The Midwife of Venice

by Roberta Rich

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich The Midwife of Venice is an imaginative, suspenseful tale about a sixteenth-century Jewish midwife from Venice's Ghetto Nuovo. Hannah Levi sorely misses her merchant husband, a captive in Malta after mercenaries attack his trading ship. "He had been fond of eating oranges in bed, feeding her sections as they chatted. She had not washed the blanket since Isaac had departed for the Levant to trade spices."

When a Christian nobleman comes to her house by dark of night and begs her to assist his wife, Hannah knows she must turn him down or risk torture for breaking the law. Jewish midwives are forbidden to deliver Christian babies. But the nobleman has heard Hannah is a wonder worker. Indeed, she has a dangerous secret for which she could be accused of witchcraft: "her birthing spoons, two silver ladles hinged together." The spoons can save lives, but they can kill, too. "At a recent confinement, she had exerted too much pressure and had crushed the skull of the baby instead of easing it out." But the nobleman is desperate and will pay her price, a sum high enough to ransom her husband away from the Knights of Malta.

With a baby at the center of the tale, The Midwife of Venice is as fast-paced as any thriller, the childbirth scene as gripping as any battle story. Cliffhanger chapter endings bounce readers back and forth between Hannah and her husband as each faces a series of potentially deadly perils. The setting is well researched, although the way Hannah pushes boundaries and encounters one worst-case scenario after the other can make the story seem frothy and implausible. Readers willing to suspend disbelief, though, will find her a swashbuckling midwife in a novel whose pages seem almost to turn themselves. (2011; 329 pages, including a bibliography and a brief Author's Note on the historical background)

More about The Midwife of Venice at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

Interview with author Roberta Rich

Other novels about midwives:

The Witch of Cologne by Tobsha Learner (2003), about a Jewish midwife accused by the Inquisition in the seventeenth-century German city of Cologne. More info

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira (2010), about a young midwife who sets out to become a surgeon in Washington D.C. during the Civil War. More info

The Birth House by Ami McKay (2006), about a young midwife in Nova Scotia during the First World War. More info

Nonfiction about Renaissance Venice:

Private Lives in Renaissance Venice by Patricia Fortini Brown (2004). More info

The Jews of Early Modern Venice by Robert C. Davis (editor) and Benjamin Ravid (2001). More info

The Autobiography of a Seventeeth-Century Venetian Rabbi: Leon Modena's Life of Judah translated and edited by Mark R. Cohen (1989). More info


Peter Chamberlen, about the historical inventor of obstetrical forceps

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