WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE Drawing on the diaries of one woman in eighteenth-century Maine, this intimate history illuminates the medical practices, household economies, religious rivalries, and sexual mores of the New England frontier. Between 1785 and 1812 a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work (in 27 years she attended 816 births) as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine. On the basis of that diary, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich gives us an intimate and densely imagined portrait, not only of the industrious and reticent Martha Ballard but of her society. At once lively and impeccably scholarly, A Midwife's Tale is a triumph of history on a human scale.
In years past I have done a bit of study into these things myself, and was intrigued by how and what herbs were used by this woman who was midwife and doctor, nurse and friend to the women in her community. He usual fee was 6 pence, but she was often paid in goods or service and often according to the means of the family she visited. One family might pay nothing, and Martha would forgive the debt, just to see the woman brought to bed with her child safely and in good health for both. Another family would take pride in paying her very handsomely with goods and money far beyond what she requested.
Martha made her way to these families in the best and the worst of circumstances. A winters night might find her plowing through waist high snow on foot. Another early morning might find her ensconced in a carriage and carried by this means to her door. This, as you can imagine was a rare event. Far more often is was on foot or horseback.
It was common in those days for women to give birth every two years. This ensured that the family would have help needed to maintain their independence, as each child soon learned tasks that helped to provide the family with support of one kind or another. What tasks learned depended mostly upon the gender of the child, and the business of the family.
The research done by Ulrich provides us with a much broader view than we would have been given by Martha's diary alone. Comparisons are made to other towns, other locations regarding births, deaths and family occupation. IT is explained in simple terms how one family's reliance on other family's for
use of needed tools or trade was key to their survival. One family might weave and trade the cloth for wool. It seems to me that if we had to rely on others more these days we might try a little harder to be nicer to each other.
This is not to say that Martha's time was without local conflicts. For instance it was not uncommon for the head of the house to be jailed for debts. This would put his family into a very difficult and embarrassing situation.
Something else that interested me and also reminded me of another book was the relationship between the midwife and the male Doctor. In the beginning things were a lot simpler and there was a great deal of cooperation between doctor and midwife. As time passed, the doctors began to feel and act in a superior manner. Eventually midwives found themselves in a much inferior position to the doctor. These things are mentioned by the author more so than by Martha. Her account is more mundane, and lends itself to the simple daily activities of the families. She kept her house, raised her family and kept local birth and death records, as well as some rather gossipy accounts of who was getting up to no good around the town.
Without Martha's careful accounting there would be little record of the families of that time. There would have been no history for her own family of the triumphs and turmoils and moves and local history involving their ancestors.
This is undoubtedly a book of history, and should be considered so by any thinking of reading it. There are plenty of dates and dry patches, but it was interesting to me none the less.
If the topic of midwifery interests you, you might want to give it a read.. or if the history of Maine is what draws you in, this might be a book for you. I confess that it was much more of a history book then I expected, but I was determined to carry on . I am glad I did, but this one will not make it to my reread shelf.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich studied the diaries of one of her ancestors, a talented, dedicated, tireless midwife in Maine, who lived during the late 1700s. Ulrich weaves excepts from the diaries with her own interpretations of the historical situation, based on extensive research. Wonderful book! The best sort of women's history.
It is not a transcription of the diary itself, but each chapter starts with a selection from the diary. See, the diary itself is not a terribly exciting read, and most readers would miss the important aspects. The spelling and grammar is not standardized at all. Entries are between a couple sentences to a paragraph long.
Ulrich's background information and commentary on the diary is the interesting part. She explains what Martha is writing about, and makes connections of information and themes throughout the years. She has kept all the generations of John Shaws straight for us, and provided an index and copious notes.
The most valuable part of this book, I think, is the description of sexual morals and reality in the new United States -- and thus probably also England -- at the turn of the 19th century. We think of the people of the thirteen colonies that formed the U.S. as Puritans, and we probably draw most of our assumptions about their sexuality from The Scarlet Letter and the like. According to Martha Ballard's dairy and Ulrich's research, this idea we have are not really accurate.
In reality, according to Martha and Ulrich, premarital sex was the norm, though not really talked about. Judging by the date of women's first children, a lot of women get married after they were already pregnant, some getting married very shortly before their babies were born. 38% of the first babies Martha delivered were conceived out of wedlock. 38%! Of these, about three quarters of the mothers married the fathers. The law gave unwed mothers opportunity to sue for child support -- and, unlike today, the powers that be were pretty happy with this, as it forced men to take responsibility for their actions.
In Martha's own family, her son Jonathan was forced to marry a young woman after the woman had given birth to her and Jonathan's child. As the midwife, Martha had the sticky place of helping the young woman in childbirth, and being a main enforcer of the social norms of marriage as well. All in all, as long as you got married before, or even shortly after, a child was born, it was ok. Aside from Jonathan, two of Martha's other children also were pregnant/had a pregnant partner before their weddings.
Also, the wedding itself was not terribly important, aside from making everything legal and religious. The date that is celebrated and commemorated is the one a couple "goes to housekeeping," that is, the day they move in together. This day might be several weeks, maybe even a month or two after the actual marriage. In the intervening time, the couple would visit each other at their parents' houses, spend overnights, and finish collecting the things they would need to set up house. But, the days and weeks leading up to the wedding looked much the same, with the groom-to-be visiting his affianced in her parents' house, and often spending the night. In Martha's diary, the weddings of her children and nieces barely gets mentioned among all the other goings on.
Another interesting aspect is the discussion of the changes in medical practice going on at the time. Medicine was becoming more professionalized, and male doctors were taking over many of the functions that female practitioners had long been performing. The men were also blending a more emergency, interventionist approach to medicine into the women's kind of routine care. All this is especially visible in Martha's field of midwifery. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the men's way of doing things did not produce much better results than the women's, and in some cases the women's produced better results. Martha, for example, lost very few patients in her many years of practicing.
I highly recommend this book for those interested in women's history, history of the early United States, or medical history. That it is based on, and transcribes parts of, a primary document makes it especially valuable.
There is also a movie, which works a lot like the book. We see Ulrich working with the manuscript, hear parts of the diary being read, and see very accurate reenactments of what the diary discusses.