Women Sleuths in
Historical Mysteries

York, England, 1644

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The Midwife’s Tale

by Sam Thomas

York is enduring a long siege. The Rebels, Parlimentarians, are tossing canon balls into the streets and preventing food from coming into the Royalist held city. Still Bridget, one of the city’s official midwives, is obligated to continue her rounds, serving both the rich as well as the poor. When her dear friend, Esther, is rapidly convicted of poisoning her husband and set to be burned at the stake, Bridget, convinced of Ester’s innocence, sets out on a dangerous path to find the real killer. She is aided by the book’s second hero, her servant Martha, whose shady past has provided her with useful street honed skills.

Bridget holds the social status of a Lady of quality. As a widow, she also has some wealth in her own name. During her investigations, she relies on her relatively elevated position as well as certain rights granted to midwives. Still, her access to figures of power is limited. When coming too close to the truth, she is threatened. How dare she, a mere “woman, meddle in matters that do not pertain to her.”

The pushback by men reveals the reality that by law women are subject to men. This is particularly true for married women, some of whom endure frequent whippings by their husbands in order to be “corrected when they required it.” Such harshness is mitigated by the close knit female support system described in the story. The women who gather together at a women’s birth, for example, are her “gossips”, the 17th century term for women-friends generally, with no necessary derogatory connotations.

Other birthing techniques, such as the herbs and lotions used by the midwife and the ways to strengthen a weak newborn, are described, as is the public lashing meted out to women who refused to name the father of any illegitimate child they might bear.

In his “Author’s Note,” Thomas tells us that he has based his fictional Bridget on the life of Bridget Hodgsons, a wealthy gentlewoman from York who defined herself in the records not by her martial status but by her profession, “midwife.”

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