The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. Our latest post, which explores the representation of midwives in early modern ballads, is contributed by Dr Jennifer Evans.
In a post on the Early Modern Medicine blog I discussed the terrible story of the barren midwife who stole a dead child to pass off as her own. The figure of a decietful, disreputable, and dangerous midwife, though, was not unique to this ballad but appeared in a range of early modern printed song sheets. In The Female Doctress, or Mother Midnights Cure a midwife in the Mint, Southwark, London was accused of pretending to cure women of barrenness.1 In the song the midwife lures barren customers with the promise
you Ladies that are Barren
If Old-age ben’t crept too far on;
In a Month or two it may be,
You may if willing conceive with Baby
Take but the Measures which I shall here give you
I have Rare Medicine will ne’er deceive you
The Midwife’s knowledge and rare medicine were attributed to ‘Sixty Years’ study of copulation, a titillating and lascivious suggestion about her sexual history. The magic remedy she claimed to use was supposed to remove all the ills that ailed a woman’s husband: ‘If too weak well make him stronger. If he’s too short we’ll make him longer’, ‘If your Husbands Old and Crazy, Or is Young, and grown too lazy, I’ll renew that Strength or Beauty, And make them able to do their Duty’. This midwife was scandalous then not only because she committed fraud, but because she was sexually liberal and encouraged lusty sexuality in her patient’s and their husbands.
In some ballads fraudulent behaviour was just the tip of the iceberg. One regailed listeners and readers with the tale of a midwife’s ghost who returned from the grave to tell the new inhabitants of her former house that the ‘Bones of Bastard-Children‘ she had murdered were buried under the fireside tiles.2 This cautionary tale was intended to urge honesty in midwives. The ghost regretted her past deeds and desired midwives not to murder innocent babes to protect the reputation of their parents: ‘A Burial of what she finds, in decent and most handsome sort And let the World to know my Crime, and that I am most sorry for’t: Desiring Midwives to take heed, How they dispose their Bastard-breed’.
A similarly themed ballad The Bloody Minded Midwife lamented that in Poplar, London, ‘Full Three and Thirty Years ago, the Midwife did begin, And ever since has been Murdering, Young Infants from their Mother’s Womb, when first they drew their breath, Starving she made their dismal doom, or, some such Cruel Death’.3 This midwife’s despicable actions were revealed when both she and her maid left the house and two small children who had been left with a baby ‘starving with bitter crys’ called out to passers-by. The tone of this ballad was rather more sad and quizzical, having explained how a search revealed the bodies of infants both in the house and the cellar, the narrator asked ‘O Cruel Wretch that this could do, a Monster to all good, How could she this her hands imbrew, in little Infants blood, How could she slumber Night or Day, or take one wink of rest, While little Muther’d Infants lay, which might her sleep molest.’ The same story was retold in several other ballads including The Injured Children, or, The Bloudy Midwife, and The Midwife of Poplar’s Sorrowful Confession.4
Despite these rather gruesome tales, not all midwives were portrayed as murderous villains. In some ballads they used their cunning and access to the semi-private occasion of parturition to solve problems and scandals. In The Constant Wife of Sussex the master and his wife struggled with infertility.5 The wife, happily, eventually conceived but by this time the master had already got his maid Bess pregnant as well. The family were therefore stuck with the dilema of how to conceal the husband’s infidelity. The mistress of the house gave birth to a daughter surrounded by her gossips and friends. However, after they departed,’Old mother midnight’ convinces the mistress of the house to adopt the newly born son of the maid to hide the infidelity of her husband and maintain their reputation. Having settled the situation the midwife left the couple and joined the gossips where she convinced them that the mistress had born a second child:
Then said the midwife to the rest,
give eare and you shal heare exprest,
When you were gone what hap befel,
unto you I will briefly tel:
a girle you know came first in sight,
but God sent us a boy ere night.
The neighbours thought this was strange but accepted the midwife’s story and expressed their joy for the couple. Although, perhaps a happier tale (not necessarily for the maid who was sent to work in another household) the midwife in this song was still portrayed as a woman able to lie and deceive those around her. These ballads played against the characteristics midwives were expected to have. They were expected to be honest, caring and maternal. As these ballads demonstrate the thought of a midwife who displayed qualities contrary to this was unnerving and shocking.
1. Anon., The female doctress, or, Mother Midnights cure for barrennes in woman (London, 1685).
2. Anon., A New Ballad of the Midwives Ghost (London, 1680).3. Anon., The Bloody Minded Midwife (London, c. 1684-1700).
4. Anon., The Injured Children, or, The Bloudy Midwife (London, 1693) and Anon., The Midwife of Poplar’s Sorrowful Confession (London, 1693).