Blog and News, Women's History

‘Love Thy Neighbour’: Neighbourly conflict in early modern Nantwich, by Sarah Fox

In 1663 Anne Knutsford, licensed midwife and moneylender, was issued with an inhibition by the parish of Nantwich against practicing midwifery for ‘lyeing, sweareing and curseing’ amongst other allegations. As if to confirm the charges, Anne allegedly ‘abused the authority of this court when the inhibition was served upon you & left with you, saying it should serve to wipe your arse with or to that effect.’ According to the statements of neighbours and local women, Anne ignored the church’s order and continued to deliver women of their babies.  The parish took steps to remove Anne’s midwifery license, leaving behind a richly detailed account of the social dynamics of early modern Nantwich, and the licensed midwife’s role in that society.

Anne’s case provides us with an insight not only into neighbourly interactions, but also into midwifery care, and the construction of midwives’ skill and occupational responsibility in the early modern North.   Anne’s midwifery license is key to understanding her position in the social structures of seventeenth-century Nantwich. Midwives were supposed to be ‘diligent and faithfull’, and of ‘right honest and discreet behaviour’ to quote the midwife’s oath.[1]  The depositions of Anne’s neighbours suggest that Anne was none of these things, yet she continued to practice midwifery at the request of birthing women, even after the parish issued her inhibition.  Karen O’Brien has used Anne’s case to explore the social dynamics of Nantwich.  Her excellent article on ‘Sexual impropriety, petitioning, and the dynamics of ill will in daily urban life’[2] focuses on Anne’s moneylending practices in a town that was experiencing socio-economic turbulence.  O’Brien concludes that Anne was a figure of some influence, using her financial power and her willingness to behave in an anti-social manner to maintain that influence and to terrorise her debtors and her neighbours.  My research builds upon O’Brien’s conclusions by asking what role Anne’s midwifery practice had to play in these apparently contentious relationships with her neighbours

The depositions of the local community do make Anne sound like a terrible neighbour.  She allegedly drank heavily, she swore and cursed local dignitaries loudly and publicly when they crossed her, she proclaimed her knowledge of illicit relationships, and of the potentially embarrassing sights and sounds of the birthing chamber.  Yet the depositions also record Anne’s superior midwifery skills, almost entirely agreeing that she was one of the best midwives in the area, and that she could deliver women where others had failed. 

This disconnect between Anne’s professional reputation and her alleged behaviour raises numerous questions, which I found increasingly puzzling until the events of this past year.  Why were Anne’s neighbours continuing to associate with her when she was so indiscreet? Was it because they owed her money? Or because she knew their secrets, having attended them in their births? If seventeenth-century Nantwich was the hotbed of illicit relationships that Anne suggested, why was she the only person mentioning them?

The national lockdowns of 2020 have helped me to reflect upon these questions with unusual clarity.  In the north of England, we have essentially been in lockdown since March 2020, with only a few weeks during which restrictions were relaxed.  As these lockdowns progressed, my neighbours (and their comings and goings) have occupied my mind more than they ever had before.  Some interactions were really positive.  We messaged each other, stood outside gardens with a flask of tea (or wine), we brought baking, or shopping.  But we also watched and heard the minutiae of each other’s daily lives in a way that we hadn’t before our confinement.  At times, I was intensely sensitive to the comings and goings in other houses in my neighbourhood, often at points when I was feeling isolated, or missing my friends and family.   I see much more clearly than I did before, how central cultures of surveillance could be to the lives of both the inhabitants of Nantwich and their early modern counterparts across the country.  I also see more clearly how necessary it is to ‘not see’ behaviours that might be contrary to widely accepted understandings of correct behaviour in order to maintain harmony and peace. 

Katie Barclay’s new book Caritas: Neighbourly Love and the Early Modern Self has been helpful in applying some of my personal reflections to early modern Nantwich.  Barclay presents caritas as an emotional ethic, or a framework for ethical feeling that shaped social life and behaviour, particularly in small to mid-size urban areas such as Nantwich.  A type of loving neighbourliness, caritas promoted communally oriented behaviours from peaceable marriage, to hospitality, to policing the actions of others. Yet, a focus on the community meant that caritas might also include the keeping of secrets, in order to maintain the peace.[3]  It therefore encompassed not only behaviour that might be considered ‘good’ under the usual moral frameworks of the period, but also include ‘good’ as a relational concept for the wider community. In pushing against the emotional ethic of caritas (and therefore against what was perceived as ‘good’ for the community of Nantwich) Anne’s case allows us to think through the affective regimes that governed behaviour in early modern England and trace the delicate balancing act of communities seeking to practice Christian ideals of neighbourly love, whilst also maintaining peace and harmony on the streets. 

As this lockdown begins to ease, I am very much looking forward to getting back to Cheshire archives to finish this research, knowing that my confinement at home has had an important impact on the way I think about Anne and her community.  The resulting article, ‘Contrary to her Profession as a Midwife’: skill, scandal, and the licensing of early modern midwives’ will have been supported both financially and practically by the Women’s History Network Early Career Fellowship whose support has been invaluable to me.

Sarah Fox is a researcher at the University of Birmingham on the Leverhulme Trust-funded project ‘Material Identities, Social Bodies: Embodiment in British Letters, c.1680-1820’.  Her first monograph, Giving Birth in Eighteenth-Century England will be published in 2022.

[1] Richard Garnet, The book of oaths, and the several forms thereof, both antient and modern. Faithfully collected out of sundry authentike books and records, not heretofore extant, compiled in one volume (London, 1649), pp.284-290.

[2] Karen O’Brien, ‘Sexual Impropriety, petitioning, and the dynamics of ill will in daily urban life’, Urban History 43:2 (2015) pp.177-199.

[3] Katie Barclay, Caritas: Neighbourly Love and the Early Modern Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), p.118.