By Helen King
Possibly my favourite historical figure of all time is Elizabeth Cellier, the ‘Popish Midwife’ who was involved in one of those complicated ‘plots’ of late seventeenth-century England; the ‘meal-tub plot’, in which a list of plotters turned up in her kitchen. Was it genuine, or planted by those who wanted to represent Roman Catholics as a threat to social order? She published some pamphlets defending her innocence, but ended up in the pillory after making allegations she couldn’t prove. She then returned to the historical spotlight in 1687, when she put forward a proposal for a College of Midwives in which the membership fees would fund a foundling hospital, thus hopefully reducing rates of mortality in childbirth while at the same time looking after unwanted babies.
Midwives in this period had a complicated relationship with truth, and with words more generally. They were supposed to keep the secrets of those they served, but were allowed to tell a few lies if the purpose was to comfort a woman in labour. When Cellier was on trial for publishing a libellous pamphlet, she claimed that her status as midwife meant her testimony could be trusted; handling information as part of her job meant she knew what to say, and when. But as a woman, a midwife, and also a Catholic, she was seen as a particularly tricky customer! In her evidence to the courts she tried to walk a tightrope between forthright speech – which meant she ran the risk of being seen as ‘too masculine’ – and proper womanly modesty (which, I suspect, did not come easily to her!). One of her political opponents wrote that “When a Woman has once lost her Modesty she is fit for all sorts of Mischief” and, as a woman on at least her second husband, Cellier was accused of a range of extramarital relationships with a string of lovers including a young Spaniard whom she instructed in “the School of Venus, &c”. Talk, of course, is cheap.
One of her opponents claimed that her political pamphlets were not written by her, but were the product of “a priest got into her Belly, and so speaking through her, as the Devil through the Heathen Oracles” (incidentally, that’s an interesting 17th c approach to the ancient Greek oracle at Delphi). Modern scholars have wondered whether she wrote the midwifery proposal, or whether she was the front woman for a male midwife trying to take over midwifery in London. But I suspect her words are her own. Her midwifery writing shows that she owned books by men – such as Jacques Guillemeau – but she gives their words her own spin. She claims she has “small Learning and weak Capacity”, but that’s only an attempt to put her accusers off the scent. She comes across as witty, well-read, and able to play with the stereotypes of the midwife; she gives as good as she gets. She wrote, “I hope the God of Truth and Justice will protect me, and bring me through them all, and pluck off the vails, and discover both Truth and Frauds bare-faced”. Go, girl!
Cellier, Elizabeth (1680) Malice Defeated, or, A brief relation of the accusation and deliverance of Elizabeth Cellier wherein her proceedings both before and during her confinement are particularly related and the Mystery of the meal-tub fully discovered : together with an abstract of her arraignment and tryal, written by her self, for the satisfaction of all lovers of undisguised truth, London
— (1687) A Scheme for the Foundation of a Royal Hospital, and Raising a Revenue of Five of Six-thousand Pounds a Year, by, and for the Maintenance of a Corporation of skilful Midwives… London