The Oath of a Midwife in Bohemia - 1766

by Jan Pařez - 2003-12-09

For the purpose of genealogy, the role of midwives at childbirth was important because they were quite often the only person from outside the family who was able to confirm that everything was correct (e. g. that the mother was in fact really the mother of a child, that twins were born, not only one child, etc.); they were commonly the only skilled person being able to help with the birth; and finally, they could offer basic spiritual service to newly born children – baptism. It is therefore no surprise that a column of the parish register was dedicated to entering their names.

This article focuses on the oaths of a midwife. A basic written source giving us information about solemn oaths of midwives which remained unpublished, was found in register no. 5 of Pchery parish district in the State Regional Archives in Prague (Central Bohemia). It comes from 1766 and is testimony that the function of midwife fused elements of spiritual and medical care. The oath deals with questions of ethics in medical as well as religious dimension. Thus, the position of midwife had to balance between real care and informing.
A midwife had to take a solemn vow when entering her practice. The basic oath had eight points or paragraphs.

In the first one, we can find a note that a midwife was called upon for her function by spiritual as well as secular authorities. This was due to the fact that, besides assisting at childbirth, she was also authorized to baptize children so sick that their death was expected. This kind of baptism is called „baptism in extremis“. What it means? If the priest is not present, the church allowed baptism by whatever person, especially in cases of imminent death. When the arrival of a priest was not certain, the child was baptized by the midwife. A midwife also promised to not use wizardry, superstitions and popular exorcism to release women from pain, etc.. Only those means, such as the relics of saints or consecrated water, permitted by the church, were allowed.

In the second paragraph, a midwife promised to not give advice on the use of contraceptive means, or those causing abortion, and to not apply them, because abortion produced thirty or forty days after conception was considered murder of the body as well as the soul.

The third paragraph obligated a midwife to be prudent when applying the means for expulsion of a dead fetus, and to secure determination whether the fetus is really dead; according to the forth oath. Thus stated, a midwife had to consult this intervention with her more experienced colleagues.

In the fifth point, a midwife promised not to advise other midwives to do anything that could harm a mother or fetus.
The literal wording of baptism in extremis is the sixth paragraph; thus vowed, the midwife also promised to baptize children.

According to the seventh paragraph, anything extraordinary or dangerous was to be reported to the local priest.
The eighth paragraph required a midwife’s promise to devote all her skills to protect mother and fetus from any neglect and lack of care. A midwife confessed to being informed that in case she caused the death of a mother or fetus by her own ignorance she would be forever damned.

Following these main points, three paragraphs were added. First, a midwife had to promise to report about all children baptized by her. Second, she had to visit monthly the local parish, to inform them about everything which had happened, and to accept advice and instruction. The last paragraph contained important instructions concerning the midwife’s supervision over the progress of a pregnancy. She had to inspire pregnant women to present themselves at confession, and in such a way to insure for the happy progress of pregnancy.

In association with this, a midwife had to instruct future mothers how to behave properly during the course of their pregnancy: they had to avoid anything what would jeopardize the fetus or cause abortion: anger, fall, lifting, carrying, work with heavy burdens, too much dancing, eating, drinking, excessive merriment and sadness, shocks, etc. Midwives also warned mothers to let their children sleep out of their beds or duvets, because a lot of children were suffocated accidentally by the bodies of their mothers.

Thus, midwives provided skilled supervision of pregnancy, giving health instruction, and preventative hygene control for children long after the childbirth. It is evident that this principle of collective help to new born children is as old as mankind, however, in Bohemia it was institutionalized in the mid-18th century. This fact informs us about certain advancements in public medical care, and finally, about the importance of midwives as official witnesses.