In 1973, two professors active in the women’s health movement wrote a pamphlet for women to read in the consciousness-raising reading groups. The pamphlet, inspired by Our Bodies, Ourselves, looked to history to explain how women had been marginalized in their own healthcare. Women used to be an important part of the medical profession as midwives, they argued — but the midwives were forced out of practice because they were so often considered witches and persecuted by the patriarchy in the form of the Catholic Church. The idea that midwives were regularly accused of witchcraft seemed so obvious that it quickly became taken as fact. There was only one problem: it wasn’t true. In this episode, we follow the convoluted origin story of the myth of the midwife-witch. 

Transcript for: Doctor, Healer, Midwife, Witch: How the Women’s Health Movement Created the Myth of the Midwife-Witch

Written and Researched by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD

*Correction: In this episode, Sarah mentions women being encouraged to use Listerine to “freshen up.” She meant to say Lysol.

Sarah: In late 2019, the all-woman country super group, The Highwomen, released a re-written cover of the The Highwaymen, sung by the famous 80s country supergroup, The Highwaymen, featuring Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. The song is about the spirit of several male outlaws and tough guys – a highwayman, obviousy, but also a sailor, a dam-builder, and a starship captain. (Yeah, I know.) In the Highwomen’s version, each line of the song instead features a woman who gave her life in struggles against sexist and racist persecution – for instance, one line is from the perspective of a Honduran migrant who dies in the desert so her children can make it to America, another, a black woman killed by white supremacist violence during the Freedom Rides.

Averill: In the second line of the song, singer-songwriter Amanda Shires takes on the persona of a female ‘healer’ living in colonial Massachusetts. When locals catch her sleeping naked in the sun, they accuse her of witchcraft, and in the words of the song, “the bastards hung me at that Salem gallows hill.”

Sarah: Chances are, if you heard this song in passing, you would understand the meaning of these verses even without any historical context. There’s a strong connection between women as healers and accusations of witchcraft in the popular imagination. Just as one example, in the popular Starz series Outlander, Claire, who is a nurse in her modern-day life, is prosecuted as a witch in 1740s Scotland after she contradicts a local priest over an ailing child’s diagnosis. (He says he’s possessed, but Claire knows he’s eaten a poisonous plant.)

Averill: It makes perfect sense that women who dabbled in medicine would be accused of witchcraft: they were breaking gender norms, threatening the power and exclusivity of the medical profession, and maybe even contradicting God’s will. One kind of woman-healer in particular is most associated with witchcraft accusations: the midwife, who often had knowledge of herbs and folk healing but also presided over women’s reproductive health, brewing abortifacients, growing herbs that might prevent a pregnancy, and delivering babies. Midwives had access to the mysteries of birth and death, and to products of childbearing believed to have magical power: the caul, the placenta, and the umbilical cord. It seems only logical that early modern people might look on a woman with that kind of power and position with suspicion, and that religious and medical authorities would look for ways to control such dangerous women.

Sarah: That midwives were regularly persecuted as witches was taken as a given for decades. It appeared in dozens of histories of witchcraft and has become entwined with the history of women and religious dissent in colonial New England. But it also has more modern implications. We already mentioned that it’s become embedded in popular culture, but it also became a touchstone for second wave feminists. The belief that midwives were persecuted as witches because they threatened the supremacy of the Catholic Church and the professional power of male physicians helped to add ideological fuel to the women’s health movement of the 1970s, a part of the women’s liberation movement that sought to reclaim women’s health from the control of men. There’s only one problem: it’s not accurate.

Today, we’re talking about the myth of the midwife-witch – which means we’re talking historiography. But if historiography is like the history equivalent of eating your vegetables, imagine this episode as chocolate chip zucchini bread, or French fries, or broccoli cheddar soup. You’re gonna get the veggies, but in a much more enticing delivery system. Plus, along the way we’ll have feisty feminists, anti-psychiatry psychiatrists, the the Malleus Maleficarum, ancient sex cults, disgruntled Egyptologists, the creation of Wicca, master of horror HP Lovecraft, and – dun dun dun – everyone’s favorite French philosopher, Michel Foucault.

I’m Sarah

And I’m Averill

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Sarah: It may seem a little strange, but we’re going to start our exploration of the midwife-witch not in the witch hunting years of early modern Europe or colonial New England, but in the United States during the tumultuous 1970s. Stick with us – it will make sense eventually.

