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Jewish Midwives, Medicine and the Boundaries of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe, 1650-1800

Katz, Jordan Rebekah

Employed as midwives, wise women, or healers, female medical practitioners of various faiths disseminated medical knowledge and supplied information pertinent to religious and legal rulings in early modern Europe. While scholars have noted this role for Christian women, they have not studied the unique position of female Jewish healers with regard to municipal regulations, communal politics, medical knowledge, and legal consultations. This dissertation examines the role and influence of Jewish midwives in early modern Western Europe, addressing their interactions with communal leaders, physicians, Christian medical practitioners, and bureaucrats. Exploring their medical influences, their engagement with administrative knowledge systems, and their intellectual status in the eyes of prominent male leaders, this dissertation demonstrates that attention to the roles of Jewish midwives yields new understandings of the structures of knowledge and authority that undergirded early modern European society.

Through archival and printed sources in Hebrew, Yiddish, Dutch, and German, the dissertation argues that Jewish midwives offer a crucial analytical lens for understanding many of the shifts in early modern Jewish communal life, medical culture, gender relations, and municipal bureaucracy. It tells the story of how a discrete body of knowledge crossed medical, legal, religious, and linguistic boundaries, allowing Jewish women to become guardians of sensitive information and powerful agents of communal authority. Drawing upon a diverse source base, ranging from notarial records and archives of medical colleges, to Jewish communal registers, personal records, midwifery handbooks, and printed rabbinic sources, I show how female Jewish medical practitioners fit into the larger landscape of medical practice in early modern Europe, as well as the ways that Jewish communal structures carved out unique roles for Jewish midwives during this period. Employing methods from the history of science, gender studies, and Jewish history, my study shows that Jewish midwives became part of an international system of scientific communication, whose content flowed between vernacular and elite practitioners. This dissertation thus sheds new light on the ways in which the inclusion of women as subjects, and gender as a lens, presents a landscape of knowledge-making and transmission whose boundaries are more expansive.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
History
Thesis Advisors
Carlebach, Elisheva
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 31, 2020