Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 290-291
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The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London
The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London. By Doreen Evenden(New York, Cambridge University Press, 2000) 260pp. $64.95
Previous scholarship on early modern midwives has frequently presented them as poor, slovenly, and ignorant women whose unclean habits endangered mothers and children alike. These studies have relied predominantly on contemporary manuals of midwifery and accounts bymale midwives, often the chief competitors of women midwives. Bycombining the concerns of medical historians with the sources andmethods of social historians, however, Evenden's careful pro- sopographical study of seventeenth-century London midwives rewrites this image. Moving beyond traditional sources for the study of midwives, Evenden is able to reconstruct the lives and social experiences of London midwives in the seventeenth century. She provides convincing evidence that the unfavorable reputation of midwives is by no means deserved.
The first four chapters address, in turn, the licensing process of midwives, their training, their social and familial networks, and, finally, their social and economic status. The fifth and final chapter is not a narrative but a list of known midwives in twelve London parishes and a comparison of their social and economic status to that of the rest of the parish. The book also includes nine appendixes, which contain such information as the oaths of midwives, charts of senior midwives and their associates, a list of Quaker midwives, and a list of known midwives in London and environs. On their own, these appendixes make a valuable contribution to medical and social history.
Evenden's methodology is first to identify individual midwives through their licenses and then trace them through sources that reveal social, economic, and religious status. The results are a great deal of information about the lives of these women. They were well trained, conscientious, and often literate. They worked hard to protect their reputations by insisting on years of training, and aiding in a London-wide licensing program that helped to ensure the quality of their skills. The licensing fees and extensive training usually meant that they came from well-to-do families. Mothers often trained their daughters and other interested women, creating a network of women across the city that could transcend religious identity. Anglican midwives sometimes trained Quaker ones. The ecclesiastical licensing of London midwives helped to ensure the health and well-being of mother and child and led to an occupation that was both well respected and often lucrative for women.
This is a carefully researched book. Evenden is to be commended for her creative use of sources, and her willingness to work at such a detailed level. Valuable as her findings are, she might have pushed her conclusions farther. Evenden's research reveals a great deal about women's networks and culture that could be discussed more fully. The respect accrued to midwives challenges some of the prevailing ideas about the development [End Page 290] of gynecology and the control of women's bodies. Her placement of midwives into the local parish and neighborhood culture needs to move beyond a mere list of known midwives and their economic status to a discussion of the role of parish life in the world of early modern women's lives.
Katherine L. French
State University of New York, New Paltz