In the early ‘70s, the women’s liberation movement was well underway. Women – often veterans of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements – began to take what they had learned about activism and started applying it to women’s rights. If you’ve seen the Hulu series Mrs. America, you know that this was the moment of the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment (or ERA), the almost-century long, ultimately futile attempt by feminists to get women’s rights enshrined in the Constitution. This was also the era of consciousness-raising groups, where women met in bookstores, coffee shops, and other feminist spaces to discuss their own experiences and find solidarity in the experiences of others. It was often in these groups where individual women discovered that their experiences weren’t isolated, but rather, manifestations of patriarchy – after all, this is where the famous phrase “the personal is political” comes from. Women suddenly discovered that, for example, it wasn’t just them that felt suffocated by life as a housewife, or who had been raped, or who had an unsatisfying sex life. These were shared experiences with a shared cause: sexism and the patriarchy.

Averill: A major aspect of consciousness-raising was focused on women’s health. Women began to realize that they sometimes lacked even a basic understanding of their own bodies. Products of the baby boom, these women had been raised in a culture that taught them that women’s bodies were shameful and mysterious. When women’s bodily functions did appear in the public eye, it was often regarding their flaws – take a look, for instance, at vintage Listerine ads that tried to convince women (in coded language, of course) that their disgusting vaginas would drive men away unless they freshened up with Listerine. Issues of women’s health frequently came up in consciousness-raising: frustrations with male doctors who didn’t take their complaints or needs seriously, difficulty getting reproductive care like birth control or abortion, bad experiences with labor and delivery, limited freedom to make healthcare decisions. For instance, our friend Lizzie Reis wrote an essay for Nursing Clio about her experience in a group instruction session she had to take in order to get a cervical cap at the Berkley Women’s Health Collective in the 1980s. She had to take a class with around 15 other women during which everyone pulled down their pants or skirts and looked at their vulvas with hand mirrors. Even though Lizzie writes about feeling a  little shocked at first, she also says it was super transformative, because it demonstrated that all vulvas are normal – some women had natural hair, others had trimmed or shaved, some had larger labia than others, some had visible clitorises, etc. This was the kind of radical ‘consciousness’ that the women’s health movement advocated for!

Mid-twentieth century Lysol ad

Sarah: Right. When I was in college, I was in a club called Sex Collective, and it was sort of a similar experience for me. We didn’t take our clothes off, but we talked really openly and honestly about sex – something that I had literally never done in my life, even with my closest friends. That kind of experience is such a huge intervention in our sex and body shaming culture that it can radically change the way you think about yourself and about the world around you – and often powerfully reveals the role that patriarchy has made in your life. If a male sex partner had shamed you for having a ‘weird’ labia or not looking/smelling/etc right, looking at a room full of other vaginas is going to prove pretty quick that he was an asshole.

Sarah: The bible of the women’s health movement was born out of this kind of consciousness raising. In the late 1960s, inspired by a discussion at a conference about women and their bodies, a group of women in Boston created what they called “the doctors’ group,” a consciousness-raising group dedicated specifically to talking about women’s health. The doctor’s group came to the conclusion that women wanted and needed to learn about and discuss their bodies away from the male medical gaze, and so they decided to split up and each research an issue to then present to the rest of the group. This idea then morphed into a course on women’s bodies, which was so successful that the group decided to take it even further, compiling their course materials into a health reference for women by women: the 1970 feminist classic Our Bodies, Ourselves.

1973 Cover of Our Bodies, Ourselves

Averill: In the introduction to the 1973 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the creators wrote that “we had all experienced similar feelings of frustration and anger toward specific doctors and the medical gaze in general, and initially we wanted to do something about those doctors who were condescending, paternalistic, judgmental and non-informative.” Our Bodies, Ourselves was born out of the collective feminist anger at a male-dominated medical profession that mistreated, ignored, controlled, and harmed women. Not only were women angry about doctors that shamed them about menstruation or refused to give them birth control, women were angry about the way that male doctors controlled childbirth.  In the mid-century United States, childbirth was highly medicalized – women gave birth in the hospital, often under the haze of twilight sleep or sedation that rendered them almost entirely passive participants. (We could, and should, do an entire additional episode on the history of childbirth!) The result was that birth was often a deeply unpleasant and disempowering experience, and so became a major focus on the women’s health movement. In the 1970s, the home birth and natural birth movements arose out of the women’s health movement, along with a resurgence of midwifery as a way to reclaim birth from the largely male domain of obstetrics. 

