Despite the more positive view of midwifery that has emerged in recent years, prior to this volume little attention has been paid to the people involved in childbirth. Midwives, in particular, remain a mute group, and most of the evidence on them emanates from hostile contemporary accounts.2 Their character and the choices made by their clients need to be reconstructed if women are not to be seen as the passive victims of the rise of the men-midwives. Propaganda and the new techniques of the surgeons were surely necessary but not sufficient causes of the change. Although the highly trained surgeons emerging from the hospitals and anatomy classes created some of the demand for their skills, changes in the supply of midwives and in the tastes of their clients also need to be considered. It is not yet clear whether men-midwives forced their way into the birthing room or simply stepped into a gap that was already beginning to open. In early modern England, every sizeable town had at least one locally famous midwife but it is necessary to seek out more representative individuals. The Diocese of Chester offers relatively full licensing material, although mostly from the southern Archdeaconry of Chester.3 Further information comes from wills, and the records of the poor law and coroners’ courts. It is difficult to define precisely who was a midwife. For most women who practised midwifery, ‘midwife’ was not their main social identity.4 Marriage bonds and parish registers rarely referred to midwives.5 No midwives in this diocese describe themselves as such in their wills. Yet contemporaries did distinguish between a midwife and a woman like Mary Sutton of Salford who, in 1693, ‘did officiate as midwife (for want of one att that time)’.6 Midwifery can perhaps best be understood as a skill rather than as a trade, with few regular practitioners having
it as their sole source of income and status. For the purposes of this essay, any woman described in the sources as a midwife will be considered as such.