Midwifery in The Ancient World

Evidence of midwifery exists in antiquities of ancient Egypt and the imperial Roman Empire. No written records of the profession are known to exist from before these times.

In ancient Egypt, according to existing literature, midwifery was a recognized female occupation, as attested by the Ebers Papyrus. Five columns of this papyrus deal with obstetrics and gynaecology, especially concerning the acceleration of parturition and the birth prognosis of the newborn. The Westcar papyrus, dated to 1700 BCE, includes instructions for calculating the expected date of confinement and describes different styles of birth chairs. Bas reliefs in the royal birth rooms at Luxor and other temples also attest to the heavy presence of midwifery in this culture.

Greco-Roman antiquities speak of trained midwives in the Roman Empire. Those professionals, according to the records, acquired their knowledge from different sources which included highly trained women physicians. This is testified by the fact that a second century physician, Soranus, described the qualities of an ideal midwife in his work, gynaecology: a suitable person will be literate, with her wits about her, possessed of a good memory, loving work, respectable and generally not unduly handicapped as regards her senses (sight, smell, hearing), sound of limb, robust, and according to some people, endowed with long slim fingers and short nails at her fingertips.

According to Soranus, the midwife should also show a sympathetic disposition, whether she has borne a child or not, and her hands must be soft enough for the comfort of both the mother and the child. Physicians Pliny described nobility and a quite and inconspicuously disposition as desirable qualities in a midwife. There are strong doubts, however, as to whether a woman possessing this required physique blending with virtue, skill, and education could be obtainable in the ancient times.

It was evident from the records that the midwives in those olden times were in three main categories  the first category showed a midwife technical proficient; the midwife in the second category may have acquired some knowledge of obstetrics and gynaecology; while the third category showed a midwife well trained fairly considered a medical specialist with a concentration in midwifery.

In antiquity, midwives were addressed with such titles as iatrine, maia, obstetrix and medica. According to available literature, midwifery seems to have been treated differently between the Eastern and Western flanks of the Mediterranean basin. In the Eastern flank, some women seemed to have gone beyond midwifery to obstetrics, which required formal training. There existed some written gynaecological information among the medics and educated circles of the East that were attributed to a few women with Greek names. All these suggest that midwifery in the East was a highly recognized and decent profession practiced by recent women to earn a highly livelihoods and place such women in positions of respectability to publish works cited by male physicians. In fact, a number of Roman legal provisions strongly suggest that midwives enjoyed status and remuneration comparable to that of male doctors, as exemplified by Salpe of Lemnos writing on women’s diseases.

Current knowledge of midwifery practitioners in the Roman West emanated from funerary epitaphs. These epitaphs proffer some suggestions on the status of midwives. One of such suggestions holds that midwifery was not a profession for freeborn women of families that had enjoyed free status of several generations, suggesting further, therefore, that most midwives were of servile origin. Another suggestion holds that midwives were generally valued enough to enable them gain their freedom. These epitaphs do not, however, make mention of any slave woman trained on midwifery. It can be safely suggested that slave girls might have acquired training on midwifery through apprenticeship, and daughters could also have acquired the knowledge from their mothers.