Throughout history, nursing and healing have been closely entwined. Unfortunately, during the Middle Ages, the patriarchal society and the Roman Catholic Church condemned female healers because of their immense influence on the community. Women found themselves victims of cruel and unjustified acts of persecution, such as being tortured and burned at the stake, because they were labeled “witches” by the society. This phenomenon started in the heart of Europe and soon spread throughout many countries in the world, including the United States of America. Furthermore, it caused the degradation of women, and subsequently nurses, for centuries afterward.
The Midwife at Work
Written by Lupita Diaz
In the Middle Ages, the midwife was initiated in her duties by other midwives or sometimes by fathers or husbands who were involved in medicine. A candidate for midwifery usually apprenticed herself to an older, experienced midwife, and from her she usually gained the necessary information and direction for her specialized duties. The most important requisite to become a midwife was a statement from the parish priest declaring the applicant to be of good character. Only women were able to practice midwifery in the Middle Ages. (Hughes, 1943)Doctors did not assist women during childbirth and men were excluded from the labor chamber. (Gies and Gies, 1990,pg. 258) Therefore, midwives were indispensable. Due to their importance, midwives were able to practice however they pleased and set their own standards. However, their duties were outlined in some medical books such as Tortula’s work, Bartholemew’s “De Proprietatibus rerum,” and Ephesus’s works. (Hughes, 1943) These books stated that a midwife should “have the craft to assist women in childbirth, in order that they may bear children with less pain and trouble. She should anoint and bathe the mother. She should bathe the child first in water, then in salt and honey to dry up the humors and to comfort his limbs. Then she should wrap him up in swaddling clothes. If the child was sick, she was to use medicines to restore him to health. She should anoint him with noble ointments.” (Gies & Gies, 1990, pg. 258) Evidently, such directions were vague and therefore left the midwife largely to her own devices until laws were enforced in 1560. (Hughes, 1943)
Midwife Delivering a Baby
The midwife’s central role was to safely deliver a mother’s unborn child. “During a typical labor, the midwife would rub her patient’s belly with a salve to ease her pain and bring her to a quicker parturition. While assuming the sitting or crouching labor position, the mother would be relaxed by the midwife’s comforting words and gestures. Next, the patient’s hair was loosened and all her pins were removed. Following that, the servants would open all doors, drawers, and cupboards in the house and untie any knots for superstitious reasons. If the labor was difficult or dangerous, which it often was, “magic” was invoked. Jasper was a gemstone accredited with child-birth assisting powers, as well as the powers of preventing conception, checking menstrual flow, and decreasing sexual desire. Also, dried blood of a crane and its right foot were considered useful in labor.” (Gies & Gies, 1990, pg. 258) In extreme cases incantations of magical words were whispered in to the patient’s ear, but priests would frown on this practice. “When the baby was born, the midwife would tie the umbilical cord and cut it at four finger’s length. She washed the baby and rubbed it with salt, then gently cleaned its gums with honey, to increase its appetite. She dried him with fine linen and wrapped him tightly in swaddling bands so he would not move or scratch himself. Afterwards, he would be shown to his father and the rest of the family. Later, the baby would be placed in a wooden cradle next to the mother’s bed in a dark corner, where the light would not hurt his eyes. A servant would rock the baby to sleep. Unless the limbs of the child were twisted out of shape, the baby would remain securely bundled until they were old enough to sit up. He would be nursed, bathed, and changed every three hours and rubbed with rose oil.” (Gies & Gies, 1990, pg. 258)
The Roman Catholic Church and the Witch Hunt
written by Jade Aquino
The Roman Catholic Church had a lot of power during the early Middle ages (500 AD-1000 AD) and late Middle ages (1000-1500) (Donahue, 1985, 123-140). By the early Middle Ages, the church was a “highly organized institution” and the most powerful person in the west was the pope (Donahue, 1985, 123). Because religion was indeed a significant part of the lives of the people in the Middle Ages, the Church had power over the people’s daily lives and ideology concerning social life. It was a popular religious view that women are evil by nature primary because of the Original Sin of Eve, substantiated by the Genesis of the Holy Bible (Burkhardt and Nathaniel, 2002, 11). It was the woman’s role to be Man’s helper or assistant. Women were considered inferior to men, but as nuns and/or nurses, women were well-respected (Burkhardt and Nathaniel, 2002, 11). Nurses were considered saints because of all of the care they provided to the suffering. In regards to healthcare, the Church established hospitals, including the Santo Spirito Hospital of Rome,
Santo Spirito Hospital
the largest medieval hospital (Donahue, 1985, 137). Bishop Laudry founded Hotel Dreu of Paris in 650 AD, and it was the laywomen who provided care for the sick (Donahue, 1985, 134). In various monasteries, the unfortunate were given care and shelter (Donahue, 1985, 127).It was through the “Church-sanctioned secular nursing orders” that women could be nurses (Burkhardt and Nathaniel, 2002, 11). During the late Middle Ages, the focus of the people transitioned to material wealth and well-being on earth from concern with life after death and spiritual well-being. The Church was becoming rich and powerful, and there was a dire need of reformation to strengthen moral and religious values (Donahue, 1985, 140). With the reformation, there coexisted the rise of witch hunting (Bailey, 2003, 8).
