Women in Renaissance
29 April 2018
Male Appropriation of Midwifery
For centuries, medicine and religion have steadily diminished assigned female roles and traits and excluded women from power in society through patriarchal ideology and misogynist obsessions with women’s reproductive power, a position clearly mirrored in the Christian Church’s obsession with witchcraft during the Middle Ages. Barbara Ehrenreich in her book, Witches, Midwives and Nurses – a History of Women Healers, identities three key allegations against witches that have persisted throughout all of history: their sexuality, their organization, and their healing powers – including their presence at childbirth. Men begrudged, feared, and most significantly, desired to regulate these healing powers women possessed. Medicine’s search of a health care monopoly in addition to excluding females from the practice of medicine in a public domain is part of a much larger tactic to dominate and subjugate women. Until the 17th century in Europe, obstetrics was steadfastly located within the domestic arena – a wholly female province. With the introduction of German author Eucharius Rösslin’s Der Rosengarten in 1513, that all began to change. Der Rosengarten is a medical text originally written for midwives and is deemed as the first work dealing with obstetrics apart from medicine and surgery. In its illustrations, it gave for the first time printed figures of the birth-chair, the lying-in chamber, the position of the fetus in utero, and of the feeding and rearing of the child. The text, printed in the vernacular, became a huge hit; its first translation was into English in 1540 and was thus renamed The Birth of Mankind. By the mid-16th century, Der Rosengarten had been translated into all the major European languages including French, Spanish, Dutch, and Latin. Consequently, it can be argued that Rösslin’s medical text is the spark that ultimately to the fire of male appropriation of the predominantly female practice of midwifery for decades and centuries to come.
To understand the motivation that Rösslin had for composing such a medical text, an analysis of his life is necessary. Not much is known about Rösslin’s early life, except that he was born in Germany in 1470. Rosslin was first an apothecary at Worms, then Frankfort-on-the-Main for five years from 1493-1498. He became the physician of Frankfort in 1506 and entered the service of Duchess of Brunswick and Luneburg – to whom he dedicated the Rosengarten. He left Frankfort after his term there ended and went back to Worms in 1511. There, after examining and supervising the city’s midwives, he deemed their practice careless and substandard, and blamed midwives for the high infant mortality rates. It was there that he decided to write the Rosengarten for all midwives to inform them on how to decrease the number of premature deaths of infants. After the medical text’s publishing in 1513, he left Worms soon and once again became the physician at Frankfort until he died in 1526. The popularity of Rösslin’s text, though written for good intentions, increased the number of people who read the misogynist prologue.
In the preface he criticized the wretched condition of the current obstetrics, and the carelessness, ignorance, and superstition of the midwives, who brought about unnecessary deaths of countless newborn. Rösslin writes, “… even so shall you women never groundly understand the matters contained in the second Book, or any other communication, or writing, touching the same intent, except you first have and just cognizance in the first Book. Again, when that a Woman comes to a Physician for counsel concerning something that may be amiss in the part: the answer so the Physician, and reasonable allegation of causes to the same infirmity, is many times obscure, dark, and strange, to be comprehended by the Woman for lack of due knowledge of the situation, and manner, and fashion of the innards… women, through neglect and oversight…destroy children far and wide” (Rösslin, 3-5). Midwives’ knowledge was essentially, “a mix of their own experience as mothers and that which was handed down through generations of attending women” (Stacey, 1988). That is, they were brought up in the practice and learned from their elders rather than from a medical textbook. Unless a woman was in position of power, a majority of women were illiterate or disinclined to become female physicians by men themselves in the 16th century. As education was not deemed as important for the women of the family than their male counterparts, they simply lacked the knowledge necessary to overall substantially decrease the number of deaths surrounding obstetrics for both laboring women and their infants.
Rösslin established the necessity for thorough instruction of midwives. The infant mortality, Rösslin bluntly labelled murder, for which the guilty ones deserved to be buried alive, or “broken on the wheel.” To say women were ignorant about the ways of childbirth would indicate that they chose not to have the knowledge required for childbirth, that women did not care for the mother, nor the unborn children. These statements from the text are paradoxical, as mothers were viewed as the most caring individuals of the household. As maternity, not education, is what made up the lives of women in the Renaissance, to say that midwives caused some infant deaths is a fair statement. After all, men did socially restrict the role of women in the Renaissance to one so superficial. But, thanks to modern advancement of medicine, it is widely known that there were many factors surrounding the practice to account for the mortality rates of infants in the 16th century. Such factors consist of the socioeconomic status of the families; the severity of illnesses the mother had while the baby is in the uterus; the spread of disease through the air, water, and unclean surfaces; starvation; the dominance or recession of harmful genes within the family; alcoholic tendencies of the mother; and others. Especially with the lack of modern medical knowledge, men continued to condemn women for men’s own wrongdoing – not giving women the education they deserved, and for taking lightly the intelligence of women. Men, at the heart, should be held more responsible than women. For Rösslin to blame all women and their lack of education as the sole reason for infant deaths in the 16th century is profane and irrational.
