Catharina Renaut was a midwife in Åbo during the eighteenth century. She provided assistance to expectant mothers for four decades, carried out a great number of investigations on behalf of the jurisdiction in Åbo and the surrounding area, and served as a witness at many trials.
Catharina Renaut was born Caisa Jakobsdotter in 1709, probably in Åbo. She experienced great hardship already as a young child. The last great plague epidemic of 1711 was quickly followed by the hard years of Russian occupation during the Great Northern War. Similar to many other women, Catharina Renaut spent her youth as a serving girl. At the age of 21 she married the Åbo farmhand Matts Thomasson (later Kättyri). In a period spanning just over ten years she gave birth to five children, but only the youngest survived infancy. During these years Catharina Renaut’s husband rose quickly through the social ranks and became a member of the bourgeoisie. She herself began to work as a midwife in 1739. At this point her two youngest children had also died and the 28-year-old Catharina began to focus on creating and maintaining her circle of clients.
Catharina Renaut’s life tells the story of how an entrepreneurial and intelligent woman from a simple background could quickly, thanks to her good training, have a successful career and attain a well-off social position. From 1711 professional midwives were trained in Stockholm. This included women from the eastern part of the country – that is, Finland – who similarly travelled to Stockholm in order to gain competency in midwifery. Only Karin Gresldotter and Catharina Renaut, both midwives in Åbo, were trained by the professors at Åbo academy. Trainee midwives studied textbooks in the field, attended lectures, were present at dissections and served as birthing assistants to experienced midwives. At the end of their training they took exams and swore the midwives’ oath. The vocational skills of midwifery were not only required at births but also in court cases. In order to determine infanticide the presence of several professionals was called on: doctors, surgeons and midwives. The medical board asserted that midwives who were untrained and had not sworn the midwife’s oath were not allowed to testify in court.
When the Russians re-conquered Åbo in 1742 a number of epidemics broke out. During the “Lesser Wrath” a severe case of influenza ravaged the town. The illness was often fatal and in July 1743 it resulted in Catharina Renaut’s husband’s death. The 34-year-old widow did not allow this to defeat her and subsequently expanded her network to include the bourgeoisie and the academic world. Under the guidance of Herman Spöring, the Swedish-born medical professor at Åbo academy, Catharina Renaut began to study the art of midwifery. She took her exam in 1746 and that year the Åbo magistrates appointed her as the town midwife.
In April 1752 Catharina Renaut took the midwife’s oath before the Åbo magistrates. In December that year she affirmed her ties to the academic world by marrying Åbo academy’s French-born master of languages Pierre Renaut. The fact that there was a significant age gap between them – Pierre Renaut was 15 years her junior – does not appear to have caused surprise. The final proof of the social success of the newlyweds was that their new home was situated in the most exclusive part of the town, very close to the cathedral.
Catharina Renaut died in Åbo in 1787.