Sibilla Muller was born September 6th, 1672 in Grossheppach to Rudolph Muller and his wife, Margaretha.
Grossheppach isn’t far from Beutelsbach where Sibilla’s future husband lived. He probably walked the short distance to court her regularly.
Sibylla married Johann Georg Lenz, a vinedresser, in 1698. We are fortunate that while they were married in the church in Beutelsbach, her home church in Grossheppach also recorded the marriage the following week. I don’t know, of course, but I’d wager that the newlywed couple attended the bride’s church the Sunday following their wedding, taking with them news of the good tidings of their marriage.
Johann Georg was turning 25 in a couple of weeks. Sibilla was already 25 and would turn 26 that September. High time to marry and start a family.
My friend, Tom, translates the Beutelsbach record:
The Purification (of Mary) (February 2nd), (married):
Hanss Georg Lentz, legitimate son of Hanss Lentz, citizen and vinedresser from here and Sibilla, legitimate, surviving daughter of the late Johann Rudolph Müller, former smith from Hoppach (Grossheppach).
Next, the Heppach record:
1st Sunday after Epiphany in the local church was proclaimed, Hanss Jerg Lentz, legitimate son of Hanss Lentz, citizen in Beutelsbach and Sibylla, surviving, legitimate daughter of the late Hanss Rudolph Muller, citizen and smith here; were married in Beutelsbach on the 2nd of February (1698).
Why would the couple marry in the groom’s church instead of the bride’s church, as was the custom?
Perhaps because her parents were deceased, and his father was still living?
Sibilla’s mother had died in 1689 and her father in 1692. The young couple made their home in Beutelsbach where he could tend the vines in the vineyard, as his ancestors had done for generations. They probably lived with his father.
Sibilla, also spelled Sibylla, died May 28, 1746 when she was 73 years old from a combination of asthma and typhoid, at least as best I can tell from present-day translations combined with older names for known illnesses.
Martin Goll compiled family information for Sibilla, here. Using an automated translation tool, we discover:
Daughter of Joh. Rudolf Müller, gew, blacksmith Heppach.
Can print and read something written. Has 8 1/2 year in Großheppach served here all. About 1740 was chosen for Midwife. Due to the head disease.
Cause of death: Asthma and typhoid
I don’t know what head disease translates to in modern terms. I don’t understand this translation in its entirety, but I can pick out relevant pieces.
The word “gew” did not translate.
It’s interesting, if this translation is literal then Sibilla did not begin her midwife career until 1740 when she was already 68 years old. I wonder if this translated strangely. Or maybe the 8.5 years in Grossheppach refers to midwifing there before Beutelsbach.
Maybe I can learn more by researching midwifery in Germany in that era.
According to the book, The Art of Midwifery, midwives in southern Germany in the 1600s and 1700s were actually public employees. Furthermore, midwife was the “best” career for women, of which there were very few, providing the midwives with a degree of independence not normally allowed women.
Most midwives were the wives or widows of artisans, minor city officials or day laborers. Many were not wealthy enough to own their own homes. They were respectable, but certainly not bourgeois, and were generally referred to by their clients and in municipal notes as either “Weib” or “Mutter,” not the more respectable “Frau.”
Midwives were actually sworn public officials beginning in 1489 in nearby Stuttgart, so probably in Beutelsbach as well about that time. The city councils took care to regulate the midwives, issuing, and changing ordinances.
Midwives were different from other women in this context, not to mention that they were actually paid. In the city and village payment records, midwives were listed right after surgeons and apothecaries, but of course, they were paid much less. Midwives received 2 to 8 gulden per year while the city barber-surgeons received 10-25 gulden. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the pay disparity increased.
Therefore, midwives earned money, but not enough to support themselves. Perhaps this was a subtle, or maybe not-so-subtle way to control these women, lest they become *too* independent.
Sometimes, when midwives performed additional responsibilities, such as caring for pregnant women during times of the plague, or in the city hospital, the midwife would receive a grant or additional money from the council – not because she deserved it, of course, but as a sign “of our goodwill and not their rights,” to quote municipal council records.