Sarah: As often happens in social movements, second wave feminists began to look to the past to help them frame their frustrations. For reference, women’s history as a discipline was in its earliest days, and the first graduate program in women’s history was established by Gerda Lerner at Sarah Lawrence College in 1972. So this was really new – and just as feminists wanted to reclaim knowledge of their bodies, which had been ignored by the male doctors, they wanted to reclaim knowledge of their pasts, which had been ignored by male historians. Women historians like Sheila Rowbotham, Gerda Lerner, Joan Scott, Anne Firor Scott, Natalie Zemon Davis, Linda Kerber, and others were just beginning to totally change the field with their social histories of women. So it’s not surprising that all these things – the birth of women’s history, the women’s health movement, and second wave feminism – would collide in the attempt to write the history of women’s health. Women historians were beginning to do that work, but many of the early works in the field wouldn’t be published until the early 1980s. (Regina Morantz-Sanchez’s research on Elizabeth Blackwell and Mary Putnam Jacobi, for instance, was first published in 1982.)  Instead, the work that had perhaps the broadest impact on the history of women and medicine (and of course the history of witchcraft) came from two non-historians, biologist-turned-writer Barbara Ehrenreich and sociologist Dierdre English.

Averill: In the early ’70s, Ehrenreich and English were both young professors at the State University of New York at Old Westbury. As they later recalled, the campus was a “hotbed” of political awakening. Inspired by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, that group that ran the women’s health course that went on to become Our Bodies, Ourselves, Ehrenreich and English began hosting similar courses at Old Westbury. As part of the course, they began to “read up” on the history of women and medicine. There wasn’t much to read (again, those histories were just being written) but what they did find repeatedly noted that women had been very active in medicine as midwives before the rise of professional medicine. But when that bit of information was offered, it was as a negative – that those women represented a sort of ‘dark age’ of primitive medicine that was banished by the rise of a scientifically-sound, modern medical profession. Ehrenreich and English were inspired by this tidbit. To them, reading in the midst of a health movement dedicated to revealing how the male-dominated medical profession had failed women,  it was like a lightning bolt: women had once had a powerful place in the world of healing, but were pushed out by men, who sought to control women’s bodies. It was the perfect explanation for the moment that they were living in as women’s health activists.   

Sarah: Ehrenreich and English took their initial reading and wrote it up as a conference paper, which they presented at a women’s health conference in 1972. In the paper, they talked about the ways that women had been pushed out of healing work by professional medicine in the United States, and also went back even further to talk about how women healers had actually been pushed out of medicine through accusations of witchcraft. This portion of the paper was inspired by the work of Thomas Szasz, a Hungarian-born psychiatrist who taught at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. (This is a controversy born in the SUNY system!) We have to detour just briefly to explain who Szasz was. Yes, Szasz was a psychiatrist, but he was also famously a critic of psychiatry’s abuses. Szasz went even further, though, and questioned the reality of mental illness itself. In 1961, he wrote a book called The Myth of Mental Illness that essentially argued that mental illness was a “metaphor” used to describe behavior that didn’t fit into social expectations. An example Szasz used was the diagnosis of hysteria, which was nearly always given to women who failed in one way or another to meet expectations of womanhood. It wasn’t the woman who was actually ill, but that society needed a way to control and punish unacceptable behavior. Szasz’s theories (along with contemporary Michel Foucault’s books like A History of Madness, The Birth of the Clinic, and Discipline and Punish, all written in the 60s and early 70s) helped to give shape to the anti-psychiatry and Mad Pride movements. Both Szasz and Foucault were writing about the ways that the authorities used systems of surveillance to control aberrant behaviors (biopower, as Foucault calls it) and how the medical profession ensured they acquired and maintained that power. So… how does any of this come around to Ehrenreich and English and witchcraft?

Averill: Well, just two years before Ehrenreich and English wrote their conference paper, Szasz had recently published another book, called The Manufacture of Mental Illness. This book took his theory about mental illness as metaphor and tool for control and compared it to witch hunting. In the introduction, Szasz writes this: “Nearly a decade ago (in The Myth of Mental Illness) I tried to show that the concept of mental illness has the same logical and empirical status as the concept of witchcraft; in short, that witchcraft and mental illness are imprecise and all-encompassing concepts, adaptable to whatever uses the priest or physician or lay diagnostician wishes to put them. Now I propose to show that the concept of mental illness serves the same social function in the modern world as did the concept of witchcraft in the late Middle Ages; in short, that the belief in mental illness and social actions to which it leads have the same moral implications and political consequences as had the belief in witchcraft and the social action to which it led.” In other words, both the diagnosis of mental illness and the accusation of witchcraft were ways of controlling socially unacceptable behavior, both employed by authorities desperate to maintain social power and control (the Catholic Church and the medical profession). He also makes another argument that modern psychiatrists have determined that “the medieval witch was a mentally diseased individual,” but that in reality, “she was a magician, a sorceress, and above all a healer, a midwife and physician.” But the medical profession benefits from pretending witches were all just crazy because it means they weren’t really medical practitioners – because if they were, they would be their own professional predecessors. “This is why,” Szasz writes, “the modern physician, and especially the psychiatrist, systematically repudiates his real medical ancestor, the lowly and disreputable sorcerer and witch. Instead, he prefers to trace his descent directly from the Hippocratic physicians of ancient Greece …”[1]

