Venetian Midwives–Who Knew?

At the presentation I recently made about Sarra Copia Sulam at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, one audience member showed a remarkable knowledge of Venetian history. He approached me afterwards and introduced himself as the expert on Venetian Jewish midwifery. Who’d guess that I’d get to meet such a person?

Leonard Rothman sent me his article, “Jewish Midwives in Late Renaissance Venice and the Transition to Modernity,” published in Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues (see details below). I’ll share some of the facts that I found most interesting and that connect to the kinds of things I find most fascinating about Venice.


Typical Venetian woman’s bedroom

In the early modern era, Rothman writes, “A woman in labor was considered to be critically ill” (78). Many women wrote last wills before they gave birth, a fact I came across often as I researched Venetian women’s lives, such as Veronica Franco’s or Modesta Pozzo’s. For Jewish women, this belief enabled them “to leave gifts that did not follow the normally prescribed rules of inheritance” (78). These kinds of records allow us a glimpse into women’s lives.

Venetian women used birthing chairs, though there’s a notable difference between how Christian and Jewish women used them. European Christian women lay in bed during labor but used the birthing chair for delivery, while Venetian women sat in the chair during labor as well. Rothman notes that “at present there is no way of knowing whether Jewish midwives followed the Venetian practice” (79).


European birthing chair, c. 1700s

As for sanitation, though doctors of the time knew that syphilis could be transmitted during birth, they didn’t have a full understanding of how, and they did not wear gloves for protection. However, a Dr. Bernardino Ramazzini suggested that midwives should wash their hands frequently with wine or water and also wrap their examining hand with gauze (79). We see the beginnings of a deeper understanding.


Venetian plague doctor, with a “beak” full of aromatic herbs to protect him

When it came to religion, the Catholic Church made some concessions towards the Jewish population. Christian midwives could serve Jewish women, though another Jewish woman was supposed to be present. But that was probably as far as their care could extend. Christians could not act as wet-nurses for Jewish infants, a role that generally lasted two years, because “the Church feared that such prolonged and intimate contact might lead to Judaization” (80). However, Jewish midwives were allowed to deliver Christian babies.

Furthermore, there was the fear of the infant’s or mother’s death to complicate things. The Catholic Church actually allowed Christian midwives “to have their own baptismal certificates and to have Church approval for baptizing a newborn in such situations” (80). I find this quite surprising, considering that women weren’t allowed to serve in the Catholic Church in any capacity nor to earn a theology degree, as I found in the case of Elena Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman in the world to earn a university degree. Though not surprising is the suspicion that a Jewish midwife might use her religious rituals during the labor and birth process, which suspicious Christians might view as witchcraft (81). Also, knowing that some Christians spread the stereotype that Jews devoured Christian babies, it’s surprising to find that these two groups interacted this intimately at all.

The early modern period was still a time of suspicions. Jewish women often decorated the labor room with protective amulets, whether they be fashioned as necklaces or prayers written on pieces of parchment (81). The preferred amulet differed by Jewish sect: “Levantine Jews used silver amulets, jewelry and talismans such as the hamsa; German Jews made woodcut prints; and Polish Jews crafted paper cutouts” (81). But Christian women probably had their own objects to bring protection, such as the cross.


Examples of the hams

One of Europe’s premier medical schools during this time was the University of Padua, on the mainland near to Venice. Male medical students studied both male and female anatomy, and both Christian and Jewish students were allowed to study there (83). Though doctors wouldn’t have practiced the delivery of babies while they studied at the university, they did receive training in performing a Caesarian section and in using forceps, which were a new invention in the seventeenth century (83). Jewish doctors in Venice’s Ghetto were also granted special permission to attend to Christian patients, so they were allowed outside the Ghetto after curfew.


Anatomical theater at University of Padua


Midwives were not allowed to attend the university, of course, so their education and training was not as extensive as the doctors. In fact, the doctors appeared to be threatened by the existence of midwives who might cut into their business and income (84). “The physicians therefore recommended that the government require midwives to attend midwifery school for two years and then be apprenticed to experienced midwives for an additional one to three years,” (84) writes Rothman. Since most Venetian midwives were illiterate, this requirement was extremely difficult to fulfill, which precluded many women from continuing in the profession legally.