Sometimes midwives had to approach the council directly to request payment. They generally did not employ the supplicatory language common for women asking assistance but directly requested either salary increases or “the payment of rye and wood which is due to us.” It strikes me that they shouldn’t have had to ask at all, but perhaps that’s my 21st-century perspective showing through.
It’s also worth noting that a midwife who moved into a city or town would often ask specifically to be granted citizenship – a status not normally accorded to women specifically and which was accompanied by obligatory rights and responsibilities. Sometimes citizenship was offered in order to entice a midwife and her husband to move to a town. Apparently, a good midwife was in demand.
I wonder if this might be related to the commentary about Sibilla being in Heppach for eight and a half years. Perhaps as that village’s midwife before becoming midwife in Beutelsbach about 1840.
Wealthy women might want to arrange for their own midwife instead of receiving the services of the midwife selected by the council. Midwives who didn’t have a husband to rely on for income often took private clients in addition to their civic duty.
Wealthy women paid fees comparable with the fees that barber-surgeons received.
The cost of a simple, uncomplicated birth was similar to that of a circumcision. (I’m sorry, but this comparison just makes me cringe.)
A more difficult birth, such as a breech birth or twins was comparable to setting a bone or removing tonsils. (This made me cringe too, for other reasons.)
These comparisons are fascinating because I would not think of them as equivalent.
Midwives had to study as an apprentice with an experienced midwife for generally a year or more, then pass an examination in order to be licensed.
Sometimes physicians, who did not deliver babies and were not trained to do so, decided who was qualified to become a midwife.
As time passed, another layer of bureaucracy was added in many places in order to minimize the appearances of midwives who were considered to be “peasants” before the council. Upper-class women known as “honorable women” were paid to “manage” the midwives so that the councils didn’t have to deal with them directly. Both “honorable women” who knew nothing at all about the practice of midwifery and physicians participated in the quizzing, testing, and selection of midwives.
The questions in such an examination reveal the level of knowledge which city councils hoped every new midwife would have. First came questions about her training and experience. With whom had she studied and for how long? Had she had children herself? How many births had she seen or taken part in? Then came questions about the content of her training. What food, drink and baths will help a woman have an easy birth? How does she know if a woman is pregnant and does not simply have some other kind of swelling? How does she know whether the fetus is healthy or sick, alive or dead? What is the normal position for birth, and how is this to be brought about in the case of abnormal presentation? What should be done with the umbilical cord and afterbirth, especially to make sure that the latter has emerged? How are the new mother and infant to be best taken care of, and what advice should she give the new mother?
The doctors judged the prospective midwife’s answers about the medical aspects of delivery and pre and post-natal care while the ‘honourable women’ assessed her morality and character. Though the questions appear sensible, it is important to remember that the physicians holding the examination had received all their training through the reading of classical medical texts and perhaps observing a single autopsy on a female cadaver; they were thus testing the skills of women who may have observed or assisted in as many as a hundred deliveries, while they had never even witnessed the birth of a live child.
Additional Responsibilities and Expectations
Midwives were expected to determine if the mother was in need of food or clothing, in the case of indigent women in particular.
Another responsibility of midwives was the emergency baptism. The first known ordinance about midwives stated that if the midwife determined that a child was near death that she should perform an emergency baptism or “she would have to answer to God for her laziness and irresponsibility.”
I recall at least one instance in the church record where it was recorded that the grandmother performed an emergency baptism of a child immediately following birth.
Religious differences entered this realm, because when babies were supposed to be baptized, and in what way was deemed critically important – especially if they had to be rebaptized, just in case the child survived and/or the midwife might have performed the baptism incorrectly. At one point, “rebaptism,” because it was related to the “radical” Anabaptist religions, carried the death penalty, so everyone was walking on eggshells. It was perceived that the midwife literally held the destiny of the child’s soul in her hands.
Municipalities varied in their requirements – but some passed ordinances requiring the midwife to seek out a member of the clergy, a councilman, or in one case, the mayor, before baptizing an ailing child to be absolutely positive that the baptism was done correctly. Of course, the midwife had to weigh the responsibility of protecting the child’s soul by baptizing the baby without seeking permission-disguised-as-assistance and following the “rules,” which might mean the baby died without being baptized at all. The city that enacted the ordinance requiring midwives to seek out the mayor reported exactly zero cases of that actually happening. Apparently, midwives had plenty of common sense in addition to birthing skills.
