April 2020

Inés de Ayala, birthing assistant to two queens, midwife of Golden Age Spain

Doña Inés Ramírez de Ayala learned midwifery from her mother. In the 1620s she featured as a witness in the beatification of Sor Mariana de Jesús where she attested to the beata’s miraculous intervention in several difficult births, as well as to how she helped when she herself had suffered misfortunes relating to childbirth: a number of Inés de Ayala’s children died before they reached the age of three, and she suffered a miscarriage which almost caused her death.

In 1638, Inés de Ayala served at the Court of Madrid and in the household of the queens Isabel de Borbón and Mariana de Austria. She helped to bring into the world the future queen of France, María Teresa, and the last Spanish king from the House of Austria, Carlos II. She also assisted the ladies who gave birth to offspring fathered by king Felipe IV.  In addition, we can trace her name in the parish registers of San Justo y Pastor.  They show that on various occasions she administered emergency baptisms after difficult births.

When Inés de Ayala died in 1663, she was so wealthy that rumours of her prosperity were even commented upon at the court of Vienna.  Her life was a particular one, but only to a certain extent. Several Spanish midwives achieved fame and wealth.  Midwives were often protected and had gifts bestowed upon them by the social elite of their time.  Some of them were sent to other capitals of Europe to exercise their profession.  Midwives were an integral part of court life. When a birth occurred at court all eyes were on them.  Foreign ambassadors targeted them and spent good money to encourage them to share gynaecological secrets on which the future of dynasties and empires might depend. Both midwives and wet-nurses belonged to the most intimate circle of a queen’s household and, as such, they constitute an interesting example of female promotion and the complex interactions between the elite and the commoners with regards to obstetrics and the initial care of the baby.

In 17th century Spain, pregnancy and birth were far from isolated and solitary experiences. When a queen gave birth the miracle and ordeal of the creation of life simultaneously unfolded in all its phases and manifold variations: from the celebration of the first menses of the «infanta» and the constant speculation at court as to whether the queen was pregnant, to the disillusion caused by miscarriage, premature birth, an infant’s early death, or the terrible stigma of sterility. Journals of the time talk about husbands who stabbed their pregnant wives because of excessive jealousy; old hags sentenced to death for having provided concoctions that provoked abortions; false pregnancies; and baby-swapping perpetrated with the help of the midwife.

Despite all this, Baroque festival culture never yielded to the thousands of challenges of death. Instead, life, which is always born anew, was celebrated! Isn’t this the message conveyed by the feasts of Venus with a thousand «angels» rejoicing in the form of naked babies; by the many depictions of the Virgin proudly presenting the child-Jesus; by Christmas carols; and by all those other cultural expressions which we look at in museums without fully grasping their existential significance?

In this maybe consists the most arduous problem for the history of childbirth: In today’s world science and reason prevails so how can we assess the human, the cultural and therefore religious traditions of the 17th Century? It requires a complete change in perspective. Religion was «in your bones» ; it was an integral part of you and it therefore conditioned all corporeal experience.  Invocations of the Virgin—to give only one example—would have been chanted by Inés de Ayala, the mother-to-be, her mother, and the old women present during the birth.   This, coupled with the rhythms and contractions of birth, does not reflect a physiological process and experience, but rather become part of it.


Wolfram Aichinger teaches Spanish literature and culture at the University of Vienna. He directs the research project «The Interpretation of Childbirth in Early Modern Spain» (FWF Austrian Science Fund, P 32263-G30). Among his recent publicaciones recientes El Siglo de Oro de la comadre. Testimonios de Inés de Ayala and Childbirth Rhythms and Childbirth Ritual in Early Modern Spain, together with some Comments on the Virtues of Midwives. Aichinger is currently preparing publications on childbirth scenarios in Spanish parish registers and on Spanish midwives at the court of 17th century Vienna.