Sarah: Ehrenreich and English were inspired by Szasz’s argument – which, again, lined up exactly with the core aims of the women’s health movement. When their conference paper was really well received, they wanted to expand and publish it so it could reach more readers, especially feminist consciousness-raising reading and discussion groups like the ones that led to the paper in the first place. The result was a pamphlet called Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, published by the newly established Feminist Press in 1973. The pamphlet is a history, but it’s also sort of like a manifesto or call to arms. Ehrenreich and English claimed that midwives were pushed out of medicine first by the witch hunters, then again later by the doctors. I’ll read you a bit from the introduction so you get a sense of its tone: “Our subservience is reinforced by our ignorance, and our ignorance is enforced. Nurses are taught not to question, not to challenge. “The doctor knows best.” He is the shaman, in touch with the forbidden, mystically complex world of Science which we have been taught is beyond our grasp. Women health workers are alienated from the scientific substance of their work, restricted to the “womanly” business of nurturing and housekeeping, a passive, silent majority. We are told that our subservience is biologically ordained: women are inherently nurse-like and not doctor-like. Sometimes we even try to console ourselves with the theory that we were defeated by anatomy before we were defeated by men, that women have been so trapped by the cycles of menstruation and reproduction that they have never been free and creative agents outside their homes. Another myth, fostered by conventional medical histories, is that male professionals won out on the strength of their superior technology. According to these accounts, (male) science more or less automatically replaced (female) superstition – which from then on was called “old wives’ tales.” But history belies these theories.”[2]

Averill: Ehrenreich and English andSzasz were all on to something. We know now, after decades of published histories of childbirth, that starting in the 18th century, more doctors (first called man-midwives and later obstetricians) began delivering babies and midwifery started to fall out of favor. This happened for a variety of reasons –man-midwives wanted to control birth because it was a good source of income; they thought the midwives were unscientific old crones; they believed birth was a medical event that should be controlled by professional doctors. (Sarah: those aren’t the only reasons, but those are the ones that these writers in the 70s were most concerned with.) They were right that male doctors worked to inscribe gender into medical theories and diagnoses, “proving” women’s inferiority (or, at least, her difference) in biology – just take a look at Edward Clarke’s writing about women’s education, for instance. And they were right that all of this was directly responsible for creating the miserable state of women’s health care in the mid 20th century, which led second wave feminists to start the women’s health movement.

But what about that other claim: that midwives were especially persecuted as witches?

Sarah: If anything, that’s the claim that seems the most innocuous. All these other claims are bigger, broader, and more academic, and the claim that midwives were often accused of witchcraft seems obvious to the point of not even being noteworthy. Midwives were known to use charms, herbs and incantations, had access to products of birth believed to have such as the caul, umbilical cord, and placenta, presided over all-female gatherings focused on the mysterious (to men, anyway) event of a birth, and were intimately connected to women’s sexuality and fertility. It’s almost obvious that they would be implicated in witchcraft regularly. But in 1990, historian David Harley published an article in The Society for the Social History of Medicine that called out this claim specifically. Harley dismantles the idea that midwives were regularly accused of witchcraft by going directly to the primary source material – and what he shows is that actually, while midwives occasionally appear among the lists of people accused or executed for witchcraft, it was only in very small numbers – no more than any other profession or position in society. For instance, some German statistics show that while midwives were executed, they represented a small percentage of the overall number of condemned. In October 1582, 38 accused witches were burned in Waldkirch im Breisgau, of which 4 midwives (10%); that same month, 36 accused witches were burned in Turkheim in Alsace, of which 2 were midwives (5%); and in Schongau, between 1589 and 1592, there were only 3 midwives among the 63 accused witches executed (4%).[3]

