In her 1671 midwifery manual, the English midwife Jane Sharp defined the art of midwifery as ‘doubtless one of the most useful and necessary of all Arts, for the being and well-being of Mankind’. A midwife should combine theoretical and practical knowledge, even if the former was harder to obtain in a world where women could not attend universities and their anatomy lectures.
However, ‘farther knowledge may be gain’d by a long and diligent practice, and be communicated to others of our own sex’. According to Jane Sharp, experience defined a midwife as skilled; the lack of theoretical knowledge could be remedied by books such as her own.
Seventeenth-century midwives were privy to the all-female world of childbirth and ‘secrets of women’. Yet they also had an essential social role in religious rituals, such as ‘churching’ – when a woman was welcomed back into church life after her lying-in period postpartum. They were often called as expert witnesses in trials as well, especially those in which sexual matters were at stake. Midwifery was also one of the few professions open to women who wanted to earn a living and be independent.
While not much is known about Jane Sharp, her faith in midwives (her ‘Sisters’, as she calls them in the dedicatory epistle) is strikingly different from how most other contemporary midwifery manuals depicted midwives. To her, midwives were smart, hard-working people who did their best to keep women and babies safe during the hazards of childbirth. They would also care for the mother and child before and after the delivery. Midwives were undoubtedly essential members of society.
Seeing the photos of the March with Midwives held in many cities throughout the UK on 21 November, it is baffling to think that midwives and birth activists still must fight for midwives to be treated with the respect they deserve. After all, the art of midwifery chiefly concerns us, as Jane Sharp wrote.
Reference: Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book. Or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered (London: Simon Miller, 1671).