History Colloquium

Written by Leslie Lube

“Ewww! I am never having babies!” This comment, in various forms, could be overheard at the reception following this year’s History Colloquium, which took place September 27 in Olin 105. An annual event sponsored by the history department, the colloquium occurs each fall when the department selects a noted historian to speak on campus.

Dr. Elizabeth Green-Musselman organized the 2007 colloquium and invited Dr. Monica Green, professor of history at Arizona State University, to discuss her research on medieval midwifery. Students and staff gathered last Thursday to listen to Dr. Green’s lecture over “The Trial of Floreta d’Ays (1403): Jews, Christians, and Obstetrics in Later Medieval Marseille.” The accused, Floreta d’Ays, was a Jewish midwife working in Marseille, France who was charged with the murder of a Christian woman who died during childbirth.

A brief explanation of what is known about birthing techniques of the time elicited the opening quote from more than one student overcome by PowerPoint slides depicting childbirth in all of its medieval glory. The majority of the lecture, however, described, in Dr. Green’s words, “an interesting collaboration by a legal and a medical historian to study an exciting yet problematic text.”

Green began her lecture by relating how her collaborator, Daniel Lord Small, walked up to her at Cambridge University and said, “I have the transcript of the trial of a Jewish midwife. Want to work on it with me?”

Having spent over twenty-five years compiling information about women’s health, Green jumped at the chance to work with “not simply the first case but the only case [pertaining to medieval midwifery],” which she and her colleges know about.

She and Small, an expert on the Marseille legal system, studied the document together in an effort to discover the answers to a number of questions including why Floreta was charged in the first place. As Green pointed out, “If it’s not unusual for women to die in childbirth and it’s not unusual for a midwife to be there during childbirth, why was she charged [when the woman died]?”

They had to do a large amount of research utilizing sources other than the case transcript because all they had was the text of an appeals case, which took place because the judge of the criminal case gave orders for Floreta to be tortured. The records of the criminal trial and the follow-up after the appeals case have been lost.

To organize her presentation, Green focused on explaining the conclusions she and Small have reached regarding what exactly the charge against Floreta was, what happened the day the woman died and why the judge of the criminal trial decided that Floreta should be tortured.

The answers to all of these questions are complicated because of the lack of information the two historians have to work with. The first question seeks to understand whether the charge against Floreta was a malpractice suit or a case of anti-Judaic sentiment.

Although Jews and Christians living in Marseille at this time coexisted fairly peacefully, Green read a portion of the text containing “a strong rhetoric against her [Floreta’s] apathy towards God.”

The paragraph, which includes the claim that Floreta lacked the proper fear of the almighty, means that “this was not just a case of ‘whoops, you made a mistake,’” Green said.

She and Small believe that a Christian midwife who was also present at the birth was the one who accused Floreta of killing the mother. Her testimony, along with the testimonies of four other women who attended the birth, claimed that Floreta stuck her arm up to the elbow into the birth canal, ripping the woman’s womb and killing her. The five women also claimed that the dying woman accused Floreta of murdering her before she died. Green said, “In Medieval law, a dying person’s accusation carries a lot of weight.”

Green and Small say that the woman died of complications from a retained placenta. Typically, the placenta is expelled from the woman’s body about half an hour after the baby is born, but in this case, two hours after the birth the placenta was still inside the mother’s body. The Christian midwife, who was present during the birth, tied the umbilical cord to the woman’s leg according to a common practice of the time. Floreta, who was brought in after the birth by the woman’s brother-in-law, probably attempted a manual extraction of the placenta, a painful process that would explain the charge that she reached into the woman and caused her pain.

According to Green and Small the decision to torture someone at this time was usually reserved for “outsiders and those of the lower classes considered being untrustworthy.” A judge ordered that Floreta be tortured when her story of the events did not match that of the five witnesses. She appealed the ruling, but the outcome of that appeal is not known. No other records exist to reveal whether or not Floreta won or lost, whether or not she was tortured or what her punishment was if she was found guilty.

Green and Small believe that this case resulted out of a dispute between two midwives and that the case was “picked up by a cleric who was influenced by the teachings of Vincent Ferrer,” a Dominican preacher who spoke against the cohabitation of Jews and Christians.

Green said, “It would not be unusual for a dramatic change in mindset to have occurred after Ferrer’s visit to Marseille.”

She and Small have not found any evidence of “a change in relations between Jews and Christians” after 1403, at least not in male medicinal practice. The problem they face is that there is so little documentation of midwives during this era.

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