Woodcut, 1583 | Wellcome Collection

Averill: In many cases where a midwife was accused or executed, he points out that they were often tried for reasons other than their midwifery; in other cases, they were tried but not accused of witchcraft. For instance, one Paris midwife named ‘la dame Constantin’ was tried and executed for causing a woman’s death in a botched abortion, but it wasn’t suggested that she was a witch, or that midwives as a class were dangerous or suspicious. In fact, French doctors were generally accepting of midwives, even if they sometimes were critical of their less scientific practices. In English history, Harley argues that “the case for the existence of the … midwife-witch rests on only two famous examples.” The first was the case of Ursley Kempe, who was accused in 1582 when she had an argument with her neighbor Grace Thurlowe, after which the neighbor’s baby fell from its crib and died. Nowhere in the original source on Kempe’s trial is it stated that she was a midwife, though it seems that she may have been a wetnurse. The claim that Kempe was a midwife comes only from the American historian Wallace Notestein’s 1911 history of witchcraft in England. The second example is of a “Mrs. Pepper,” who had diagnosed a sick man of being bewitched, but then failed to cure him – leading to the accusation that she herself had done the bewitching. In Mrs. Pepper’s case, she really was a midwife – but midwifery had absolutely nothing to do with her accusation.

Sarah: Sometimes, the connection to midwifery was inferred by later historians. For instance, Agnes Sampson, the Scottish woman accused in Scottish King James VI’s 1590 witch hunts, admitted to giving women magical concoctions to ease labor pains.  – but nowhere was she described as a midwife until an 1834 book called Darker Superstitions of Scotland. A few midwives were accused in later Scottish witch hunts in the 17th century, but so too were many women who were not midwives. And also in the 17th century are examples of midwives accused of practicing witchcraft who were acquitted. Margaret Reid was accused of brewing magical medicines by a confessed witch, but authorities took no action against her. In fact, Harley argues, sometimes it was actually harder to convict a midwife accused of witchcraft than it was to convict her of a straightforward crime, pointing to two cases of infanticide to illustrate his point. In the case where the accused midwife was also accused of witchcraft, the midwife was acquitted – in the other, where the women were accused only of murder, they were convicted. 

Averill: Harley also points out the muddled history of the midwife-witch in New England witch hunts. While midwives are strongly associated with Puritan witch hunts, Harley shows that this association rests on a bunch of mixed up half-truths. In the case of two women often noted as colonial midwife-witches, Margaret Jones and Elizabeth Morse, there’s zero evidence in their trial records that they were midwives. Two other women, Jane Hawkins and Anne Hutchinson, are also usually brought up as examples of midwife-witches, but their case is even more complicated. Neither was ever actually accused or even tried for witchcraft. Instead, the women were the subject of what one historian described as “whispers” of witchcraft because they were both present when a third woman, Mary Dyer, gave birth to a severely deformed stillborn fetus. Hawkins was explicitly described as the midwife present at the birth, but Hutchinson was more likely only present as a ‘gossip,’ or a woman who came to a birth to comfort and care for the laboring mother. Gossips were not midwives, just neighbors, relatives, and friends. But the so-called ‘monstrous birth’ became a sticking point when Hutchinson, Hawkins, and Dyer all ran afoul of Puritan authorities in Boston for having heretical religious views. Anne Hutchinson, famously, was tried not for witchcraft, but for heresy, as she held religious meetings and taught theology that contradicted that of the Puritan authorities in Boston. Hutchinson herself also had a ‘monstrous birth’ in 1638. All three women were banished for heresy and Dyer, who refused to stay out of Boston, was eventually executed in 1660. Somehow, in histories of the period, all three women become associated with both midwifery and witchcraft because of their association, in one way or another, with the ‘monstrous births,’ even though none were officially accused of witchcraft and only one was actually a midwife.

Sarah: But if all these stories of midwife-witches don’t have any basis in the primary sources, where did they come from? We’ve already sort of hinted at the answer – they came from secondary sources. Take, for instance, the case of Ann Hutchinson. The claim that she was a midwife stems from a remark from John Winthrop, describing her as a “women very helpful in the times of child-birth,” and her presence at Mary Dyer’s birth. Somewhere along the line, those two things morphed into claims that Hutchinson was herself a midwife, which was repeated by historians for decades. Even now, a quick Google search will show that this is just embedded in popular knowledge of Hutchinson. It’s just been repeated so many times that it’s become part of the story. So where did Ehrenreich and English get that idea, other than the work of Thomas Szasz? Well, that’s where things get even more weird. They picked it up from both a primary and a secondary source. Not being historians, they did the equivalent of someone repeating the claim that Anne Hutchinson was a midwife – they repeated claims that were themselves based on poor research.

