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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

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"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

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Thursday, July 04, 2002

The Myth of Being Burnt Alive for Seeking Pain Relief in Childbirth

In my previous post I discussed the myth that the Christian Church opposed
the use of anesthesia during childbirth. In a number of the anti-Christian
web sources I investigated and quoted from in that post there was another
common allegation that appears regularly alongside that claim viz.:

"As far back as the year 1591, Eufame Macalyane, a lady of rank, being
charged with seeking the aid of Agnes Sampson for the relief of pain at the
time of the birth of her two sons, was burned alive on the Castle Hill of
A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White

"One of the more interesting oppositions to the use of medical practices is
with reference to childbirth. Catholics and Protestants alike believe
firmly that the pain of childbirth was a punishment for all women due to
Eve. When the use of anesthetics and painkillers came into use, the
opposition was fierce. One famous example was a Scottish Lady (Eufame
Macalyane) who, in 1591 sought to relieve the pain at the time of the birth
of her sons. She was promptly burned alive. This belief that women must
suffer the pain of childbirth continued for another 400 years."

"How Science and History Have Negated the Fundamental Precepts of

[Another 400 years would take us up to the year 1991! The owner of this
webpage also makes this astounding clanger:"Am I making this up? Just read
the history books". Good advice. Now if only he would.]

" 1591, Eufame Macalyane, a Scottish lady of rank, sought relief for
the pain of childbirth. For this transgression-does not Holy Writ refer to
"the primeval curse on woman"? - she was burned at the stake in Edinburgh."

Excerpt from Great Feuds in Medicine: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever By Hal Hellman

"It is recorded in the history of Scotland that in the year of 1591 a lady of rank by the name of Eufame Macalyane was burned alive on the castle hill of Edinburgh. She was burned alive because while giving birth to her twin sons she asked the midwife, whose name was Agnes Sampson, to give her something for pain. Now, Agnes Sampson, out of Christian love for this suffering woman, must have reported the incident to the church authorities." from the thankyouforthinking site !!

"Religious opposition to medical relief of suffering is not new. In 1591,
Eufame Macalyane, a lady of rank, charged with seeking aid for the relief of
pain at the time of the birth of her two sons, was burned alive on the
Castle Hill of Edinburgh. Using chloroform was considered contrary to the
will of God as it avoided one part of the 'primeval curse on woman.'"

[The use of Chloroform in 1591?!]

"1591 - Eufame Macalyane burned in Scotland for seeking pain relief during
childbirth, violating god's command in Gen. 3:16"
Secular Humanism Net

"Eufame Macalyane was burned alive in 1591 for seeking pain
relief when she gave birth to her two sons. The rationale behind
the decision to burn Macalyane, a Scottish woman of rank, was
that God had cursed women with pain in childbirth. To prevent
her from experiencing pain during labor would be a circumven-tion
of God's will."

"In late-sixteenth-century Edinburgh, Eufame MacAlyane was buried alive for
seeking pain relief from Agnes Sampson, reportedly a witch, during the birth
of her two sons."
University of Pennsylvania Health System Obstetrics & Gyneocolgy Dept.

[Buried alive?!]

"Could anything be more repellent than a system of religion that so
paralyzes the mind to the suffering of a woman in childbirth? In 1591, a
lady of rank, Eufame Macalyane, sought the assistance of Agnes Sampson for
the relief of pain at the time of the birth of her two sons. Agnes Sampson
was tried before King James, condemned and burned alive on Castle Hill in
The Ten Commandments by Joseph Lewis

The original source for most of these quotes seems to be the polemical
writing of Andrew Dickson White in his book "A History of the Warfare of
Science with Theology in Christendom" published in 1896. I have been unable
to locate any scholarly or contemporaneous confirmation for this
oft-repeated story and so I believe it is another example of a myth that
has been carelessly repeated in order to attack the position of Christians -
and by extension creationists. If anyone can point out some confirming
evidence for this story I would be most happy to receive it and to revise
this assessment.

There exist several copies of a contemporaneous pamphlet entitled "Newes from Scotland" published in London in 1591. It is the earliest record of Scottish witchcraft, claiming to give a true account of a famous trial of alleged witches in that country which had far reaching effects due to the fact that King James VI himself played a prominent part in it. James was behind the prosecution of a group of alleged witches headed by Agnes Sampson, that included Euphame Macalyane (aka Effie MacCalyan or Euphemia Maclean) - known as the 'Berwick Witches' - whom he believed had attempted to murder him by witchcraft.

