Early Modern Midwives and the Lutheran Doctrine of Vocation

[1] Midwives in early modern Europe found themselves in an unenviable position. Though they still officiated at nearly every childbirth–(male) doctors being summoned only in cases of dire complication–their role had been cast in a dimmer light with the rise of the universities and the expanding claims of university-trained physicians over all forms of medical practice. The nature of their work could also bring them under suspicion, for when a birth went badly for mother or child, it was all too easy to accuse the midwife of wrongdoing. The Malleus Maleficarum cast a suspicious eye on midwives, and in the witch hunts of the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, midwives were often accused and found guilty of witchcraft.[1] It was natural for the university-trained theologians and lawyers to share the perspective of their medical colleagues. Philipp Melanchthon, in a 1531 oration Contra medicos empiricos, though not singling out midwives in particular, sharply attacked those who presumed to call themselves medici and offer treatment without having read a single page of Galen.[2]

[2] It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to find early Lutheran pastors, including Melanchthon’s own students, taking an active role in defending midwives and their practice on distinctively Lutheran theological grounds. Their sermons, and the church orders and municipal ordinances which the sermons helped shape, provide a fascinating test case illustrating how the claims of early Reformation theology about lay vocation and the universal priesthood of the baptized came to shape the institutional and legal forms of life in Lutheran Germany.

[3] The first efforts by German towns to regulate midwives’ practice came already in the fifteenth century. But the Reformation brought about a discernible transformation of the existing order. Particularly influential, because of their publication as models, were the Regensburg Hebammenordnung of 1554[3] and the town physician Adam Lonicer’s 1573 proposal to the council of Frankfurt am Main.[4] Reformation influence on these ordinances was directly visible, for example, in the appendage of a sermon by Caspar Huberinus to the printed Frankfurt ordinance.[5] The most important and positive contribution of Lutheran theology to the status of midwives, however, was in the application of the Lutheran doctrine of vocation to their work. In bold defiance of modern scholars who have opined that the one vocation allowed women by Lutheran pastors was that of bearing children,[6] Lutheran preachers and the ordinances used the full Lutheran vocabulary of vocation–Beruf, Stand, Amt–to describe the status of midwives, assigned them religious tasks otherwise reserved to the clergy, and even defended their work against the encroachment of university-trained physicians.

[4] Among the most vigorous and laudatory defenses of midwives came from the pen and pulpit of the learned Lutheran pastor Johann Mathesius of Joachimsthal (1504-1565), who in 1556 preached a sermon “On Women in Childbed and Midwives” in his series of sermons on the book of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach).[7] Mathesius promises to speak of the “estate and office” [Stand und Ampt] of midwives and nurses, and praises midwives as having “a Christian and holy calling [Beruf],” language which is echoed in Lonicerus’ Frankfurt order: “Midwives should know that they are in a blessed office and calling, and that they serve the Lord God in their office in the preservation of his creation, for which end he employs them as means. . . and should consider that their office is a blessed and Christian one, well pleasing to God, which he will not leave unrewarded.”[8] Indeed, in defiance of his teacher Melanchthon, Mathesius repeatedly argues that midwives deserve the name “physician” (Arzt) just as much as those men who hold university degrees.[9] They have their own experience and skills, have studied their own literature, [10] and “are due just as much honor and thanks as other pious, Christian, and faithful physicians”[11]

[5] The midwives’ ordinances reflected this high clerical estimate of the capabilities of the midwife. They were recognized as officials of the town, sworn to offer their help to women regardless of their social or economic standing, and in return were assured of a pension from the town council when they were no longer able to practice. In his church orders, Bugenhagen observed that midwives might well be called “ministers of the church” because of their weighty responsibilities.[12]

[6] The duties of a Christian midwife described by Mathesius and in the town ordinances included not only practical knowledge and skill and attentive and faithful care, but also participation in the religious comfort and instruction of the women and children in their charge. Some of this responsibility was negative: midwives were prohibited from employing “magical” or superstitious means for aiding the birth,[13] and were expected to report illegitimate births and, if possible, to discover the identity of the father by interrogation in the midst of labor![14]

[7] But far more extensive were the positive religious duties assigned to Lutheran midwives. Above all, Lutherans defended the propriety of emergency baptism by the midwife. Though this point eventually received special emphasis in polemic against the Calvinists, who rejected emergency baptism in general, but especially its administration by women,[15] Lutherans had staked out their position before this became a confessional issue, and it was incorporated into all the Lutheran church orders and midwives’ ordinances.[16]

[8] Even apart from emergency, the Lutheran midwife played an essential religious role in the delivery. The midwife was to pray for the woman giving birth and to see that the other women and the whole household prayed for her as well, even as prayer was offered in the town’s church and school.[17] She should also comfort the woman in labor with God’s word, assuring her of God’s help and mercy and her own salvation, and consoling her with the promise of healing in the resurrection if the child were born deformed. [18] The Regensburg church order of 1543 specified that midwives should be able to encourage women with God’s Word and address them on spiritual matters. They took their place along the laywomen who were appointed to visit the sick (Seelfrauen) and to point the dying to the merits of Christ with the use of Lutheran hymns.[19] The midwives were entrusted with essential spiritual care, since too often in early modern Europe the childbed could become a deathbed. Midwives thus took on, in connection with the childbed, many of the functions otherwise associated exclusively with the clergy.

