Friday, 29 June 2012

An Insight into Midwifery in the 17th Century

After reading an article in the Guardian yesterday entitled Rare book of midwifery horror up for auction I have to say, I am very glad that things have moved on so much in the field of midwifery. The manuscript, which is one of only two remaining copies left in existence, sounds fascinating albeit a little like a horror tale. It is based on a seventeenth century obstetrician, Percival Willughby's manuscript Observations on Midwifery, which he wrote at the time, hoping to help educate midwives and go someway to put a stop to their brutal ways.

Some of the practices mentioned in this article which are detailed in the manuscript, made me feel rather ill. How scary is it to think that a midwife's "main tool was a crotchet, a hooked stick" and practices such as an "obstetric manoeuvre in which the neck of the womb is cut on both sides with a knife. It "proved gristly in cutting", but "the passage being thus opened – the woman was happily delivered of a living child"." were the norm and acceptable at the time. It makes my skin crawl just reading these extracts in the article.

I know all medical practices back in the seventeenth century were most likely a tad more barbaric in nature than we would deem necessary or, acceptable now, but still, if people such as the Percival Willughby could recognise this, why were they such common practice? I am seriously thankful for medical advances, childbirth must have been so scary back then and amazingly, wasn't it an era when people had large families? I read in one article Raising Children in the Early 17th Century: Demographics by PlymouthAncestors.org, "The typical English woman would give birth six or seven times". You would think the experience of giving birth under those conditions would be enough to put you off for life.

Percival Willughby's  manuscript was never published in the author's lifetime which is a shame as it looks like he really did want to help improve things by imparting his knowledge and observations. It will be part of an auction at the Birmingham Medical Institute's antiquarian library on 26 July with a guide price of £20,000 to £30,000. I will be interested to see what becomes of these writings, I am sure there are a lot of people with an interest in this field of medicine who would love to get hold of it, not to mention what a great horror movie it would make.

An Insight into Midwifery in the 17th Century
This image of childbirth is an engraving by Abraham Bosse (ca. 1602-1676).

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