In some cases, during a difficult birth that might or would result in a deceased child, such as when hooks had to be utilized to extract the infant from the birth canal, the child was actually baptized by pushing something with either “holy water” for Catholics or “baptismal water” for Protestants, into the mother’s vagina to reach the head of the child before it died. I have heard these colloquially called “sponge baptisms.”
I can only imagine what the mother was going through as this occurred, understanding exactly why, and that she herself was also on the verge of death.
It was up to the midwife to report the identity of the father if the birth was illegitimate and the father was previously unidentified. Midwives weren’t always trusted, so often one of the “honorable women” was sent to monitor illegitimate births where the father was unknown. It was believed that the mother would “exclaim the name of the father during the pains of birth.”
In larger cities, especially as guilds and others began to regulate the morality of their members, midwives were expected to report on any child that was born “prematurely,” or full-term, before 9 months had elapsed after the wedding.
Several church records over the years have commented about the bride being pregnant, although clearly, not all pregnancies were evident yet when the wedding occurred.
Additionally, midwives were entirely prevented from assisting with an abortion or participating in infanticide. Mothers who engaged in strenuous physical activity were suspected of attempting an abortion, as were women who took herbs or drugs.
Midwives were forbidden from burying a deceased child or fetus. Any child that died during or as a result of childbirth was to be observed by “3 or 4 unsuspecting female persons.”
Not only was it bad enough if your baby died, but 3 or 4 non-family members were requested to come into your house to view your dead baby. Peachy.
If something foul was suspected in the death of a child or fetus, the midwife was required to take a barber-surgeon with her to inspect the deceased child. The physician or barber-surgeon would possibly perform an autopsy which midwives were not allowed to do.
While the midwife could not normally bury a deceased child, since these already-dead babies had not been baptized and were therefore relegated to hell, the midwife was allowed to bury them since nothing more could be done for their souls and “no one would have worried about the type of funeral such a child received.”
I had to read that section more than once because even though I realize their beliefs were different then, the callousness of that way of thinking is still quite shocking.
The word of a midwife could easily condemn another woman.
Anytime witchcraft accusations were on the increase, so were accusations of abortion and infanticide. Some midwives were even accused of causing deaths through “natural” methods or witchcraft.
As if the midwife didn’t have enough to worry about, eventually, they were also responsible for attempting to enforce the desired level of morality.
As cities enacted more stringent sumptuary codes in the sixteenth century, midwives were required to inform parents about laws that governed baptisms so they would not, for example, spend too much money on the infant’s baptism gown or invite too many people to the baptismal feast.
Interestingly, this tells us a bit about what happened, socially, surrounding a baptism. In a small village like Beutelsbach, I wonder if the entire village attended the baptismal feast. Everyone would have been related.
I also wonder if baptismal gowns became heirlooms and were passed from child to child within the family.
How Many Babies Did Sibilla Deliver?
Beutelsbach was not a large village.
I counted the baptisms in the church book in Beutelsbach in 1740-1745. Of course, if there had been deaths where Sibilla baptized the child before it died, that child would probably not have been recorded in the births/baptisms – but then again – who knows. I did not look through the deaths to see if any children that died on the day they were born were also recorded in births.
Suffice it to say that assuredly, Sibilla had to perform at least a few emergency baptisms as infant death was rather common.
|Year||Number of births/baptisms|
I stopped counting at the end of 1745 because Sibilla died midway through 1746.
Sibilla would have averaged about 39 births per year, or one birth every 9 or 10 days. if she was a midwife for 8.5 years, that equates to about 330 births.
At least some of those deliveries would have been close family members – grandchildren and children of her husband’s family members who had been living in Beutelsbach for generations. Some of her family members probably also lived in the same village since Heppach was only a half-hour walk or a mile or so away.
This birth information also tells us something about the size of the village in those years.
How Large was Beutelsbach?
A couple whose child did not die would have a baby every 18-24 months. For ease of math, let’s figure that couple would have a child in the baptismal register every other year.
