used at the time, the oppression still existed). One cannot look at the history of witchcraft and witch trials without acknowledging these roots.
The Black Plague, lasting from roughly 1347 to 1352, was caused by bacterium-carrying rats aboard trading ships, spreading rapidly among humans due to the lack of hygiene and questionable medical practices of the time. With a lack of healers and assistance, panic spread, unleashing waves of persecution against specific social populations, ones that religious and political authorities claimed were at fault in order to find some sense of control: beggars, pilgrims, and, in particular, Jewish communities were used as scapegoats and blamed for the plague. “Before witchcraft became a dominant scapegoat for misfortune in Europe, it was Jews who were often said to be demonic, evil individuals who poisoned wells, spread plague, and ate children” (salemwitchmuseum.com).
Based on this unfounded belief that Jewish populations were the ones responsible, they were tortured and burned. Religious and political elites alleged that they poisoned wells, and encouraged that violent measures be taken against Jewish populations.
The European witch hysteria that we often think of did not start until the mid-15th century, and prior to that time, “‘witch’ was a catch-all term that referred to a wide variety of accused heretics or generally non-conforming ‘others’ in Christian European society…” (heyalma.com). The iconography that we associate with witches today is itself anti-Semitic in nature– the pointed hat coming from cone-shaped pointed hats called judenhut; weekly Sabbath meetings were seen as devil worship (think of nighttime witches gatherings); the large hooked nose and unruly black hair, stereotypes used to classify and demonize Jewish individuals.
Jewish people and witches share, “the struggle of being othered, demonized, and persecuted based on Christian superstition, mythologization, and stereotyping” (heyalma.com). Jewish people were considered inferior, untrustworthy, and passive. The image of the female witch was the culmination of countless anti-Semitic beliefs. Rumors that witches were among groups of “plague spreaders” began to spread throughout Europe, such as in France, Spain, Germany, and England. Like the burning of Jewish communities, witches were tried, tortured, and executed due to unfound suspicions that they would cause another plague.
Remember how women accused of being witches often practiced healing within the domestic sphere– cooking, apothecary-work, and herbal remedies. It is said that it is womens “… prominence as ‘cooks, healers and midwives’ that made women in general ‘vulnerable to the charge that they practiced harmful magic’” (Ehrenreich and English). Before the time of modern, “professional” medicine, herbal practices were commonplace, with rural societies relying on neighbors and apothecaries for medical care. “Witch-healers were often the only general medical practitioners for a people who had no doctors and no hospitals and who were bitterly affected with poverty and disease” (Ehrenreich and English). Physicians at the time were not trained in obstetrics and gynecology, so those tasks fell to midwives and neighboring women.
There was a popular belief at the time within professionalized medicine that healing without having formally studied was dangerous. Mind you, this formal study was in institutions that believed in the concept of humors and hysteria. Yet, throughout much of history, women have been forbidden from studying “professional” medicine. As medicine became more and more professionalized, women were being pushed out of the healing sphere altogether. In the 1800s, seeing health care as a way to profit, “white male physicians began to explore childbirth with greater interest. Their approach was based on a colonialization framework, which devalued birth as ceremony and focused instead on the physical aspect of wellbeing” (ohsu.edu).
Midwives assisted in childbirth, and had vast knowledge of fertility and reproduction, including contraception and abortion. These practices were women- centered, focusing on the unique, individual human-side of childbirth. However, they were ridiculed as ignorant and dirty. But, even then, “a study by a Johns Hopkins professor in 1912 indicated that most American doctors were less competent than the midwives… they also tended to be too ready to use surgical techniques which endangered mother or child… But the doctors had power, and the midwives didn’t. Under intense pressure from the medical profession, state after state passed laws outlawing midwifery and restricting the practice of obstetrics to doctors. For poor and working-class women, this actually meant worse— or no— obstetrical care. (For instance, a study of infant mortality rates in Washington showed an increase in infant mortality in the years immediately following the passage of the law forbidding midwifery.)” (Ehrenreich and English).
Now, that is not to say that hospital-based health care is inherently bad or evil– there just needs to be proper acknowledgment of the beginnings of professionalized medicine, where midwives and women-healers were pushed out of the medical sphere by privileged (upper-class, white, cis-hetero) men, with efficiency and capital-gain prioritized over individualized, patient-centric care.
Not every witch is a midwife, and not every midwife is a witch, but their history’s remain entwined. ‘Witch’ was used as a catch-all, a way to other those who lived outside societal and religious norms, and the possibility of women having power threatened patriarchal society, and was thus demonized. Witchcraft practices, such as the brewing of potions, have their origins in herbal medicine and healing, when neighbors were heavily relied upon for medical care– much like midwives were the primary source of reproductive and sexual care. The knowledge and practices of midwives were looked down upon merely because they were women, just as so-called ‘witches’ were considered dangerous for their power.
Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives, & Nurses (Second Edition): A History of Women Healers
“A Brief History of Midwifery in America,” OHSU Center for Women’s Health
“The Antisemitic History of Witches,” heyalma.com
“Witch Trials and Antisemitism: A Surprisingly Tangled History,” Salem Witch Museum