The topic of witchcraft is mysterious. Were the people of the Middle Ages entirely unreasonable and naïve to believe in witches? In contemporary society, the concept of witches seems irrational, however, almost everyone in the Middle Ages believed that witches existed. A significant part of the instigation of the witch hunt was the Roman Catholic Church; the church found it important to suppress these heretics. In early fifteenth century, the Latin word of witch used by the clerics was maleficus, which means a person who practiced harmful sorcery against others (Bailey, 2003, 4). The idea of practicing witchcraft was tied into heresy, “the struggle for the expression of religious feeling beyond the limits tolerated by the Church” (Bailey, 2003, 5). Witches were considered heretic because in the European perspective, to worship the Christian devil, the witch must have been first a Christian. These Christians then would make a pact with the devil and reject Christianity (Bailey, 2003, 4). The Catholic Church had a lot of authority in the Middle Ages, and to stray away, whether by being a heretic or a witch, was a “challenge to the order of society and to the majesty of God himself” (Bailey, 2003, 4). During the middle ages, magic and science were essentially integrated, and magic existed in the mind of the people. Magic, science, and religion had no distinction amongst them and only in some sophisticated societies were there slight distinctions. The Catholic Church believed that no matter why magic existed, even for good uses, it was considered evil because it derives from evil and demonic spirits that challenge the power of God, the only one who has the power to do miracles (Russell, 1972, 6).
The "Crimes" and Trials of the Witches
written by Ashley Ponce
The major reason witches were persecuted in the Middle Ages was out of fear. A common belief was that the witches were thought to be “interfering with nature” (Karlsen, 1989, 7). The church on the other hand, believed their powers to be derived from the devil, which was extremely alarming. “Witches represented a political, religious and sexual threat to the Protestant and Catholic churches alike, as well as to the state” (Ehrenreich & English, 1973, p.5). Witches were accused of harming others, specifically performing maleficium, which is the harm to others, and in the case of the witches, through supernatural means. Numerous witches were also suspected to inflicting injuries on others through the use of “poppets”, which were basically a doll made of rags meant to be a specific person. Many houses were searched for evidence of such poppets. The witches were not only accused of harming others, however, they were also persecuted for helping and healing. The remedies that witches used for various ailments were perceived as practicing magic, which was included in the “crime” of witchcraft (Ehrenreich & English, 1973).
Trial of Rebecca Nurse
In the years between 1620 and 1646, the American colonies produced legal codes which declared witchcraft as a crime punishable by death; however, the first execution was not made until 1647. Following this execution, there was a dramatic change in the amount of accusations. Though many were made, the accused were not all subjected to a trial and conviction. Trials were thought to be a “well-ordered, legalistic procedure” (Karlsen, 1989, p.7). In order for a trial to occur, neighbors or witnesses had to attest to suspicion of witchcraft. Those who were convicted were executed by hanging or burning at the stake. Something that raises questions, however, is the fact that a big percentage of those who were accused of witchcraft were women. Between the years 1620-1725, at least 344 were accused, and of those 267 were female, while only 75 were male (Karlsen, 1989). This sparks important questions concerning whether this was strictly an attack on witches, or perhaps also women.
