The regulation of midwives in England, c.1500-1902

Sarah Fox*, Margaret Brazier

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Downloads (Pure)


Throughout the 19th century, midwives were depicted as incompetent slatterns in both popular imagery and medical literature. We examine how, between 1500 and 1800, midwifery was regulated by a combination of formal licensing by the Church and informal oversight within the community. We argue that episcopal licensing demanded that midwives demonstrate knowledge and competence in midwifery, not only that they were spiritually fit to baptise dying infants. Although episcopal licensing lacked statutory authority, the symbiosis of formal and informal systems of regulation ensured good midwifery practice and midwives were regarded as experts in all matters relating to childbirth. The Midwives Act 1902 introduced statutory regulation of midwives, restoring their ‘professional status’ if in a subordinate role. We show that the history of the regulation of midwives across four centuries casts light on the interplay between formal and informal regulation and matters of gender and professional status.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)308-338
Number of pages31
JournalMedical law international
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 7 Dec 2020


  • Midwifery
  • History
  • Law
  • Women's History


Dive into the research topics of 'The regulation of midwives in England, c.1500-1902'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this