The tale of the midwife of Gouda

The tale of the midwife of Gouda

This article and the thumb photo are (partly) taken from The Bee's Tour of Gouda, a book by Persephone Abbott and Vinita Salomé.

I’ve heard many friends discuss, or rather pointedly relate their experiences of giving birth in the Netherlands

One friend recalled, "An hour later the same nurse came by, and saw me sitting pretty with the newborn baby in my arms. Quite astonished, the nurse stopped and asked, 'When did you do that?'"

Another friend told of the distress of her mother witnessing her granddaughter’s entrance into the world and, quite bewildered by the cultural differences, pointedly asking the nurses, "What kind of barbarian country is this?" Pregnancy and giving birth are naturally important topics to women.

Anna van Hensbeek: the midwife of Gouda

Interestingly enough, the city of Gouda has midwife for a local folk heroine. Anna van Hensbeek moved from a neighbouring town to the bigger city of Gouda in 1788. She subsequently applied for a license to work in the city centre, and was ultimately granted her permit in 1794.

Gouda’s museum owns a street sign that once could be seen outside Anna van Hensbeek’s house. The square sign hangs from one corner like a diamond pane. It is said that the sign was positioned in that form, as opposed to hanging squarely, so that people could recognise which house was the midwife’s home in the dark of night. Anna van Hensbeek’s work permit was revoked in 1798.

Of course, the issue was not anaesthesia (we are taking about the 18th century here) but instead the delicate subject of unwed mothers. Midwives were obliged to ask an unwed woman in the process giving birth to name the father of the child. This could be considered as unfairly taking advantage of those in agony. Children who were born from an "anonymous source" were to be raised at the cost of the city, hence the pressure to extract the name of the father during the birth.

Because she refused to question her unwed clients about the father of a child, Anna quickly became favoured among some expectant mothers over other midwives practicing inside the city walls. When her license was confiscated, she moved outside the city walls to the Karnemelksloot where she continued her professional work until she died.

The sign that hangs in the museum clearly states that she is a "midwife for outside" (voedvrouw voor buiten). The sign was found centuries after Anna’s death when the City Hall was being given a thorough spring cleaning.

The ancient walls of Gouda’s city centre were gradually demolished bit by bit. There are traces of them here and there; an exposed bit of wall used to build a house that still stands today, or a small part used as a back garden delineation near the harbour area.

Also, the idea of "from outside" has been geographically challenged, and largely the idea of the city centre depends on the outer canal ringing Gouda.

Curiously, the lions watching over the city centre's main gateway were removed from their original placement to the outside the city centre where they now watch over the trees and ponds of a park near the train station.

Persephone Abbott


Persephone Abbott

Persephone Abbott, musician and writer, lives in The Netherlands. Born in America she left to live in Europe at a young age to pursue a life other than what she...

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