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The Historian’s Myth Of Midwife-Witch Prosecution

The Historian’s Myth Of Midwife-Witch Prosecution
Copyright © Photograph by Eliana

John Webster, writing towards the end of European witchcraft prosecutions, was justifiably annoyed that demonologists simply took their anecdotes and arguments from previous authorities without checking the facts. Since the existence of the phenomena was generally accepted, the discussion turned mainly on the precise details of apportioning blame and identifying culprits. Unfortunately, modern historians of witchcraft tend to behave in precisely the same way.

One of the few things about late medieval and early modern midwives that almost everyone knows is that they were ignorant old crones. Moreover, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that midwives were frequently prosecuted for witchcraft. It is asserted by those who approve of the rise of the men-midwives and those who deplore the decline of the midwives. It is asserted by those who believe witchcraft to have been the remnant of a pagan religion and those who believe its prosecution to have been the expression of social tension. It has become as much a part of popular historical knowledge as the hunchback of Richard III of England, yet it hardly ever features within the work of scholars who have engaged in detailed archival research. True or false, the belief that midwives were persecuted as witches is clearly a powerful myth and worthy of examination in its own right since it shapes much discussion of both midwifery and witchcraft. If it is as false as the assertion that midwives were universally poor and illiterate, one must consider why historians continue to propagate it.

There can be no question that references to the existence of midwife-witches occur in the writings of demonologists. ‘The Formicarius’ of Johannes Nider, printed in about 1475, forty years after its composition, mentions an example and this was elaborated by Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, the authors of the notorious ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ in 1487, into a full-blown explanatory theory. The midwives obtained the bodies of infants for magical purposes. It has been suggested that the obsession of the Malleus with children, impotence and infanticide arose from either deep-seated fear of the power of women or concern about the widespread medieval practice of family limitation. To those possible motives for the authors’ hostility to midwives, a recent writer on the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ added the suggestion that a high level of abortion and stillbirths, caused by social conditions, led to popular suspicion of the midwife. Like many other attempts to explain witchcraft beliefs, such suggestions are helpful but rather overlook the extent to which the target of witch-hunters and the demonologists was the Devil himself and his minions on earth. Historians have a tendency to wish to explain away theological aspects of past society as though one can simply transmute them into social and political conflicts. In singling out elements of witchcraft belief that lend themselves to such explanation, the separate power of ideology is neglected. Much of the force of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ and its successors derives from the appropriation of the alleged crimes of the Jews by authors who sought to build up the fantasy of demonic feasts. Whereas Jews supposedly had to kidnap Christian infants for their sacrifices, witches could obtain them more easily through the agency of midwives.

Such explanations also neglect to investigate the extent to which the supposed popular suspicion really existed or the clerical antagonism led to actual persecution, preferring to assume such phenomena on the evidence of a single text. The publication of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ and other demonological works did not lead immediately to large-scale witch hunts, which mostly occurred in a later period. The influence of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ on popular belief is very doubtful but it became a potent authority for later demonologists, especially when it began to be frequently republished in the late sixteenth-century, as a response to the resurgence of prosecutions after the lull during the Reformation. Serafino Mazzolini, writing in 1575 under the name Sylvester Prierias, bases his discussions of midwives and infanticidal witches entirely on the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ and the work of Johannes Nider, generally published with it. Jean Bodin’s reference to a midwife sacrificing infants to Satan is taken from Oswald Arnold Gottfried Sprenger, as is the discussion by Baptista Codronchius of midwives obtaining infants to make flying ointment, although the latter also refers to Sylvester Prierias and others. Delrio hardly mentions abortion and infanticide in his compendious work, contenting himself with Johannes Nider’s example and heavy borrowings from Oswald Arnold Gottfried Sprenger. Henry Boguet cites Giambattista della Porta and Jerome Cardan, the Neoplatonist authors, on witches’ ointments but, when he treats the topic of midwife-witches, he only discusses infanticidal parents, apart from quoting Jean Bodin, Oswald Arnold Gottfried Sprenger, and Johannes Nider. Although Francesco Maria Guazzo cites Giambattista della Porta and Pliny the Elder on the magical use of infants’ bodies, his only direct reference to midwives comes when he quotes from the ‘Malleus Maleficarum.’ It is very noticeable that although seventeenth-century authors made efforts to broaden the scope of their citations, responding to the growth of classical scholarship and Neoplatonist writings, they produce no new examples of prosecuted midwives.

If there was no debate about the authority of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ on the guilt of midwives, there was some discussion on the efficacy of using children’s bodies for magic. The Neoplatonist discussion of the reality of natural magic was one influence, as was the sceptical suggestion that witches were merely deluded. Pierre de Rosteguy de Lancre argues that the fat of infants is not functional, but is rather used by the Devil to dupe the witches into murder. This book contains a lurid depiction of the witches’ sabbath by Jan Ziarnko, including their cannibalistic feast.

That de Pierre de Rosteguy de Lancre and his contemporaries should describe such nocturnal meetings of witches and demons as “sabbats” or “synagogues” indicates the extent to which they are employing traditional myths of Jewish ritual murder. Persecutions of Jews based on the blood libel are documented from the twelfth-century onwards, predating the organized witch-hunt by two centuries. When midwives were involved in such outbreaks, it was as representatives of respectable society. Thus when a ritual murder was suspected in 1584, after a Worms midwife had delivered twins in the ghetto hospital, she gave expert testimony suggesting infanticide. This role as expert witness, in a wide range of court proceedings, suggests an apparent paradox. As Erwin Heinz Ackerknecht remarked when discussing the forensic activities of midwives, in the late Middle Ages, midwives have attained an ambivalent position: on the one hand, they enjoy a number of privileges such as state salaries; on the other hand, they are favored victims of the witch-hunting craze of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth-centuries. Since midwives were trusted to give reliable evidence in cases of rape, bastardy, and infanticide, and even in cases of witchcraft itself, why should they be suspected of being in league with the Devil? It might be that demonologists had a logical need to see them as the source of flesh for the sabbat that was not shared by the general populace. One needs to establish how often they were prosecuted and under what circumstances.


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David Harley
David Harley

It is customary to attribute authorship and, when reprinting material, to cite the source. That is not a photograph of me