Why #5: Doctors vs Midwives

To: all
From: Jenny
Date: 29 Jan 1998
Time: 12:47:56


In the early 1970's, feminists suggested another interpretation of the Burning Times. They noticed that many Witches were mid-wives, powerful and knowledgeable women for their times. Perhaps Witchcraft trials were aimed at them. They were designed to break women's power, to demonize traditional lore women preserved. The culprits in this theory were doctors: the male medical establishment, who were the "natural enemies" of the female midwives.

Back before we knew much about the trials, some academics supported this theory. When nobody knew how many Witches were midwives, nobody could say whether or not there was a strong correlation. Fortunately, trial record studies began flowing in almost immediately, and every single one of them contradicted this theory. There never was a time or a place where most Witches were healers. Generally the percentage varied between 2% and 25%, with the norm being 10% - 20%. And that's healers of all stripes and persuasions -- anyone said to heal. Actual mid-wives were far, far less common. In fact, the most recent studies have shown that mid-wives were actually *less* likely to be accused that other women.

The part about doctors fell through too. Almost no Witch trials were initiated by doctors. Yes, some doctors blamed incurable illness on Witchcraft -- but so did mid-wives and female healers, and nobody suggests that they caused the Burning Times. Besides, studies of doctors' case books (records of patients seen) show that most doctors worked hard quelling charges of Witchcraft. Richard Lilly had almost 200 people visit him, complaining that they were bewitched. Lilly found natural causes for each and every one of them. A lone doctor, he may have prevented 200 Witch trials. Basically, for every "bad" doctor you can point out, you can show another doctor who worked desperately to stop the persecutions. It was the Empress of Hungary's physician who convinced her to outlaw Witch trials. English physician John Cotta wrote a scathing critique of the Burning Times, one that earned him the displeasure of King James.

If the evidence for this theory is so weak, why is it the darling of pop history? Because its proponents don't rely on evidence -- they rely on something much, much better: stories.

People "prove" this theory by telling stories about Witches who were healers. Powerful, dramatic, tragic stories -- horrors that will make you cry. And then they say that this is what most Witch trials were like.

Statistics don't stand a chance against that. Some historian gets up, grumbling, and mutters that that isn't true, surveys of trial records show that healers comprised as little as 2% of all accused Witches in some countries. But does anybody listen to him? No -- they fall asleep, because trial record counts will bore you to tears.

And so the myth of the mid-wife Witch continues on happily. Not because it's a good theory, or because there's evidence to support. But because it's more interesting, more entertaining than the other theories. Plus it has the allure of dualism: it divides the world into Good Guys and Bad Guys, and ensures that we identify with the Good Guys (most of this theory's supporters, after all, are not male physicians). The myth of the midwife Witch is lousy history -- but it's great propaganda.