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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 256-266

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Forum: Biology, Sexuality, and Morality in Eighteenth-Century France

Conjectures and Speculations: Jean Astruc, Obstetrics, and Biblical Criticism in Eighteenth-Century France

Ana M. Acosta

It is strange how the memory of a man may float to posterity on what he would have himself regarded as the most trifling of his works. Ask in succession a score of doctors, "Who was Astruc?" and the expression aroused indicates that at least in our profession he is "clean forgotten as the dead man out of mind"; and yet librarians and dealers in second-hand books know only too well what a prolific writer he was in the first half of the eighteenth century. But ask any theologian, any man interested in the history of the Bible, the same question, and his face at once brightens,--or darkens,--as he replies, "Oh, Jean Astruc, he was the father of modern biblical criticism."

Sir William Osler, "Jean Astruc and the Higher Criticism" (1912)

What is perhaps strangest about the critical vagaries of Jean Astruc's writings, evident in Osler's remarks above, is the degree to which medicine and theology have come to appear as natural antitheses. Whether attacked for his conservatism by the philosophes or praised for his innovation by the medical establishment, Astruc's combination of biblical exegesis and medical investigations was taken for granted by his eighteenth-century contemporaries. The first virtue of Osler's wholly accurate parable is to call attention to a long-standing divorce of disciplines that was quite foreign to eighteenth-century Europe. The epistemological shift in the division between practical and theoretical study during the fifty years roughly following Astruc's death in 1766 entailed a professionalization of medicine that remains with us to this day. Conversely, the two possible reactions Osler attributes to Astruc's latter-day readers defines the divisions within theological circles today just as much as it did in Astruc's time, between those who consider the historical and philological approach to scripture threatening and those who do not. Because he has, in fact, been influential in both fields--although in very different ways--Astruc's life, writings, and reception have been treated piecemeal in the scholarship of each. As the originator of what came to be called the documentary hypothesis of the Bible, his name heads every study of modern biblical criticism, although his exegetical writing is almost never actually read. As an active representative of the medical establishment, he was involved in many, if not every one, of the professional controversies of his day. 1 This essay seeks to contextualize Astruc's oeuvre within a mid-century Parisian milieu in which medicine and exegesis were considered in the same breath, and to address some of the questions raised by the paradoxical coexistence of the Enlightenment and religion in eighteenth-century science.

Astruc was best known during his lifetime for publications in nearly every field of eighteenth-century medicine. He also engaged in the fields of natural history, history, and, most importantly for his posthumous reputation, theology. 2 The first part of this essay studies Astruc's Conjectures sur la Genese (1753) in the dual contexts of Astruc's professional life and of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century [End Page 256] biblical criticism. The second part focuses on his perhaps most practically oriented book, L'Art d'accoucher (1765), a handbook of midwifery, which was translated and diffused throughout Europe. After situating The Art of Midwifery within the medical controversies of the time, especially the bitter struggle between surgeons and doctors over control of the instruction and practice of medicine, I turn to the final section of the book, an extraordinary exegetical discursus on the navel. In conclusion, I argue that the apparent inconsistencies of Astruc's methodology in fact derive from a cohesive understanding of the world combining empirical observation with divine revelation. By the very fact that Astruc's encyclopedic learning now appears obsolete and "unenlightened," it challenges what has become the grand narrative of progress descending...


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