If you are interested in holistic health care as it relates to the well-being of women and newborns, you are likely familiar to some degree with midwifery. Modern conceptions of the ancient tradition include stereotypes of underwater births, women dressed in pseudo-nun garb, and the list goes on.

In today’s post, we thought it would be a fun and educational exercise to briefly explore the ancient history of midwifery with our readers. Before we dive head first into said topic, we’d like to mention a quick note from Deanna D. about Cervical Health Awareness Month.

January Is Cervical Health Awareness Month

“Cervical cancer is almost always caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). Vaccines are available to protect against the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer starting as early as age 9 until age 26 for both boys and girls.

Cervical cancer is highly preventable, by practicing safe sex, but can be cured if found early. There are 2 types of screening tests that can help with this.

  1. The Pap test-aka Pap smear-looks for precancers, or cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
  2. The HPV test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes.

The Pap test is recommended for women between the ages 21-65, and women should start getting Pap tests regularly at age 21.” – Deanna D.

Give us a call at Deanna D. Midwifery if you would like more information about Pap tests or if you would like to schedule a Pap test with us here in the Tri-cities’ top midwife clinic. We’d be happy to help guide you through the process.

Ancient Egypt

Midwifery got its beginnings in early antiquity. Midwifery, known as a female occupation, existed as early as 199 B.C.E., as noted in the ancient Ebers Papyrus. The papyrus touched on gynecology and obstetrics, with a focus on the birth prognosis of a newborn baby. Other ancient findings have led historians to believe that midwifery had a prominent place in ancient Egyptian culture.

Ancient Greece

There is evidence to support the claim that midwifery was not a mere supplemental service to the physician, as some’s modern notion of the tradition might naturally incline them to believe. In fact, Soranus of Ephesus, a Greek physician who lived around the first and second centuries, differentiated three distinct groups of midwives: those who had an exclusively empirical experiences (on the job training); those that had theoretical training in what we would now call obstetrics and gynaecology; those who had a higher education in the field, with skills and technical training to the extent that they were considered as professional equals with male physicians.

We know from Soranus’ writings that the ancient Grecian midwives would be expected to be able to read and write. He himself answered his rhetorical query, “what is a midwife?” with the helpful posit “A woman learned in all the causes of female diseases, and also skilled in general medical practice”. Tsoucalas, a scholar on the matter, goes on to describe the role and expectations that midwives had during that time. “The midwives in Ancient Greece should have been able to read and write, have a thorough knowledge of the theory and practice of obstetrics and have experience in all branches of medicine, so as to give dietetic as well as surgical and pharmacological prescriptions. The midwife’s nails should be trimmed and rounded ‘so that they will not wound the organs’. They had to have soft hands and long thin fingers; have a good memory, great perception and be hard working. They had to know all kinds of treatment and complications of childbirth, have an adequate knowledge of pharmacology and maintain their composure, as it would be imperative to simultaneously provide psychological support. They had to be discreet, as often, various family secrets were revealed during a childbirth; irreproachable; not bribed to execute illegal abortions and finally, spiritually healthy – always committed on duty away from superstitions, ‘the midwife should be no believer in spirits’.”

Clearly, the ancient Greeks had a sophisticated and perhaps egalitarian approach when it came to the capability of a midwife.

The Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, there was very little scientific exploration that took place. Gone were the days of Aristotle and Hippocrates of Ancient Greece. However, their medicinal knowledge (along with their other works) was not lost during the dark ages, and was thus used as the medical authority of the time. Yet said philosophers did not delve into women’s health or midwifery because their ill-informed belief was that such matters were beneath them, and, as such, no befitting of a man to study.

But such close-mindedness carved out an opportunity for women to continue their tradition without the interruption or interference of men. Yet in contrast to their Grecian predecessors, most midwives of the age (in Western Europe, we should clarify) were born of a lower class and therefore unlikely to be literate. As such, being able to read was not a prerequisite to becoming a midwife. Instead, the tradition was passed from midwife to midwife via experience. It was common for young girls to begin their informal training by being present during births of their family and friends.

While midwives did not organize themselves in guilds, as male physicians of the time largely did, many were given unique societal privileges, among which was having a tax-exempt status or a meager pension. Licensing, which is believed to have begun as early as the 15th century, was forced upon midwives of the Middle Ages from outside sources. With licensing came an official hierarchy with, get this, male physicians on top of the power structure. However, the formalization of the tradition was not without its virtues, as the organized practice significantly decreased the chance of some sort of quack illegitimately offering midwife services in a given community.

Deanna D., Your Tri-Cities Midwife Of Choice

If you are interested in modern midwife services in Pasco, Richland, Kennewick, or the surrounding area, reach out to us at Deanna D. Midwifery. We provide comprehensive health care for women. Deanna is a certified midwife and a WHNP with an outstanding local reputation. If you are interested in prenatal care or our other midwife services, you can learn more here. If you are ready to call to make an appointment, contact us today! We hope you’ve enjoyed this cursory look into the fascinating and rich tradition that is midwifery.