The art of medicine: Midwives and obstetric catastrophe: retrieving the past
Perspectives, Vol. 372 September 27, (2008)
Around 1298 in the southern French city of Marseille, a young woman named Dulceta suffered from a prolonged labour, the fetus already dead in her womb. Dulceta remained an invalid for 2 years thereafter, bedridden from paralysis, worms growing in sores on her body, and “stinking so badly that scarcely anyone could stand to be near her”. As a historian, it will never be within my power to alleviate the sufferings of women such as Dulceta—now dead so many centuries ago. But it is within my power to retrieve some understanding of how the systems of knowledge and practice we call the medical art functioned in times very different from our own.
Nearly 100 years after Dulceta suffered her disabling birth experience, another woman in Marseille gave birth. The first stages of Garsendeta’s labour, attended by a midwife named Philipa, were uneventful, and the child (a son) was born without incident. But 2 hours later, the afterbirth had still not descended. So Garsendeta’s brother-in-law went to find another midwife to assist. He brought back a woman named Floreta. Before Floreta arrived, Philipa had stabilised Garsendeta by “skilfully and deliberately” binding the protruding portion of the umbilical cord to her thigh.