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« Tuna 4 / 2018

‘… because midwives are no less necessary for the good of the city than the chaplain…’
On Midwives in Estonia in the Middle Ages and the Outset of the Early Modern Period

The midwife is one of the oldest female occupations. Generally speaking, every community needs someone with her knowledge and skills who is able to help a woman in the process of giving birth and to provide the new-born with initial care. The work of the midwife has historically been a thoroughly feminine field. It was founded on solidarity between women and mutual assistance in giving birth. While midwifery and midwives in the Middle Ages have been studied quite a lot and comprehensively elsewhere in Europe, rather little is known about their activity during this time period in Estonia, or more broadly in Livonia. They are noted primarily in treatments on medical history or those dedicated to medieval women. Midwives in Estonia in the Middle Ages and at the outset of the Early Modern period, more precisely what their jobs and duties were and their position in society, are examined in this article.

Little information on midwives in Estonia has survived from older times. It is only since the 16th – 17th centuries that written records became more regular and meaningful. There is information from the Middle Ages primarily concerning midwives who operated in the towns. Here Germans engaged in this occupation were differentiated from non-Germans. The former occupied a higher position compared to non-German midwives due to their lineage and potentially better education. There is nevertheless no information whatsoever on the basis of which to determine whether distinctions were made in providing assistance in giving birth that took into consideration ethnic boundaries and those of social standing, and if so, how strict these distinctions were.

The jobs of the midwife are generally universal and timeless, including advising Aomen and assisting them during pregnancy and when giving birth, along with the initial care of the newborn. Nevertheless, numerous other obligations designated by the authorities fell to the midwife in the Middle Ages and at the start of the Early Modern period. She was included in criminal proceedings and cooperated with the priest. The institution of so-called honourable matrons, which had control of the activities of midwives, operated in German towns. Even though there is scant information on this, it is likely that the same custom was widespread in towns in Livonia as well. The paid position of municipal midwife was established in larger Estonian towns at the end of the Middle Ages. Midwives were subordinated to the control of male physicians in the 17th century, and the latter also took over the duties of the midwives as experts in giving evidence in court. In the Middle Ages, women acquired the necessary skills and knowledge to do the job of a midwife empirically. Thereat their own experiences in giving birth were also important. In principle, it was primarily local German midwives who had the opportunity to use occupational literature in their work, that is books on plants and medicine, tracts on midwifery, or other such writings. In the era of confessionalisation, it became important for a midwife to be of the ‘correct’ creed as well in addition to her professional skills.

Attitudes towards midwives were ambivalent in the Middle Ages and at the outset of the Early Modern period. On the one hand, professional knowledge made them valued and appreciated members of the community. On the other hand, the midwife was privy to various delicate information about people’s private lives due to the duties of her job. Contact with magic and superstition, and the transmission of old folk beliefs made the midwife a dangerous person. The wisdom of midwives and their secrets of birth and fertility inspired awe among the people, as well as fear. Not only the church, but also doctors and chemists coveted their secret knowledge. In the Middle Ages and at the start of the Early Modern period, the midwife’s occupation meant incessant balancing between the teachings of the church and superstition, and also between the respect and the fear demonstrated by the people.