The History of the Midwife

Final Paper: The History of the Midwife

Modern History

There are Biblical references to Midwives dating back to as early as 2000 BC. Throughout history, midwives as independent practitioners are identified as the guardians of normal childbirth. Their knowledge of women’s health has been seen as mystical, having power over nature and concerned with matters not understood by men.

According to The Encyclopedia Britannica, “The profession of midwife must be one of the oldest, being clearly recognized in the earliest books of the Old Testament and an accepted element in the social structure in ancient Greece and Rome.” 1 The word midwife is from the Anglo-Saxon “mit wif” or “with woman”. The ancient called her the wise woman – as she is known in France (sage-femme) and Germany (weise frau). 2

Midwives in the Bible

Biblical references to the practice of midwifery date back nearly four thousand years. It is mentioned in Genesis 35:17, which may be dated around 1890 BC. This verse states, “And when she was in hard labor, the midwife said to her “Fear not, for now you will have another son.”” 3

Biblical recognition of the functions of midwives included several verses recounting the experiences of two Hebrew midwives who refused to kill male infants in defiance of the King of Egypt (Exodus 1 :15 – 22). Other verses in the Bible also make passing references to midwifery attendance at birth, implying that it was ubiquitous (Genesis 35:17; 38:28).

Midwives in Ancient Times

Ancient Egyptian women are assisting a woman giving birth. Since time began women have assisted each other to give birth. This is actually a \'relief\' sculpture of Cleopatra in the classic upright posture for birth. The woman to the far right is holding a pair of "ankhs" which is the symbolism for "life". The midwife has outstretched arms to receive the baby. 4

In Greek, Roman and Egyptian times, midwives functioned as respected, autonomous care providers to women during their reproductive cycles although they were not always called “midwife” per-say. A midwife could be a friend, family member or neighbor. They learned the trade through apprenticeships where the knowledge was passed down from family member to family member or from friend to friend. The work of the midwife included providing emotional support, encouragement, medical care, and religious help and protection to women during their lives. The areas that midwives focused on were pregnancy, labor, fertility, and contraception.

Since birth and delivery could be dangerous for both the mother and child, ancient Egyptian midwives used many goddesses and gods for help and protection. Goddesses and gods which ancient Egyptian midwives and women thought would help during pregnancy and birth were Hathor, Bes, Taweret, Meskhenet, Khnum, Thoth, and Amun. 5

Soranus’ writings from the 2nd century AD provide us with proof of midwifery in Ancient Rome. Soranus was a physician himself and defined a set of guidelines for becoming a suitable midwife. He mentioned that it took an advanced and able-bodied woman to become a midwife and that to become a "suitable midwife," one must be "literate, with her wits about her, possessed of a good memory, loving work, respectable and generally not unduly handicapped as regards her senses...robust, and, according to some people, endowed with long slim fingers and short nails at her fingertips." 6

In some cases Ancient Roman midwives, enjoyed the same wealth and status as their male counterparts. Some women were paid very highly for their role in the birthing process, while other midwives only took a small amount of money form women who could not afford to pay for a more experienced midwife.

There are early references to midwifery dealing with first century Rome. Will Curant, discussing the state of medical practice during Rome’s “Silver Age” (AD 14-117), states that Quacks continued, but sound practice increased. Midwives saw most Romans into the world, but many of these women were well trained. 7

This ancient Greek sculpture depicts one of our Greek ancestors in the act of squatting upon a birth stool. Notice the midwife is depicted with hands ready to catch the baby who is just beginning to crown. 8

Midwifery in the Dark and Middle Ages

Throughout the dark ages there were only a few qualified "Doctors". Most of care