Why Midwives and Women Were Targeted
Written Ching-Ching Yang
In the middle ages, village women were asked to be midwives simply because they had the experience of giving birth to several children, so midwives never received any proper training nor did they acquire adequate skills that they brought to deliver a child. In some areas there were so many midwives that none of them had sufficient knowledge of delivering babies. Beginning the 14th century, people started condemning midwives (or women generally) for practicing witchcraft and getting involved in witch organizations. In many of the cases charges were false, women and midwives only confessed to practicing witchcraft out of threats of torture and murder (Ehrenreich & English, 1973). Not much later, there were superstitions surrounding the placenta, umbilical cord, and the caul. The caul is a piece of membrane that may still cover infant’s head at birth. Rumors spread that the caul was believed to bring a variety of good fortune. Midwives, therefore, were accused of stealing the caul so that they could sell the caul off to witches as an ingredient for a potion. Other rumors spread that the fats of unbaptised babies were believed to be an essential ingredient of witches’ potion, thus, people began to accuse midwives again, this time with a different charge: people accused midwives for destroying the baby while the baby is still in the mother’s womb (which makes sense because unborn babies have not yet been baptized), which would cause an abortion. It was said that a mother who refused service to certain midwives were said to suffer greatly during childbirth(Forbes, 1962).
A Witch Being Persecuted
Women were accused of practicing witchcraft because 1. Women (or witches) were accused of “every conceivable sexual crime against men” (Ehrenreich and English, 1973), or having female sexuality 2. Women participated in organizations of underground women (witches) 3. Women practiced medicine eempirically instead of superstitiously. This was thought of practicing witch craft, which meant that these women healers were harming people that they were trying to cure instead of healing them. Realistically, women were practicing medicine scientifically. Women built their knowledge based on data from their senses rather than on faith or doctrines since women were not allowed education. Women passed their medical knowledge down to their daughters and granddaughters. These sources of “healing methods” are where most women get their healing skills. But people of the church thought of them as witches practicing witchcraft (Ehrenreich & English, 1973). Until this day, we still do not know if women deserved to be called witches or to be persecuted because we only know of the event of the witch hunt in history through the eyes of the people who accused women and persecuted women. These women who were persecuted left no trace or evidence of writing, because they were not literate or taught how to write, behind for us to know the truth.
The Impact of the Witch Hunt on Women in Nursing
written by Courtney Jang
As we have previously noted, during the Witch Hunt many women were persecuted, which had a great influence on women in the healing, midwifery, and nursing fields. Unfortunately, with the persecution of numerous alleged “witches” who practiced midwifery and were not institutionally trained, there was a complete omission of women’s roles in healthcare in history. While nursing and medicine remain closely entwined throughout history, the origins of nursing and have been altered by many historians: “medicine was part of nursing and emerged from the age-old traditional, community-based wise women, who practiced both nursing and medicine” (Group & Roberts, 2001, p. 8). Thus, men, who felt threatened by the competition of women in medicine triumphantly eliminated female healers by finding an eager alliance with the Catholic Church, whose “motives were related to its negative attitudes toward women; the majority of the healers were viewed as temptresses, even Devil’s disciples, whose charitable work and health care were merely expiations for women’s original sin” (Group & Roberts, 2001, p. 26). Therefore by discriminating against women in universities and not allowing them to obtain medical licenses under the duplicitous “guise of improving standards of health care,” men usurped the power of healing and caring from women (Group & Roberts, 2001, p. 26). Clearly this seizure of authority in the medical field by males was accomplished because of the threat that females imposed on men: “indeed, if skilled educated women had not competed with various categories of medical men, it is unlikely that the denigration of female practice would constitute such a strong theme in past medical writings, or that female healers in England and elsewhere would have been prosecuted for what were seen as infringements on licensed physicians’ and surgeons’ practices” (Davies, 1980, p. 194). Unfortunately, the distinction between males and females within the medical field resonated throughout centuries and greatly affected the development of nursing.
