Midwives as Agents of Social Control: Ecclesiastical and Municipal Regulation of Midwifery in the Late Middle Ages

Midwives as Agents of Social Control: Ecclesiastical and Municipal Regulation of Midwifery in the Late Middle Ages

By Ginger L. Smoak

Quidditas, Vol. 33 (2012)

medieval midwife

Abstract: Regulation of Midwifery in the Late Middle Ages was the result of both the trend toward supervisory social and institutional control and also the harnessing of midwives as agents of that control. This paper examines the procedure of ecclesiastical and municipal regulation through oaths and licensure, arguing that midwives were able to gain agency and autonomy, as well as protection, by occupying a liminal role between the private world of the birthing chamber and the public world of the witness stand. They were therefore vital to both sides of the process of regulation.

Introduction: In the Late Middle Ages both the Church and the State engaged in an extensive and sustained attempt to regularize and control behavior of all kinds. This regulation included ecclesiastical and municipal efforts to monitor medicine and medical practitioners, including midwives, and manifested itself as oaths and licensure. The control that women exercised over their own bodies had for centuries been a potential threat to institutional and patriarchal society. A skilled female medical practitioner threatened male control over both medicinal practice and women’s bodies and souls. But both the ecclesiastical and the municipal corporate institutions were clearly conflicted.

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Rather than the oft-claimed argument that midwifery regulation occurred as a result of midwives’ ignorance and lack of skill, both ecclesiastical and secular authorities in fact used midwives to their advantage to harness the “tremendous social power of medicine”. Medicine, and especially childbirth, became a locus of the struggles between Church and State for authority and control. These institutions saw this control as a fruitful way to modify societal expectations about healing, women, and the law. It culminated in an institutional standardization of medicinal practice and empirical practitioners. Ultimately, regulation was part of a widespread manipulation of authority by both of these bodies.

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