Therefore, the number of child-bearing couples is double the yearly birth rate, or about 78. Granted, some couples appeared more often, but some couples had “aged out” of bearing children, so the number of households was likely not more than double the number of reproducing couples. Therefore, the village probably had about 150 houses, assuming each family lived separately. If each household had an average of 7 residents at any one time, the village had a total of about 1000 people.
This 1797 map of southwest Germany shows Beautelsbach, along with Grossheppach. Note the cemetery beside the church, which is difficult to see, right beside the cemetery. The actual village is located at 11 o’clock, above the blue pin, and the cemetery is at the end of the U-shaped street, on the way out of town. Based on a wider view of this map, I believe the little black dots aren’t houses, but are small stands of forest. Notice the rows of vineyards on the hillsides.
Sibilla had 8 children herself, all born in Beutelsbach, the first child arriving just 10 days or so before her first wedding anniversary. No need for the midwife to report Sibilla to the council, although I suspect most midwives were discrete and understanding.
- Anna Barbara Lenz was born on January 23, 1699, and died July 15, 1770. She married Johann George Vollmer on October 26, 1729, and had 9 children. Given that 2 of her children were born in 1740 or later, it’s probable that Sibilla delivered at least these two of her own grandchildren. Three of these grandchildren died before Sibilla.
I would think that delivering your own grandchild who subsequently died would be doubly difficult. Thankfully, none of these children died at birth, but one died about 10 days later. Did Sibilla wonder if she could have or should have done anything differently, even if the death was clearly not her fault and had nothing to do with delivery?
There is a comment about Anna Barbara being in the house in 1746 with the “heated illness,” which is typhoid. This is when Sibilla died as well and is clearly remembered many years later. Anna Barbara could read and write.
- Johannes Lenz born December 15, 1700, died December 24, 1700.
This must have been a miserable Christmas for Sibilla.
- Jakob Lenz born April 1, 1702 died July 8, 1702.
- Johann Adam Lenz born July 1, 1703, died July 11, 1746, just a few weeks after his mother died of typhoid. He too was a vinedresser. Martin Goll says, “When he was already married he had to be under occupation for 7 weeks, but deserted there because he already had a brother in the war.” He could read and write.
Johann Adam married Maria Katharina Bauer in 1735 and had 7 children before his own death 11 years later of typhoid. His last child was born two months after his death.
At least three of Johann Adam’s children were probably welcomed into the world by his mother. Two of his children died before he and his mother passed away, one that she would have delivered died about 2 weeks later, probably also of typhoid.
- Margaretha Lenz born October 21, 1704, died March 15, 1717, at the age of 12. No cause of death is given, but I have to wonder why she died.
- Johann Georg Lenz born December 2, 1707, died January 26, 1710, of smallpox. Smallpox was highly contagious and deadly about 30% of the time.
- Elizabetha Lenz was born in 1709. Nothing more is known but she likely died. Some records are missing during this time.
- Johann Jakob Lenz born July 25, 1712, died March 8, 1793, of a “sore throat.” Can read and write. Has served here and in Stetten for many years. Was elected as a Grenadier in 1734, was Captain of the Roman Company, and bought out in 1742.
Johann Jakob married Catharina Beerwarth on April 25, 1741, and had one child who was born and died a few days later in 1742. Sibilla likely delivered this child and knew there was a problem of some sort. Three months later, Catharina died too.
Johann Jakob remarried on November 12, 1744, to Katharina Haag in Heiningen. There was some question about his marriage certificate and military service at the time he was married and his first child was born. His mother may have delivered this child. The child was baptized in Beutelsbach but could have actually been born in Heiningen.
Clearly, Sibilla’s household and apparently the household of at least one adult child experienced an outbreak of typhoid during 1746. Typhoid is bacterial and treatable with antibiotics today, but it likely infected the entire village, if not the entire region.
In the book, A brief history of epidemic and pestilential diseases; with the principal phenomena of the physical world, which precede and accompany them, and observations deduced from the facts stated. : In two volumes, we find:
At Zurich in Switzerland and in Saxony prevailed a very malignant dysentery. Indeed for a number of years, at this period, dysentery was epidemic in many parts of Europe and America.
