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Sign Advertising the Services of a Midwife, Early 19th Century Giclee Print

I just completed reading the Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich and naturally it has me wondering about the profession during the 19th century. The novel takes place in the mid-16th century, so how much further along did the art of coaxing babies from the womb come?

Forceps were invented at the end of the 15th century, some considered it the Devil’s Instrument for multiple reasons, the indentations it left on the skull of the newborn or more accurately anything that “played God” was blasphemous. In fact, it was not until the 20th century that men finally consented “perhaps the woman needn’t bare the pain from Sin of Eve to bring a child into the world?” *frustrated sigh*

Physicians and many midwives were not well versed at assisting in the birthing chamber. In haste to bring the child forth, the fetus was ripped from the womb. This lead to quartering the child (pulling apart the limbs and killing the baby; although not intentionally). Often times the process tore the mother in half and she bleed out. Caesarians were for emergencies only and a guarantee to kill the mother.

There are countless horror stories of the birthing rooms and the people who assisted the women. Conversely, there are men and women who did their job well with superb results given the time period. They were attentive to the needs of the mother, gentle with the process, and employed their knowledge and everything at their disposal to make sure mother and child lived through the ordeal. Sadly, those are the folks that often go unmentioned in history.

The most notable advancement in the birthing room was chloroform. Nothing like a little anesthesia to take the edge of the pain. While this was available for quite some time, Queen Victoria popularized the method since she used it during her labors. Oils and favored positions still continued to be used. Midwives did their upmost to let nature take its course as comfortably as possible. By the 19th century germ theory was full accepted (thank goodness!) but Midwives still included home remedies (which is the basis for most modern medicine) and a bit of superstition. Their mantra is not to speed up the process of birth, since often times it damages the insides (although modern medicine continues to improve every day). Midwives were wonderful to calm down the mother, alleviate her fears, instilling trust and confidence, which leads to smoother and less painful labor.

I cannot tell you what decision I will make regarding this endeavor, but will surely arrive at an answer if and when the time comes. At this point in time, I find a the idea of Midwife rather comforting.