[9] In a case where the mother’s life seemed to be in danger, the midwives’ ordinances affirmed that the midwife should hear confession and pronounce absolution in words which were otherwise the prerogative of the pastor in the chancel or confessional:

[10] In order that the mother in labor may be assured of such divine grace and of the forgiveness of her sins, the midwife or another knowledgeable person may, in such danger and necessity, where no minister is available, absolve and remit her sins herself:
” Dear sister, since our dear Lord Jesus Christ has given us Christians this power here on earth, that each should and may, in necessity, absolve and remit the sins of another who confesses her sins, believes in Christ, and desires the grace of God, and that the same is then absolved in heaven. For he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whosesoever sins you remit, they are remitted unto them,” and again, “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven,” Matt. 18. And since you have made such a confession before me, and in true faith desire the grace of God and the forgiveness of your sins, I therefore, in the stead and by the command of Christ, hereby release and pronounce you free of all your sins, in the Name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”[20]
[11] As Bugenhagen insisted, the right of a midwife to baptize and pronounce absolution “in the stead and by the command of Christ” was a clear manifestation of the priesthood of all Christians, lay or clergy, male or female.[21] The midwives’ ordinances attest that this doctrine was not simply a piece of early Reformation propaganda quickly abandoned as the “new papists” among the Protestant clergy sought to consolidate and protect their status, but continued to inform not only preaching but law.

[12] Finally, however, the Lutheran appraisal of midwives extended beyond the transformation legal order to defend their activity even beyond and against the law. One of the key Biblical texts for Lutheran praise of midwives was Exodus 1, which recounted the story of the Hebrew midwives Shiprah and Puah, who “feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live,” lied to the Pharaoh, and received God’s blessing. Here Mathesius pointed out to his congregation the application of “St. Peter’s good rule: ‘one must obey God more than men.'” and defended the midwives’ lie to the government as “an honorable, neighborly, salutary, and friendly lie of necessity [nothlügen],” in defense of the neighbor. Without intentional irony, the text from Exodus 1, “The midwives who feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them” is placed, without irony, at the head of Lonicer’s Frankfurt order as well.[22]

[13] Such reminders, even in the context of town ordinances, that a midwife’s calling might obligate her beyond or against the commands of the authorities, found practical application generations later in Mathesius’ town of Joachimsthal. During the Thirty Years War, when Lutheran clergy had been expelled and Roman Catholicism officially reestablished by imperial authorities, the new Roman Catholic cantor assigned to the town petitioned the town council for the right to perform emergency baptisms during the (often long) periods when the parish was vacant of a priest. But the Lutheran midwives of Joachimsthal successfully secured the privilege of baptizing for themselves, persuading the council that the cantor was despised by the people and moreover “could not perform the baptism correctly”–that is, in the Lutheran manner.[23] Religious fidelity was more important than the claims of gender or higher political authority.

[14] The case of midwives in early Lutheran Germany thus illustrates the spread of Lutheran theology from the pulpit into the laws and institutions of early modern society, preserving early Protestant claims about lay prerogatives even in the midst of the institutional forms of the later sixteenth century. To the debated question of the effect of the Reformation on women for good or ill, the study of Lutheran preaching and law about midwives encourages a positive answer. In the face of countervailing trends in early modern educated society and gender relations, the doctrine of vocation was used by Lutheran pastors and councilmen to defend and define midwives’ work as a praiseworthy Christian calling of service to the neighbor.

[1] On the situation of early modern midwives, see Sibylla Flügge, Hebammen und heilkundige Frauen: Recht und Rechtswirklichkeit im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt a.M.: Stroemfeld, 1998); Merry E. Wiesner, Working Women in Renaissance Germany (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1986), pp. 35-74; and Heidi Wunder, He Is the Sun, She Is the Moon (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993), p. 100ff.

[2] Melanchthon, Corpus Reformatorum 11: 205.

[3] Ordnung eines Erbarn Raths der statt Regenspurg/ Die Hebammen betreffende. Welche in gemein allen anderer orten Hebammen/ schwangern Frauen/ und Kindelbetterin auch nit wenig nutz und dienstlich sein mage (Regenspurg: Hansen Khol, 1554), cited as Regensburg.

[4] Adam Lonicerus, Reformation/ oder Ordnung für die HebAmmen/ allen guten Policeyen dienstlich. Gestelt an einen Erbarn Rath des Heyligen reichs Statt Franckfurt/ am Meyn (Frankfurt a.M.: C. Egenolffs Erben/A. Lonicerus, J. Cnipius, P. Steinmeyer, 1573), cited as Frankfurt.

[5] The original sermon by Huberinus appeared in his Mancherley Form zu predigen/ von den fürnembsten Stücken/ so inn der Christlichen Kirchen teglich gelert und getrieben solen werden (Nürnberg: U. Neuber & J. vom Bergs Erben, 1565), f. 216v ff.