Typhoid is a person-to-person transmitted bacterial disease that can be passed through water, often through wells located in close proximity to septic pits. This 1939 conceptual illustration shows various ways that the typhoid bacteria could contaminate a well, creating a never-ending cycle of infection. Wells in German villages were generally in the center of the town, shared by all residents. Waterways, meaning creeks and rivers would be even more susceptible to contamination from fecal runoff.
Typhoid is mentioned decades later in reference to one of Sibilla’s adult children who did not die, so the outbreak must have been widespread and devastating.
I counted the deaths from 1744 through 1747 in the church records. It appears that the records may be incomplete in 1746 and 1747, with at least a couple of months missing from both years. The records are at least in disarray. This likely reflects the chaos of what was occurring in the village and it’s certainly possible that the Reverend and his family were ill too.
|Year||Deaths recorded in the church book|
The death rate began to increase in April of 1746, rapidly, so the contamination must have occurred in March since typhoid takes about a month to kill its victims. Sibilla died on May 28th.
Life and Death
As I write this, in the midst of a pandemic at the very end of 2020, I’m struck by several thoughts.
Sibilla was one of the few women of her time who actually had a career, and one that paid, even if the pay was minimal and not on par with other medical providers. I’m so proud of her.
Clearly, Sibilla was well-respected or she would not have been asked to be a midwife and continued in that role until her death.
I wonder if Sibilla caught typhoid in the process of midwifing.
I wonder how much was understood of hygiene and the role of washing hands in both the prevention of infection during childbirth and as well as the prevention of transmission of disease. Based on later writings, I suspect that correlation had not yet been made.
Sibilla must have been concerned as she felt the first of the Typhoid symptoms that would have started about the end of April. Headache, low fever, weakness, fatigue, muscle aches, sweating, dry cough, loss of appetite – then progressing into more serious symptoms including a very high fever – then into death roughly 4 weeks later on May 28th.
At some point, Sibilla’s symptoms went from “not feeling well” to a nagging worry, to knowing, to being alarmed, to being terrified, to being so sick she just wanted to die.
According to WebMD:
People with acute illness can contaminate the surrounding water supply through stool, which contains a high concentration of the bacteria. Contamination of the water supply can, in turn, taint the food supply. The bacteria can survive for weeks in water or dried sewage.
About 3%-5% of people become carriers of the bacteria after the acute illness. Others suffer a very mild illness that goes unrecognized. These people may become long-term carriers of the bacteria — even though they have no symptoms — and be the source of new outbreaks of typhoid fever for many years.
This surely makes the moniker, “Typhoid Mary” much more understandable.
Given how many people died, that suggests that the entire village had to be sick. No wonder the burial records are incomplete and in disarray. And God help anyone who delivered a baby during this time.
Given what we are living through now, I don’t think I’ve ever felt such camaraderie with any ancestor before. While I’m not entirely surprised at that feeling, I am amazed to have that connection because of uncontrolled, fatal illness. The difference is, of course, that in 1746, they didn’t understand about transmission and how to prevent it. It would have, of course, required the entire village (and maybe neighbor villages too) to adopt those same prevention measures. Perhaps that would have meant boiling their drinking and cooking water at that time along with hygiene routines that included more hand-washing.
We do clearly understand what’s needed today, although many in our modern “village” refused and still refuse to take the proper precautions to protect everyone and modify their behaviors accordingly – just for long enough to get the current pandemic under control. Maybe small German villages would have had a better conformance rate, especially if the minister preached it from the pulpit and everyone literally knew and were related to people who were suffering and dying.
Sibilla and her son’s burial entries both convey the story of their deaths – as do so many others in the village. Her daughter’s death entry, 24 years later mentions that she lived through the 1746 “heated illness” as typhoid was described because fevers topped 104, followed by delirium, seizures, and death as the brain overheated and fried.
One day, the obituaries or burial entries for those of us who don’t succumb to Covid will also reflect that we lived through the epidemic of 2020, the dark winter of our time.
Sibilla, if she’s watching, must be incredulous and wondering why our “village” refuses to do the simple things we can, before it’s too late. After all, we have the advantage of knowledge. Knowledge of how the dread illness spread and how to protect themselves is something Sibilla and her family didn’t have and would have given anything for – and an opportunity we are collectively squandering.
It does, indeed, take a village.
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