'The Midwife and the Witch' (1966)
Thomas R Forbes’ academic text, The Midwife and the Witch was published in 1966 by Yale University Press, in New Haven and London. Forbes held the position of Ebenezer K. Hunt Professor of Anatomy Emeritus and Senior Research Scholar in the History of Medicine at Yale University School of Medicine, and published a number of books in addition to The Midwife and the Witch, including Surgeons at the Bailey: English Forensic Medicine to 1878, a variety of articles, and acted as an editor on the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. The Hypatia Collection copy is a hardback version, with an illustrated book jacket featuring a cross design, which utilises a variety of early modern images, as well as the SATOR formula which is discussed in a chapter of the work.
Despite the title indicating a focus on witchcraft, the work investigates a number of areas of folklore and popular belief, including superstitions surrounding birds, the etymology of words, tests and charms surrounding fertility and childbirth, as well as the titular investigation of midwifery, largely based on the early modern period. The chapters are largely drawn from previous articles by Forbes including articles on the prediction of sex, and midwifery and witchcraft, initially published in 1959 and 1962 respectively.
Coming from a scientific background, Forbes approaches history from this perspective, offering modern medicinal perspectives on the issues discussed; when exploring early modern tests and rituals for determining the gender of children (including dreams, animal predictions, urine examination and the progression of the pregnancy) he subsequently outlines modern solutions for these questions, which may be considered anachronistic by more recent scholars. Similarly, Forbes’ treatment of ‘superstitions’ may be seen as typical of historiography at this time, though he states, ‘let not those who believe themselves enlightened look down on the superstitious. We are all still believers; the different lies in what we believe, and why’. Furthermore, Forbes’ view of midwives as typically witches following the ‘old religion’, purported by Murray, has been largely dismissed.
Nevertheless, this source offers a valuable bibliography of 700 items, as well as interesting perspectives on the ‘SATOR mystery’, charms, and popular belief. The SATOR square is argued to be based around the Pater Noster; while Barnett commented that the dates surrounding this argument are uncertain, this interpretation appears to have been largely accepted in modern scholarship. Other written and spoken word charms are also discussed in depth, while eagle stones and other birth charms are investigated, which have come under increased study in more recent scholarship. Thus, this book serves as a good introduction to a variety of primary sources surrounding popular belief, while also offering a critical analysis of these sources, with a focus on fertility and childbirth beliefs.
Looking for more sources?
The Hypatia Collection includes a number of sources which illustrate folklore and popular belief. For academic texts, see Katharine M. Briggs’ A Dictionary of British folk tales in the English language from 1977, or the feminist work The Women’s Encyclopaedia of myths and secrets from 1983. Olive Sharkey’s Old Days Old Ways offers an oral history of Irish folklore beliefs, while A Yearbook of Legends is collected and retold by Christine Chaundler.
Elsewhere, The University of Tennessee has a series of links and advice for locating folkloric sources while The Wellcome Library have a variety of digitized resources relating to folklore and popular belief, as well as maternity and fertility, which can be searched through their website.
Written by Imogen Knox