Eventually, women were forced completely out of the medical field; even midwifery was banned in several countries and “outlawed in most states” (Bullough & Bullough, 1984, p. 89). Nursing, and all other medical practice, was an obligation of women known only as “domestic arts” through the “knowledge of ‘Physick and Chyrugery’ to help their maimed, sick, and indigent neighbors” (Group & Roberts, 2001, p. 32). Yet, gradually, women were able to rejoin males in the hospital as nurses but solely as “a unified maid service” performing custodial tasks (Davies, 1980, p. 196). This slowly evolved into nursing with the changes and improvements made by female leaders such as Florence Nightingale.
However, the mistreatment of female workers remained constant due to its origins in marriage and family, where women were expected to provide services of domesticity in return for, usually less valuable, material goods. Thus, “the patriarchal exploitation of free domestic services is transferred into the nonfamilial labor market where all women are treated as potential wives-mothers, dependent on men because they are biologically female” (Group & Roberts, 2001, p. 50). Therefore, the labor divisions of the nineteenth century are mainly founded upon the idea of naturalism, where jobs are characterized as masculine or feminine and allocated by biology or analogy. Consequently, the “link between nursing and ‘femininity’ as a combination of moral qualities that supposedly differentiated women and men” was solidified (Group & Roberts, 2001, p. 54).
Although the status of female nurses was slightly elevated by Nightingale’s teachings and the formation of formal nursing schools, nurses were still victims to strong subjugation by male physicians in the workplace throughout the decades. This is reflected by the initial lack of education and effort to provide nurses with the knowledge and skill to read and diagnose symptoms of patients during the 1920’s. The nursing profession “finally lost the battle to the physicians’ monopoly of knowledge and technology and to society’s sexist relegation of women to their ‘proper’ roles as aides to men” by the 1930’s with the Great Depression due to the lack of funding and support to enable women to be empowered and autonomous professionals (Group and Roberts 161). The duty of a nurse to serve and obey the predominantly male profession of physicians and surgeons prevailed throughout history. However, nursing today is evolving much more quickly than it has previously, allowing females and males in the profession to gain higher status within the hierarchy of the healthcare field. Also, the formation of nursing unions and organizations strengthened the voices of nurses through unification, such as the the National Nurses Organizing Committee , which states in their About Us section on their website that they are dedicated to "providing a voice for nurses . . . with the tools and training they need to stay at the forefront of [their] ever-changing profession" (National Nursing Organizing Committee, 2005).
Members of the National Nurses Organizing Committee Marching for Patient Safety
Other contributing factors that helped the rise of the nursing profession from under doctors’ suppression may be the nursing shortage that the United States, as well as the world, faces. Although today the nursing profession still struggles with the distant effects of the Witch Hunt, hopefully the future holds the possibility for women’s emancipation from all restrictions.
written by Lindsay Sandberg
With this long history of persecution, Midwifes have faced many ethical issues such as being wrongly accused of being evil when in reality they were trying to help. In many cases the midwives were burned at the stake, therefore loosing all autonomy. Autonomy is the ability to make decisions abouut ones life and in the case of midwives they were unjustly being murdered, therefore loosing all control of their lives (Burkhardt 41). In looking back at how badly these midwifes in the 1600's were treated, it is evident that these brave women were stripped of all their human dignity because their lives were in the hands of their persecutors. The midwives human dignity, or the basic rights of every human, was violated when their choices about their own lives were taken away. This overwhelming pressure not to fail may have caused many midwives to feel sheer terror. The midwives inability to decide the destiny of their lives and constantly fearing for their lives, in a time in history where women were not treated as equals caused an incredible amount of emotional distress.
written by Courtney Jang and Ching-Ching Yang
Clearly, the effects of the Witch Hunt still exist in our society: the influx of females in the nursing field, the subservient image of nurses in relation to physicians, and the low salaries of hardworking nurses. However, nurses have made tremendous progress in the last couple of decades. Today, nurses continue to triumphantly stride to gain equality in the medical field. Advancements like the National Nurses Organizing Committee have even broadened the scope of nursing to arenas like politics and legislature. Yet as nurses excel in the present and future, we hope that they will never forget their courageous predecessors that sacrificed so much for our profession.
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