Rothman didn’t find too many records to work from, but he was able to deduce some statistics from what is known. In 1799, Venice had about 150,000 inhabitants, with a live birth rate of about 3.3%, or about 5,000 live births a year. European midwives on average delivered 30 to 50 babies a year, so there were “between 100 and 165 midwives functioning in Venice at any one time” (83). With a Ghetto population around 5,000, there were probably three to five Jewish midwives in that period.


European Anatomical Models

Now here was the point in Rothman’s paper where I grew very excited. He tells the story of Benedetta Fedeli Trevisan, a Venetian midwife practicing around the year 1800. After attending a midwifery school in Venice for two years, she earned an “Obstetrical Surgeon” certificate. Even more remarkable, “she invented a birthing chair that allowed the parturient to lean slightly backward, a more comfortable postition for labor and delivery” (84). They even gave her a prize for her accomplishments. If only I had known about Benedetta earlier, I certainly would have written a full chapter about her in my book A Beautiful Woman in Venice. And in addition, I’d like to mention Teresa Ployant, a French midwife who moved to Venice and was appointed Instructor of Obstetrics at the Hospital for Incurables in Venice (85). She composed a manual for midwives titled Beave Compendio dell’Arte Ostetrica in 1787. Rothman notes, “She advocated for and supported the profession of midwifery, noting the special patience and ability of women in working with labor and delivery, and she fought against the presence of men in the delivery room” (85). The use of forceps were often too harsh for the infant and mother, and Teresa advocated against their use and in favor a woman’s hands as “the proper ‘instrument’ for delivery” (85). What brave and pioneering women they were, ones I’d like to include as Beautiful Women of Venice.

Special thanks to Dr. Rothman for sharing his research with me. I didn’t know I was interested in midwifery until I read his paper and discovered the details of Venetian women’s lives.

“Jewish Midwives in Late Renaissance Venice and the Transition to Modernity” by Leonard A. Rothman, MD. in Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues (Fall: Number 25, 2013). Here’s a link from Project Muse:

About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
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14 Responses to Venetian Midwives–Who Knew?

  1. Nancy Schwalen says:

    Fascinating, especially with regard to the fact that doctors allowed midwives to practice, albeit only licensed ones. And it’s too bad we aren’t using birthing chairs these days.\; it makes so much more sense to add gravity to the process.

  2. Very interesting. Thank you.

  3. Very interesting piece. Thank you!

  4. Pingback: Venetian Midwives–Who Knew? | seductivevenice | First Night History

  5. Iva P. says:

    The doctors of old were a little more indulgent than they are today. In many countries, doctors fight midwives as a profession and sometimes they do it unfairly. Just yesterday I read a blog post about a home delivery that needed a doctor’s assistance. An emergency crew was sent in and helped with a baby that had difficulty breathing. The doctor then posted a scathing report on the FB, which the family denies saying that none of the described horrors were true and that the midwife performed remarkably well. Difficult to know whom to believe.

  6. Did you see that I’ve published a new book about Sarra Copia Sulam? It’s published in paperback in Venice, or I have a few copies if you want me to mail one. Or it’s an ebook here:

  7. Marina Costa says:

    What I don’t believe is the statement that in Venice most women were illiterate, because I had read somewhere before the opposite, that compared with France, England and other countries of the time, Venice had the highest degree of literacy, that most people were able to read (not necessarily to actually read books often, but they did read). It was a city with guilds, and also in order to become a journeyman in a guild one had to be able to read and do arithmetics (calculate prices, measures, etc).

    • I’m definitely not an expert on this, but from what I’ve read, many women had some learning and could read enough to read scriptures. The goal was that women could teach their children basic scriptural knowledge and also know enough to run a household, such as basic math for shopping, etc. I think somewhere in my reading I came across literacy statistics, but I’m not sure what book it was in. What I’ve included above came from this particular article.

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