Agnes Sampson herself has come to be known as Scotland's most famous - or
notorious - witch and is usually considered the leader - "the eldest Witch
of them all" - of the group. Accusations were made originally by one Gilly
Duncan, a young servant, that Sampson, Agnes Tompson, Doctor Fian, alias
John Cunningham, Barbara Napier and Effie MacCalyan - a group of mainly
elderly and well-educated persons in the town of Berwick were witches.
Eventually some 70 people were implicated in what appeared to be a vast
political plot against the King. Agnes Sampson confessed under torture to
being a witch and implicated the others, as did Agnes Tompson. They claimed
the Devil had instructed them in the use of magic against the King, and on
how to use spells and throw a dead cat into the sea to create a great storm
which was intended to destroy James's ship as he travelled back from Denmark
with his bride, Anne of Denmark. James conducted many of the interrogations
himself. Sampson and Tompson were executed. Dr. Fian was burned at Castle
Hill in Edinburgh in late January, 1591. Euphemia Maclean was burned alive
on July 25, 1591. One Richard Graham was burned in February 1592. Barbara
Napier, though sentenced to be strangled and burned was set free on the
grounds of being pregnant. See here

I can find no record that Eufame Macalyane was executed for seeking out pain
relief during childbirth. Nor is their any evidence I have found that
indicates that she sort the aid of Agnes Sampson to obtain such pain relief.
Eufame Macalyane was executed for supposedly being a witch engaged in
treason against the King. That this travesty and tragedy occurred is bad
enough but it is wrong to claim that the issue of pain relief in childbirth
and some supposed Christian objections to it had anything to do with it.

The only other references to Euphame Macalyane I have located outside of anti-Christian sources is this extract from an 1880 book recounting the history of Dunfermline that mentions "an old tradition" - but nothing about childbirth, or pain relief:

1591. - A "DUNFERMLINE WITCH!" OR "Wise Woman of Dunfermline." - An old
tradition notifies that this "wise woman" had an "extensive renown" and
helped to "raise the terrible storm at sea on the return of King James VI.
from his matrimonial expedition from Denmark to Leith." By some overlook,
"she escaped being drownit." She was alive, and plying "her calling" in
Dunfermline in 1591. She is noticed in a remarkable "witch trial" this
year, viz., of Euphame Macalyane. Euphame was tried on 19th June this
year, and amongst the many accusations brought against her was, that she
had consulted a woman in Dunfermline, how to obtain her husband's love,
otherwise to be avenged on him, &c.
(Dal. "Darker Superstitions of
Scotland," p. 202.)
" In The Annals of Dunfermline and vicinity AD 1089-1878 By Ebenezer Henderson


The Victorian feminist writer Eliza Lynn Linton's book "Witch Stories" ,
London: Chapman & Hall, 1861. This work is described by Professor Maureen F. Moran in her article 'Light no Smithfield fires': Some Victorian Attitudes to Witchcraft. in the Journal of Popular Culture, Spring 2000, Vol. 33 Issue 4, p123 as "a polemical historical-biographical account of witchcraft trials in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Scotland and England."

Moran contends that Linton used "witch narratives to critique the
male/female power structure in Western society. They adhere to the
widespread view that witch-persecutions were a legalized form of
brutality to women, and the narratives employ a variety of strategies
ranging from authorial comment to details of setting, characterization, and
plotting to highlight this initial association of the witch with the
patriarchal oppression of women. In Witch Stories, for example, Linton
points to the sadistic masculine blood lust which motivated witch-hunts in
sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and Scotland. Her details of
torture and execution, when many 'fine, brave, handsome' women 'writhed in
agony at the stake', reinforce a sense of female pain procuring male

Elsewhere, however, Linton highlights the risks to women who speak against
male authority... She also implies that the witch-victim is a woman who does
not know her own political and religious place and hence becomes both a disruptive force and the agent of her own downfall. Euphemia Maclean, for example, is cited as 'a firm, passionate, heroic woman, whom no tortures could weaken into confession, no threats terrify into submission'. All the same, it is her political and Catholic beliefs which enable the charge to be levied in the first place."

One of the soundest scholarly and objective examinations of the phenonenon of European witch obsession is to be found in "Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft" (HarperCollins, London, 1996) by Robin Briggs (Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College and Lecturer in Modern History at Oxford). In a calm and thoroughly documented manner Briggs dismantles many of the myths that abound about both witchcraft and its persecution. He effectively debunks the myth of a vast Christian-inspired holocaust. For those who want to get behind the polemic of exaggeration, misrepresentation and distortion of history on this issue I recommend this book as a good place to start. I suggest leaving the "facts" dredged from lurid Victorian feminist fantasies and the anti-Christian rantings of aggrieved rationalists where they belong - in the dustbin of history.

10:13:00 pm