On the antiquity of evidence-based midwifery and its discontents
Key words: Evidence, faith, patterns of knowing
At a recent visit to an exhibition at the Staedel Museum, Frankfurt-am-Main (Kemperdick and Sander, 2008), I was astounded to stumble upon a 600-year-old painting of evidence-based midwifery! The painting in question is Nativity by the great but anonymous Northern Renaissance painter, the Master of Flemalle. Among a number of websites, an image of the painting can be found on: www.dl.ket.org/webmuseum/wm/paint/auth/flemalle/nativity.jpg. The original is located in Dijon at the Musee des Beaux-Arts.
For the most part, the painting consists of the sort of iconography that will be familiar to those brought up in the Christian tradition. In the setting of a stable, we see Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, with shepherds, an ox and a donkey in the background, and angels hovering about. However, it also includes two midwives on the right of the picture. The scene is based on an apocryphal gospel that had currency in the Middle Ages which told how, when Mary went into labour in the stable, Joseph went off to seek midwives to assist in the birth. Possibly because of his advanced age, by the time he managed to return with the midwives, Mary had already given birth and can be seen kneeling in worship of the delivered Christ child.
The back story to the scene before us is the Christian belief that Mary gave birth as a...