[6] E.g. Susan Karant-Nunn, “Kinder, Küche, Kirche: Social Ideology in the Sermons of Johannes Mathesius,” in Germania Illustrata: Essays on Early Modern German Presented to Gerald Strauss, ed. Andrew C. Fix & Susan C. Karant-Nunn, Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies 18 (Kirksville, Missouri: Sixteenth Century Journal, 1992), p. 132.

[7] Syrach Mathesii (Leipzig: J. Beyer, 1586), ff. 124v-127r. The sermon was reprinted separately by the Osnabruck court preacher Nicolaus Schenk as Eine Christliche und tröstliche Predigt. Von den Kindelbetterinnen und Hebammen (Lemgo: C. Grothen Erben, 1605).

[8] Mathesius, Von Kindelbetterinnen, f. A3v: “Das sie in einem Christlichen und heiligen beruff sein/ und das Gott ein auge auff sie hat/ wenn sie nur Gottfürchtig sein.” Cf. Frankfurt, ff. B4v-C1r: “Es sollen die Ammen wissen/ das sie in einem Gottseligen ampt und beruff sein/ und das sie Gott dem Herren inn solchem jrem ampt/ zur erhaltung seines geschöpffes/ dienen/ und wie mittel von jm darzu gebraucht werden. (Ex. 1). . . . Und sollen dencken/ das jr ampt ein Gottselig Christlich ampt sey/ welches Gott wolgefalle/ und nicht unbelohnet wölle lassen.”

[9] Mathesius, Von Kindelbetterinnen, f. A2v: “To the doctrine about physicians pertain also the matrons and women who help and serve women and children in the birth, with delivery, washing, swaddling, stilling, or nursing, feeding and caring, as the nurses, etc. do.”

[10] On such books for midwives, see Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled (Cambridge: Harvard, 1983), pp. 100-131.

[11] Mathesius, Ehespiegel (Leipzig: Beyer, 1591), f. B2v-B3r: “Denn der Hebammen ist man auch ehre und danckbargkeit schüldig/ wie den andern Christlichen frommen und getrewen Artzen. Ehre/ liebe/ und sey danckbar und freundlich gegen den Hebammen/ welche im Rosengarten und Alberto studieret haben/ die da guten bescheidt wissen und geben können.”

[12] Bugenhagen&=javascript:goNote(39s 1529 Hamburg church order, cited in Flügge p. 322: “Diße mögen ock wol hethen Kerke-Denerinnen, wente an ehren Ampts veel gelegen.”

[13] E.g., Regensburg, f. D4v; cf. Mathesius, Von Kinderbetterinnen, f. B1v.

[14] See Wiesner, p. 61f.

[15] Cf. Calvin, Institutes 4.15.21-22, and, e.g., the Lutheran polemic of Adam Crato, Christliche notwendige Verantwortung/ auff die unzeitige unbefügte nichtige protestation/ etlicher Anhaltischen Kirchendiener/ etc. Zum erkendnis und Urtheil der Kirchen Gottes/
in vorgefallenem Kirchenstreit von der H. Tauff und Exorcismo und viel anderer Heuptstück unser Christlichen Religion. Insonderheit von der Tauffe/ so in Heusern geschicht/ und vom Ampt Christlicher Hebammen (n.p. [“Gerapolis”], 1591).

[16] See Regensburg, f. C1v; Frankfurt, f. F4r ff.

[17] Mathesius, Von Kindelbetterinnen, f. A4r.

[18] Mathesius, Von Kindelbetterinnen, ff. B1v-B2r: “Die andere Tugen der Hebammen und der Matronen soll sein/ das sie die arme/ müde/ und die geengstete/ abgearbeytete Kreysterin/ mit Gottes wort trösten sollen.”

[19] Emil Sehling, Die evangelischen Kirchenordnungen des XVI. Jahrhunderts 13, p. 410: “mit dem wort Gottes vermanen und inen geistlich zusprechen sollen.” The hymns mentioned for the Seelfrauen are those of Luther: Aus tiefer Not, Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr&=javascript:goNote(39 dahin, Nun freut euch lieben Christen gmein, and his hymns on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

[20] Johann Bugenhagen, Von den ungeborn kindern/ und von den kindern/ die wir nicht teuffen können/ und wolten doch gern/ nach Christus befehl/ und sonst von der Tauff (Wittenberg: J. Klug, 1551), f. E1r.

[21] Johann Bugenhagen, Von den ungeborn kindern/ und von den kindern/ die wir nicht teuffen können/ und wolten doch gern/ nach Christus befehl/ und sonst von der Tauff (Wittenberg: J. Klug, 1551), f. E1r.

[22] The Exodus text is also expounded in Huberinus’ sermon attached to the Frankfurt order, f. L2v.

[23] Archiv Me¡sto Jáchymov, Kronika me¡sta 2, f. 602v (3 October 1630): The council sought the opinion of the midwife Glaser, who strongly recommended that the cantor be forbidden to baptize “weil die Leute einen Abscheu vor ihm haben, und er könne auch nicht recht taufen.”