Averill: The first, and likely most powerful, source that Ehrenreich and English cite is the ubiquitous witch hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum, or “The Hammer of Witches,” published in 1486 by German Catholic priest and witchcraft inquisitor Heinrich Kramer. The Malleus is the most well-known witch hunting manual and in the early 1970s, it was the only one that would have been available in print and translated into English, so it’s not surprising that Ehrenreich and English were so influenced by it. The only problem is that the Malleus isn’t accurate. It’s the product of one inquisitor – Kramer – who was obsessed with the witches’ sexuality to a degree that weirded out even his fellow inquisitors. In fact, the publication of the Malleus came about after Kramer was expelled from the inquisition of suspected witch Helena Scheuberin for asking too many explicitly sexual questions. Infuriated, Kramer compiled his ideas about the practices and dangers of witches into what became The Hammer of Witches. (It seems like that’s why the book is so obsessed with witches’ dangerous sexuality, particularly the fear that they were collecting up dicks and storing them in trees.) In the text, Kramer tells all sorts of horrible tales about midwives catching babies and killing them (pretending they were stillborn) to use in rituals or offer to the Devil. Here, Kramer was tapping into folk beliefs that witches used the fat of unbaptized babies to make their ‘flying ointments,’ the goo they rubbed on themselves to allow them to fly. Other theories were that witches ate babies or offered them directly to Satan.[4] Who would be in a better position to do that than a midwife? It made sense, then, that Kramer could claim that witches had told him that “no one does more harm to the Catholic Faith than midwives.” Not only should we remember that the manual was the product of just one obsessive witch hunter, Harley warns that the Malleus wasn’t necessarily all that influential during its day – it may have been referenced in some witch trials, but only in a limited sense. It’s become more influential in histories than it likely was as an actual witch hunting manual, probably because it is so lurid and ridiculous.

A 1669 edition of Malleus Maleficarum | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Aside from the Malleus, the other source that Ehrenreich and English relied on was Margaret Murray’s The Witch Cult in Western Europe. Margaret Murray was in herself a fascinating figure – she was a feminist from a wealthy British family living in India who went to the University College of London and became an Egyptologist. During World War I, Murray was frustrated in her Egyptology research because she wasn’t able to do field work, and so she started to become more interested in anthropology and folklore. She was first interested in the Holy Grail, but then started to research witchcraft. Her first work on witchcraft resulted in The Witch Cult in Western Europe, published in 1921. Murray had a very interesting – and now completely discredited – take on the history of European witch craft. Murray argued that the women accused of witch craft were real – in other words, they really were practicing a kind of religion that contradicted Christianity. (No, they weren’t really flying around or anything, despite what one scholar tried to claim.) According to her theory, the accused witches were part of an ancient fertility cult that was preserving pagan religion despite the best efforts of the Catholic Church. The cult performed fertility rites that included the ‘witches’ having sex with the male representatives of the Devil, or sometimes, being painfully penetrated by artificial phalluses, to improve harvests, ensure the fertility of livestock, and encourage childbearing in the community. Murray built her case on the transcripts of witch trials, but took testimony given by the accused under torture as entirely truthful, and re-interpreted primary source descriptions of wild allegations to be evidence of less hard-to-believe happenings.


Averill: For instance, Murray claimed that the witches’ sabbath (lurid meetings of covens) was just a religious observation, and explained descriptions of witches ‘dancing around Satan’ or turning into animal familiars as just women dancing around a person dressed as ‘the horned god,’ or wearing masks to appear as cats or dogs. She even came up with tons of details about ceremonies, gatherings, and rituals – for example, she insisted that covens had exactly 13 members. (This appears to have been based on just one statement from one accused witch.) Murray makes blanket statements with little to no evidence, including the claim that midwives were central to covens. For instance, in her second book, The God of the Witches, Murray states that during the witches’ sabbath, all the witches reported on what they had done during the course of the week, and asked “the Chief,” or head of the coven, for his consultation on certain things. Murray asserts, “these matters were usually cases of illness, for the witches of a coven were always the healers in a village.” In The Witch Cult in Western Europe, she writes about claims that witches stole fertility, and connects this to midwifery. “The number of midwives who practiced witchcraft points also to this fact; they claimed to be able to cause and prevent pregnancy, to cause and to prevent an easy delivery to cast the labor-pains … and in every way, to have power over the generative organs of both sexes. In short, it is possible to say that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the better the midwife the better the witch.” She offers no evidence for any of these claims.

