by Helen King (Regular Contributor)
“Do you want to know a secret?”
When I was at school, there were various other pupils who would pose this question in some corner of the playground at break times. Often, the secret turned out to be something I knew already, or something I didn’t find very interesting, but for these children knowledge was power, and the language of secrecy was intended to set up a special bond in which they would impart the secret to an audience which was then supposed to see itself as privileged. Secret codes, secret files, secret societies, conspiracy theories … for both children and adults, the secret still has power.
Questions remain for historians about who knew what, and who told what to whom, surrounding knowledge of the body, particularly the reproductive body, in the ancient Mediterranean. Who knew, or claimed to know, about how bodies worked? How could a physician gain access to the secret knowledge women were thought to possess about how their bodies worked, and to the secrets hidden within that body? The female body has long been regarded as a place of secrets, a theme taken up in the title of Katy Parks’ award-winning book, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection (2006), which looked at dissection as one way for men to gain direct knowledge for themselves.
In ancient Greek medicine, where dissection was rarely an option, we can find references to the knowledge women have and also to how men can gain this knowledge. Sometimes the knowledge thought to be held within the community of women, normally inaccessible to men, is described in a negative way, as when a writer says that women simply can’t be budged on whether it is possible for pregnancy to last even eleven months.
There are some fascinating moments in the Hippocratic medical texts – the treatises associated with the name of Hippocrates, and dating from the fifth century BCE onwards – which hint at the ways in which women’s secrets may have been passed on to men. One such occurs in the Hippocratic treatise Fleshes, where the “common prostitutes” are described as the male author’s source for the formation of the fetus. It is hard to tell, here, whether the medical writers really were talking to these women, or whether the claim by one to have done so is intended to raise the stakes, suggesting that the knowledge asserted by other medical writers is inferior because it is not based on such good sources. Another group, the akestrides, are named as those who can confirm, to anyone wanting to know, that a child can be born after spending only seven months in the womb. It interests me that the duration of pregnancy features prominently as something on which knowledge is sought; clearly, the accuracy of this knowledge matters, in terms of whether or not a child is the legitimate son of its supposed father!
Midwives or healers?
But who were the akestrides? From the feminine case used for the definite article, they were women, and Paul Potter translated the word as “the midwives who attend women who are giving birth”. But the term, not used anywhere else in the Hippocratic corpus, simply means “healers,” so perhaps “female physicians” would be a better translation here than “midwives”; indeed, the great nineteenth-century translator of the Hippocratic corpus, Emile Littré, translated as “the female healers who help women in childbed”.
Here, beneath these different modern interpretations of the same text, we can detect changing assumptions about ancient Greek women’s roles – midwife or physician? the more passive “attend” or the more active “help”? – as well as about the knowledge expected of the midwife. It seems odd to me that a nineteenth-century translator is willing to consider “female healers” while a modern translator instead presents them as “midwives”. In the ancient world of knowledge, were midwives both the source for physicians learning about the female body, and the people to whom women themselves went to learn about conception (and, perhaps, contraception)? Were they the controllers of secrets, and how would they use this position to their own benefit?
In early modern Europe, a powerful image of the midwife presented her as a keeper of secrets, but also as needing to tell untruths if these helped the woman whose labor she managed; the seventeenth-century midwife Elizabeth Cellier negotiated this line with particular skill. Medicine from the eighteenth century onwards tried to put male theoretical knowledge of the birthing process above the experience of midwives, suggesting that there were no more secrets here; however, many secrets of the female body, such as the processes of ovulation and menstruation, and the role of sex hormones, remained undiscovered until the early twentieth century.
Infuriatingly, our only access to midwives’ knowledge in the ancient world is through the writings of men: any suggestions on how we can reconstruct what they knew?
Helen King: In the last two years, Helen King’s activities have ranged from teaching school students on a ‘Roman Medicine’ themed day, to lecturing to medical students in the Czech Republic on the origins of medical terminology; and from a public lecture surrounded by body parts in jars at the Bart’s Pathology Museum, to another public lecture for a group of heart surgeons at the Royal Galleries at Holyroodhouse; and from face-to-face teaching at the University of Vienna as a visiting professor in women’s and gender studies, to writing distance learning material for the new Open University Classical Studies MA.