When was a midwife, not a midwife?
When is a midwife not a midwife? Perhaps when she’s a witch. I’d like to share with you a book that defined witchcraft for generations: the “Malleus Maleficarum” or “The Hammer of the Witches.” It’s attributed to two authors: Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer both of whom were Dominican friars. It was a wildly popular book it was reprinted 12 times between 1487 and 1519.
The book puts forth a very different concept of witchcraft, one that is grounded in Satanism with demons working specifically with witches.
The authors wrote it on the form of argumentation called a “disputation” and it’s written in three sections. The first proves the existence of witchcraft the second demonstrates what witches did and why they did it and the third discusses how witches can be prosecuted in both ecclesiastical or church courts and secular courts. Now most disturbingly to me the book describes the bulk of witches as being women and many of them supposedly were midwives.
But the book describes specifically what witches were known to do.
The Malleus states that “witches worked to divert men to irregular love to impede the procreative force to remove men’s penises to change men into beasts to cause miscarriages and to offer newborn babies to demons.”
Now I find the emphasis on midwives quite interesting because elsewhere in the book the authors describe how midwives used common plants and herbs in order to help women with gynecological problems. But if you go to the second section of the book, we learn that the authors imply that midwives were coerced by demons. Now, the form of disputation used in the book relies on past authority in order to support current arguments. One argument that the authors used to defend their position regarding women comes from John Chrysostom, who was an archbishop of the early Catholic Church.
The authors quote Chrysostom as follows: “What else is a woman but the enemy of friendship an inescapable punishment a necessary evil a natural temptation a desirable disaster a danger in the home a delightful detriment an evil of nature painted with nice color.” Hm.
The concepts on which the Malleus were written were challenged in the middle of the 16th century with the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution, in particular two remarkable books that were published in 1543: “On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres” by Copernicus and “On the Fabric of the Human Body” by Andreas Vesalius. Even so, the popularity of this book lasted for centuries, influencing not only the identification of witchcraft but also its prosecution.