Sarah: In The God of the Witches, Murray also writes that “throughout the country the witch or wise-woman, the sage-femme, was always called in at child-birth, many of these women were highly skilled, and it is on record that some could perform the Caesarian operation with complete success for both mother and child.” Harley called this claim “improbable” and that Murray deployed a kind of “sleight of hand” in which she treats witches, wise women, and midwives as all interchangeable – they were not. Wise women practiced white witchcraft, which historian Leigh Whaley describes as “the practice of various types of traditional healing from folk medicine to positive magic using the recitation of prayers or chants and sometimes the use of magnets to bring about health and well-being.”[5] While it was possible that a wise woman sometimes delivered babies, they were not midwives. This kind of white magic was popular and widely used, even though it was officially condemned by the Catholic Church. This is actually an important point: women accused of witchcraft often did have an association with healing – magical healing. In fact, other historians, such as Ritta Horsely and Richard Horsley, have argued that there were actually several categories of women health workers – including wise women (or white witches), sorcerers, and midwives – and that while it was fairly common for wise women to be accused of witchcraft, it was not common for midwives to be accused. Wise women tended to be older, often single, marginal women, making them already a little suspicious. They also offered herbal remedies and charms, and while patrons might appreciate them when they worked, it was also easy for disgruntled or frightened customers to turn on a wise woman whose white magic had failed. And while this kind of healing magic was popularly considered good, there was always a fine line between white and black magic, and especially in the eyes of the Church, which believed that any magic (good or bad) must come from an association with Satan.

Averill: Midwives on the other hand, as Harley and other historians have shown, were often highly regarded and valued members of society – even if the local doctor sometimes grumbled about her. In fact, midwives were often involved in witchcraft trials not as the accused, but as experts brought in to perform medical examinations of both victim and witch because of their knowledge of women’s bodies. In 1634, two English royal surgeons appointed a panel of midwives to inspect the bodies of a group of accused witches. In 1699, a midwife inspected the dead body of a suspected witch at the request of a priest and reported all sorts of strange things about the women’s genitals. Midwives also provided testimony in trials regarding ‘monstrous births,’ which were often considered evidence of sexual dalliance with the devil, and were brought in to investigate accusations of rape, bastardy, and infanticide.[6] At the same time, there’s evidence that authorities were at least concerned about midwives. Several localities required midwives to take a pledge that they would not use magic or sorcery, or interfere with labor pains. For instance, an English pledge from 1567 required midwives promise not to “use any kind of sorcery or incantation in the time of the travail of women,” and a church ordinance from Wurzburg-Mainz-Wormser in Germany barred midwives from using “superstitious methods” to induce labor or lessen birth pains. But these were among lots of different requirements on midwives – they also couldn’t give ‘hard’ medications, analyze urine or blood, or use forceps, which were all limited to use by professional physicians. And it’s important to remember that just because the ordnance or pledge existed, it doesn’t mean it was actually happening, or that regular folks agreed.[7]

Sarah: Murray’s work was super problematic, but it had sticking power. Not only did it influence many later histories of witchcraft, it also seeped into the popular imagination. How could it not?! An ancient pagan fertility cult full of traditional women healers that performed creepy sex rituals? I mean, that’s gold. Murray’s theories entered the mainstream in a few ways. In the late 1920s, Murray was asked to write the entry on witchcraft in the 1929 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. Her entry, of course, included the fertility cult theory, spreading her theory far wider than her own publications could. (I tried to find a copy of it to see whether she included midwifery, but couldn’t find it.) Murray’s also work entered the non-academic world was in its influence on the birth of Wicca, the modern pagan religion. Gerald Gardner, a fellow folklorist, not only adopted Murray’s theory entirely (though most folklorists totally disagreed with her) but used it to develop a modern witchcraft practice that became today’s Wicca. Gardner even claimed to have been initiated into an original coven that had somehow survived without being detected for centuries, and wrote a book, Witchcraft Today, based on his experiences as part of this coven. Margaret Murray even wrote the forward. Murray’s theories sunk into the general image of all things witchy even further when they were taken up by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who referred to Murray and The Witch Cult in Western Europe by name in his stories “The Horror at Red Hook” and “The Call of Cthulu.” Lovecraft was fascinated by the specter of ancient cults that continued their lurid rituals in secret.

Francisco de Goya, Witches Sabbat, 1789. Note the witch holding a fat baby up for the Horned God. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: When Ehrenreich and English were writing their pamphlet in 1973, Murray’s entry on witchcraft still appeared in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and though her main theories had been criticized by historians and folklorists, her claims about midwives had taken a “side-step,” to use David Harley’s phrase. Historian of medicine Thomas Forbes used Murray’s comments about midwives as witches to help him make an argument in his 1962 article “Midwifery and Witchcraft,” and 1966 book, The Midwife and Witch, that midwives were dangerous, ignorant crones. Literally: Forbes writes that midwives were “ignorant, unskilled, poverty-stricken and avoided.”[8] No wonder professional, educated man-midwives took over birth work! Of course, just a few years later, Ehrenreich and English took the opposite approach in using Murray’s comments about midwives in Witch, Midwife, Nurse. Instead of ignorant crones, Ehrenreich and English saw women who were prosecuted by misogynist religious and medical authority figures for their role in women’s health care. Between Forbes’s article and book, and Ehrenreich and English’s pamphlet, the theory that midwives were intricately connected to witchcraft in the early modern period became fully and completely entrenched.

