Midwives in Europe

“Madame Mitonneau, midwife,” engraving by Honoré Daumier (France, 1841).

Between 1750 and the 1850s, European midwives underwent a process of professionalization through scientific knowledge and schooling. Once educated, they obtained a legal monopoly over assisting birth to the detriment of traditional midwives, although without causing the disappearance of the latter, until the first half of the twentieth century. The implementation of a policy of widespread education for degree-holding practitioners enjoying state protection enabled the welcome reduction of maternal and infant mortality. In addition, it ensured the continued existence of the unique character of this strictly feminine medical profession (until the 1980s) and field of intervention: giving birth. The medicalization of childbirth which it led to, supplemented the function of caring for mothers and newborns, without substituting it altogether. The transfer of most deliveries to hospital establishments during the second half of the twentieth century reduced their visibility, but did not diminish the essential role these practitioners play in monitoring pregnancy and childbirth.