1st Edition

Childbirth and the Display of Authority in Early Modern France

ISBN 9780754636199
Published March 29, 2005 by Routledge
272 Pages

USD $46.95

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Book Description

Throughout the early modern period in France, surgeon men-midwives were predominantly associated with sexual impropriety and physical danger; yet over time they managed to change their image, and by the eighteenth century were summoned to attend even the uncomplicated deliveries of wealthy, urban clients. In this study, Lianne McTavish explores how surgeons strove to transform the perception of their midwifery practices, claiming to be experts who embodied obstetrical authority instead of intruders in a traditionally feminine domain. McTavish argues that early modern French obstetrical treatises were sites of display participating in both the production and contestation of authoritative knowledge of childbirth. Though primarily written by surgeon men-midwives, the texts were also produced by female midwives and male physicians. McTavish's careful examination of these and other sources reveals representations of male and female midwives as unstable and divergent, undermining characterizations of the practice of childbirth in early modern Europe as a gender war which men ultimately won. She discovers that male practitioners did not always disdain maternal values. In fact, the men regularly identified themselves with qualities traditionally respected in female midwives, including a bodily experience of childbirth. Her findings suggest that men's entry into the lying-in chamber was a complex negotiation involving their adaptation to the demands of women. One of the great strengths of this study is its investigation of the visual culture of childbirth. McTavish emphasizes how authority in the birthing room was made visible to others in facial expressions, gestures, and bodily display. For the first time here, the vivid images in the treatises are analysed, including author portraits and engravings of unborn figures. McTavish reveals how these images contributed to arguments about obstetrical authority instead of merely illustrating the written content of the books. At the same time, her arguments move far beyond the lying-in chamber, shedding light on the exchange of visual information in early modern France, a period when identity was largely determined by the precarious act of putting oneself on display.

Table of Contents

Contents: Introduction: interpreting obstetrical treatises; French treatises 1550-1730: a survey; Risking exposure: the visual politics of childbirth; Reading the midwife's body: Louise Bourgeois; Looking the part: men-midwives on display; Bodies in labour: rhetoric, rivalry, and male maternity; Handling the unborn: men-midwives between vision and blindness; Conclusions; Selected bibliography; Index.

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Lianne McTavish is a Professor in the Department of Art and Design, University of Alberta, Canada. She has published work on early modern French visual culture, the history of childbirth, and critical museum theory.


'This illuminating and original study of early modern French obstetrical treatises extends the current revisionary analysis of the history of midwifery into the realm of the visual. McTavish’s historical and theoretical exploration of images and the visual politics of childbirth supplies a crucial new facet to our understanding of the historical sources, to the constructions of gender and medical knowledge in the period, to the early modern body, and to the complex and shifting representation of the professions associated with childbirth.' Elizabeth D. Harvey, University of Toronto, Canada 'Lianne McTavish's vibrant inter-disciplinary study draws on obstetrical treatises and images to redefine and refine the emergence of the man-midwife in early modern Europe. This rich and ground-breaking study will inform and fascinate historians of midwifery and medicine, as it expertly maps out changes in midwifery practice and the representation of knowledge, leading to the emergence of a new medical authority.' Hilary Marland, Reader in History and Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick '... extremely interesting... Focusing on the visual, and more specifically on the iconography in birthing texts instead of these manuals' written contents, this book is unique in its approach...' American Historical Review 'Lianne McTavish has written a fascinating account of the visual culture of childbirth in early modern France... in a refreshing style light on jargon, she explicates what looking and being looked at meant in birthing rooms. McTavish's work makes several important contributions to the growing literature on early modern childbirth and midwifery... Historians of early modern medicine, of childbirth and of the body will all enjoy this book.' Social History of Medicine '... a highly readable book, one that offers many fresh insights and which raises intelligent questions.' Renaissance Quarterly '... Lianne McTavish's careful and thoug