- Childbirth and the Display of Authority in Early Modern France
Originally in its approach, this work is both interdisciplinary and revisionary as it analyses midwifery treatises from historical and theoretical perspectives, moving the texts into the realm of the visual. The Introduction can, at times, seem forceful as the author makes a reasoned case for presenting the subject within the context of visual culture. The exploration which ensues however, is interesting, highly readable and challenging. The work is situated within the visual culture of history and, as such, requires a good understanding on the part of the reader of the historical period in question.
Initially, male midwives in early modern France were associated with physical danger and sexual impropriety but this image changed and, by the eighteenth century, male midwives were an accepted part of deliveries, complicated or otherwise. The primary concern of this work is how male midwives began to appear at deliveries, how they became recognised as experts who embodied obstetrical authority rather than being threatening intruders. Twenty-four obstetrical treaties produced in France between 1550 to 1730, are analysed through visual culture, and are considered in relation to the construction of identity, the performance of gender, defining the body, and the negotiation of social roles in early modern France.
The study offers a different point of view, establishing that there was no single authoritative obstetrical knowledge in early modern France. Rather, various articulations of knowledge vied for that status, revealing a precarious early modern masculinity, combined with unstable representations of femininity. Claims of authority in childbirth were organised, displayed, advanced and defended within the scope of obstetrical treatises. [End Page 159]
Contextualised within the dimensions of art history, the overall approach is through semiotics, the study of signs, and analyses conventional codes of visual representation by understanding that visual images are not necessarily a reflection of the world. The treatises to be examined are introduced, the analysis showing that far more was being transmitted than medical information; most noticeably, the defining and defending of roles which practitioners undertook in the actual birthing room. The visual politics of childbirth reveals that all participants were visually exchanging roles, describing how the authors were viewed, how clients were viewed and how women looked back at men. The treatises themselves are part of the 'display culture' of early modern France where social hierarchies were produced and expressed in material ways.
Louise Bourgeois is one female writer of obstetrical treatises and three of her works are examined as textual representations of the female midwife in print. The midwife for Marie de Medici, Bourgeois appears to be a hybrid figure, on one hand an efficient female midwife, on the other, an educated theoretical author. This image is contrasted with that of works representative of the ideal man-midwife, examining dress, behaviour and their own physically draining efforts in childbirth situations. Similarly, the treatise show that the male image also appears to be flexible, shifting as this does between traditional masculine and feminine characteristics.
Treatises on negative representations of men-midwives were used as a means of self-representation by the authors themselves, their quest for legitimacy in comparison to the younger and more inexperienced members of the male midwife fraternity. Legitimation efforts encompassed information about female relatives of the various authors in childbirth situations. Essentially, the authors were augmenting their own authority and undermining male rivals particularly those younger male midwives. The examination of pictorial representations of the unborn child was perhaps the most interesting of all the chapters. The effort to visualise the unborn was not associated with the rights of that unborn child but, rather, with the significance of the use of skilled hands and the necessity of the embodied knowledge of the experts in replacing maternal intelligence.
Obstetrical treatise from the early modern French period suggest that the entry of men into the world of childbirth and the rooms in which this occurred, was a negotiatory...