Sarah: And while Ehrenreich and English set out to show that witchcraft accusations were proof that women were important medical workers wrongly persecuted by the patriarchy, David Harley argues that by relying on shoddy research, they actually just perpetuated the idea that midwives were marginal, creepy crones dabbling in the occult. Harley is pretty pointed in his critique – he writes that “historians treating this subject have behaved like demonologists, repeating old stories without checking their sources and making assertions without data to substantiate them.” Of course, Ehrenreich and English did not take kindly to that, but Harley’s not the only historian to take them to task – since his article came out in 1990, many other historians, including early modern European midwifery expert Monica Green, have further debunked the connection between midwifery and witchcraft.

I was telling this whole saga to my husband while we were cleaning the kitchen, and as I was talking about Ehrenreich and English’s pamphlet, he said, “oh, yeah, that makes a lot of sense”- and I think that’s maybe the most interesting part of all this to me. Ehrenreich and English were absolutely correct that witchcraft accusations were a way of policing women’s behavior, and that the Malleus Maleficarum is a profoundly misogynist document, and that the midwives were eventually pushed out of medicine by the ‘real’ doctors, and that women have been systematically mistreated by professional medicine. The midwife-witch fit beautifully into the argument they were building! And they found all this evidence of the midwife-witch’s existence – Murray, Szasz, Forbes, even Heinrich Kramer’s The Hammer of Witches. The problem was simply that they weren’t historians: they understandably repeated claims made in famous works and because they made so much sense, they took for granted that they were based on good research. They weren’t. The myth has proven so sticky precisely because it makes so much sense!

Bibliography & Further Reading

Samuel S. Thomas, “Early Modern Midwifery: Splitting the Profession, Connecting the History,” The Journal of Social History 43 (2009), 115-138.

Thomas Forbes, “Midwifery and Witchcraft,” The Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 17 (1962), 1966.

David Harley, “Historians as Demonologists: The Myth of the Midwife-Witch,” in Brian P. Levack, Witchcraft, Healing, and Popular Diseases: New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic, and Demonology (Florence: Taylor and Francis Group, 2001)

Leigh Whaley, Women and the Practice of Medical Care in Early Modern Europe, 1400-1800 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Ritta Jo Horsley and Richard Horsley, “Who Were the Witches? Wise Women, Midwives,  and the European Witch Hunts,” Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature & Culture 3 (1986),

Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1970),

Monica Green, “Women’s Medical Practice and Health Care in Medieval Europe,” Signs 14 (1989), 434-473.

Margaret Murray, The Witch Cult in Western Europe (London: Oxford University Press, 1921)

Margaret Murray, The God of the Witches (London: Oxford University Press, 1931)

Thomas Szasz, The Manufacture of Mental Illness: A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1970)

Jacqueline Simpson, “Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her, and Why?” Folklore 105 (1994)

Jennifer Nelson, More than Medicine: A History of the Feminist Women’s Health Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth Century Representations (London: Taylor and Francis Group, 1996).


[1] Thomas Szasz, The Manufacture of Mental Illness: A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1970), 93.

[2] Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1970), 16-17.

[3] Ritta Jo Horsley and Richard Horsley, “Who Were the Witches? Wise Women, Midwives,  and the European Witch Hunts,” Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature & Culture 3 (1986), 11.

[4] Horsley and Horsley, “Who Were the Witches?” 9.

[5] Leigh Whaley, Women and the Practice of Medical Care in Early Modern Europe, 1400-1800 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 178.

[6] David Harley, “Historians as Demonologists: The Myth of the Midwife-Witch,” in Brian P. Levack, Wtichcraft, Healing, and Popular Diseases: New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic, and Demonology (Florence: Taylor and Francis Group, 2001), 10-11.

[7] Horsley and Horsley, “Who Were the Witches?” 10.

[8] Thomas Forbes, “Midwifery and Witchcraft,” The Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 17 (1962), 1966, 264.


1 Comment

Sierra · September 26, 2020 at 9:42 am

Please do make an episode or series on the history of childbirth (history of midwifery in the US, in particular). As an aspiring birth worker, I would so appreciate this resource in podcast format. Thank you for all you do!

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