6. You were a midwife: Wise women used their knowledge of herbal medicine to help others give birth safely – but it left them open to accusations of witchcraft
For hundreds of years, female healers were viewed with suspicion. Above all, midwives were at risk of being seen as witches. They just couldn’t win: if a woman gave birth to a healthy baby and lived, the midwife would be accused of having used magic or making a deal with the devil. Or if the baby or mother died, the midwife might also be blamed and accused of cursing the birth. Fueling this suspicion was midwives’ use of herbs and other natural remedies. The fungus ergot was used to stop bleeding after childbirth, for example, often saving the mother’s life, but putting the midwife at risk of being accused of casting spells.
The Malleus Maleficarum, meaning “Hammer of Witches” was written in 1484 by two reverends, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenge. The hugely influential book called midwife-witches the ultimate evil. They warned people to look out for women who wanted to offer newborn babies up to the devil. However, by the late-17th century, the persecution of innocent midwives had largely stopped. As men started to take over the medical professions, including midwifery, the effectiveness of herbal remedies and natural medicines became increasingly accepted, leading to a significant drop in the number of women being accused of witchcraft simply for helping another woman give birth.