Eve, Petrina BrownIt was widely accepted for most of history that women knew instinctively what was best for women in labour. The success rate of midwives appears to have been high compared with that of doctors. Home deliveries were infinitely safer than those in hospital, as hygienic practices were not followed by doctors and nurses who had little knowledge of bacteria and cross-infection. The ‘old wives’ were much more patient and also less likely to interfere, they seldom used instruments, and rarely inserted their hand inside a labouring woman, unlike the male doctors. Their technique was natural, which in turn meant fewer complications, and the midwives’ patients had great confidence in them…

Although midwifery was free from domination by male doctors during this period, midwives were not free of interference from the religious authorities… In 1591 the midwife Agnes Simpson was burned at the stake for trying to relieve birth pains with opium: God was being deprived of the earnest cries from women who would beg for mercy in their agony… It was also felt that a woman in childbirth was vulnerable to supernatural forces, and many midwives were suspected of practising witchcraft. The caul, placenta and umbilical cord were rumoured to be treasured ingredients for the cauldron, and a stillborn child was also important in the rites of witchcraft. Members of the clergy suspected that many midwives chose their profession in order to facilitate their double lives as witches, and there are records of midwives being executed for allegedly murdering newborn babies and dedicating their souls to the Devil.

This is a very readable trip through recorded history, from Classical to the present, on – well, it does what it says on the cover. The main topics are around fertility, contraception, pregnancy, birthing and the care of babies, with a little diversion here or there. What can I say? It isn’t a penetrating analytical work, and I didn’t agree absolutely everything said, but on the whole it struck me as sensitive, well-researched and even a bit feminist. If this is a subject that interests you and you haven’t read much about it before – it’s as good a start as any!