Not only did Rösslin admonish the validity of midwives’ practice, but he also emphasizes the role of importance of man in reproduction, thereby spreading misogynistic fabrications to women and men alike. Many times, he mentioned the seed of man within the six chapters of the first book, “And this we may say, that Nature hath so provided, that it is of sufficient length to perceive the private part of man in the Generation, directing the same towards the Womb port, thorough which the seed is naturally sent from man into the Womb or Mother, thereto helping an attractive power, which is inset and given to the womb, to attract and draw towards itself the seed parted from the Man” (Rösslin, 24-25). The private parts of women were, according to Rösslin, created to suit man’s private parts. He describes woman’s private parts as desiring man’s, thereby placing women in a subordinate position. In context, the inferior position is true maternity – that is, giving birth and nurturing of children fulltime. Rösslin’s words can be best scrutinized with the Carol Delaney quote, “The meaning of paternity is not… primarily physiosocial ; instead, the bio-physical elements are utilized for expressing social meaning, for example. Gender, authority, and kinship… Maternity has meant giving nurture and giving birth. Paternity has meant the primary, essential and creative role” (507). Philosophically speaking, the father’s role in a household has always been of larger significance than that of the mother. These beliefs of women’s and men’s roles are reflected in Christianity; physical paternity is neither necessary nor postulated, and yet the child Jesus is thought to be at one with his father, and Mary receives and nurtures the seed, an important task by all means, but not equal to that of God the Father. Women are not seen as an equal, but rather as a vessel and womb-for-hire through which men are able to procreate more men.
Historically speaking, most women became mothers, as was expected of them. Margaret King, in her analysis of the role of women in the Renaissance, writes, “Motherhood would define their women’s lives and occupy most of their years. From their mid-twenties in most social groups, from adolescence in elite circles, they experienced a cycle of childbirth and nursing and childbirth again. Poor women gave birth every twenty-four to thirty months… Wealthy women bore even more babies than poor ones” (King, 2). Women were treated as if they were hamsters, whose main role is giving birth to many children. The role of most women in a poor household was the age-old stereotype of a stay at home mother whose main jobs were to raise their children, cook for the family, sewing clothes, and other chores around the house. Most women who were able to obtain a job either did not have children or were too old to have children. The main jobs a woman could undertake were nanny a household, live in a convent, or be a midwife. The man is the main breadwinner for the family. For elite women, since they did not have to nurse their own children, they conceived again soon after each birth. Furthermore, elite women did not spend their days cleaning or cooking for their families, which led to much free time where a they could dedicate themselves towards other hobbies, such as education. Although elite women were more literate than their impoverished counterparts, they did not become midwives, as they did not need an active job. These beliefs about women as a vessel for reproduction and nurture for children reinforces the ideology of male dominance and the patriarchy (Chojnacki, 6). Of course, there were the outliers who managed to exercise agency under this patriarchal umbrella, but the men who noticed supported the restrictions on women with new policies, practices, or in extreme cases, deemed women who fought for their ideals as witches. Although the experience of women is object, it is really about the intentions of men who drown out women’s voices fighting for being something more than a vessel for reproduction.
The further degradation of women’s status through the reputation of Rösslin’s text is seen through some medical men who acted in lieu of a midwife to deliver normal births, also labelled “man-midwives.” The term “man-midwifery” had not come into play until the 17th century in France, but Der Rosengarten began, intentionally or not, the degradation of the noble practice of midwifery. The decline of midwifery and dominance of medicine during this time is not merely defined as coincidental in medicine’s pursuit of professionalization, but instrumental (Cahill, 337). That is, medical control of the obstetrics unquestionably transferred the art of healing from the domestic arena to the public; from the hands of women to the dominance of men. A historical analysis of obstetrics and the exclusion of women is necessary for contextual purposes.
Childbirth was firmly located within the domestic arena – an exclusively female domain – up until the 17th century in some parts of Europe. Preceding the invention of the forceps , men and their instruments had been entangled in problematic deliveries, thereby almost guaranteeing the death of the infant as well as the death of the mother. With the invention of the forceps for obstetrics and the ability to deliver living babies, small numbers of men-midwives began to challenge the traditional position of only female midwives attending a laboring woman. However, during the 18th century, male physicians, armed with their greater ‘scientific’ knowledge of biology began to systematically dispute and devalue midwives’ knowledge. One way in which medical practitioners achieved this has been through their opposition to abortion (Thomson). In arguing against abortion of the fetus beyond the stage of quickening , licensed practitioners were not only able to differentiate themselves from the unorthodox, but also with this ‘superior’ knowledge assert their intellectual and moral superiority over both midwives and pregnant women. Furthermore, the general status and reputation of midwifery had already been deteriorating due to a continued lack of regulation and organization, in addition to little or no support for development or training. For these reasons, the subservience of traditional (experiential) midwifery to more formal knowledge and training, from which women were excluded from, was easily put into practice. These events provide two main points: first, suggest that the pyramid of knowledge assumes academic superiority over experience, and second, indicate that scientific factual and scientific knowledge is inherently male, and therefore claiming superiority over female intuitiveness, empathy, and care.
There became increased tension between doctors and midwives because doctors – barred as men from attending normal childbirth – could now learn midwifery from the printed page.