‘Risk’ is a word midwives have become very used to over the last 20 years. It has been central to policy in the sense that reducing risk is always seen as a core function of any maternity care system. Yet, like so many of the words we use in maternity, it is a slippery concept — hard to define and hard to measure. Every time we think we have got it, it slides away. This paper explores some of the contemporary debates around ‘risk’ in maternity, but then steps back a bit and tries to look at the concept in a different way. This is done by introducing a multidisciplinary network which is considering risk in childbirth in a historical context. History can never give us simple answers about how and why people used to practise, even less about the influence past practice has on care today. What it can do is help us to ask questions in different ways, and give us a different perspective.