The History of Childbirth and Midwifery: From Ancient Greece to the Present

TLDR This episode of "The Rest is History" explores the history of childbirth and midwifery, from the first named midwife in Ancient Greece to the cultural and environmental factors that have shaped women's experiences throughout time.

Timestamped Summary

00:00 This episode of "The Rest is History" explores the history of childbirth and midwifery, with a focus on men's historical writings on the subject and the origins of the term "gossip."
04:23 The first named midwife in Ancient Greece, Agonadike, is thought to be a myth, but the story of a woman disguising herself as a man to gain advanced knowledge in medicine has been passed down through the ages.
08:50 In the early modern period, the average age for marriage was about 24 for women and 26 for men, but a third of women were already pregnant when they got married, due to betrothal arrangements and the commitment it entailed; midwifery knowledge was drawn from translated texts and hands-on training, with the first English language midwifery guide appearing in 1540 and staying in print for over 70 years.
13:08 In the 17th century, childbirth was not a secluded event, but rather a community affair, with the midwife leading the process and friends, neighbors, and family members present; the connection between religion and midwifery was strong, with communal prayers being said for a happy delivery, and the presence of midwives in medieval paintings of the Virgin giving birth to Jesus reflects the religious significance of childbirth.
17:08 In the 16th century, midwives needed a license from the bishop to practice, which required testimonials from women they had attended births for, an oath to be a good and godly woman, and promises to treat rich and poor alike and ensure proper burial for deceased infants; midwives were trained through an apprenticeship system and could eventually become licensed midwives themselves, while in areas without licensed midwives, there were hand women who assisted with childbirth.
21:17 Midwives were not marginalized as witches by the male, clerical, and medical establishment in the early modern period, as there is no evidence to support this myth.
25:30 In the early modern period, women prepared themselves for the possibility of death during childbirth through poems, publications, and prayers, but the actual statistics for maternal mortality were lower than commonly believed, with over 98 out of 100 births having a happy outcome for the mother; however, with the medicalization of childbirth in the 19th century, the rates of infection and childbed fever increased significantly due to physicians introducing germs into the birthing chamber.
29:47 Louis XIV is known to have watched deliveries and insisted on being present, but his fascination with childbirth did not influence the wider population; however, Parisian physician Francis Mauricio advocated for a semi-reclining position during childbirth, believing it to be the most optimal position for opening the pelvis.
34:05 The focus of historical research on childbirth has shifted from viewing it as a purely medical event to understanding women's experiences and the natural processes of life, but there is still a need for improvement in maternity services to prioritize the voices and experiences of mothers.
38:07 The physical process of giving birth remains essentially the same throughout time, but the cultural and environmental factors surrounding childbirth have evolved and shaped women's experiences.
Categories: History

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