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  • Childbirth and the Display of Authority in Early Modern France
  • Valerie Worth-Stylianou
Lianne McTavish . Childbirth and the Display of Authority in Early Modern France. Women and Gender in the Early Modern World. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005. xiv + 257 pp. index. illus. bibl. $79.95. ISBN: 0–7546–3619–4.

Over the last decade, childbirth and midwifery in early modern England have been the subjects of a number of monographs by social historians, historians of medicine, and literary scholars. Although parallel pioneering work on early modern France was produced by French scholars between 1980 and 1990 — notably by J. Gélis, M. Laget, and E. Berriot-Salvadore — English-language contributions to this field have concentrated heavily on exceptional figures such as the midwives Louise Bourgeois and Madame du Coudray. Lianne McTavish sets herself a more ambitious brief, to study a range of obstetric treatises published in French over nearly two centuries — coinciding broadly with the rise of the accoucheur (man-midwife surgeon) — in order to analyze how men came to be recognized as experts embodying obstetrical authority. As an art historian by training, but also drawing heavily upon theoretical models culled from semiotics and cultural studies, she organizes her enquiry around five different "sites of display" identified within the treatises, and considers their relationship to topoi including the construction of identity, the performance of gender, the definition of the body, and the negotiation of social roles.

This approach eschews a chronological survey in favor of a thematically based enquiry. The result is a highly readable book, one that offers many fresh insights and which raises intelligent questions. However, there is a downside: scholarly foundations are too often unreliable, primarily due to the neglect of a book-historical axis. In chapter 1 McTavish explains her selection of the twenty-four obstetric treatises under consideration. The exclusion of all works not originally "conceived" in French — that is, translations from Latin, German, Italian, and so on — seems to me mistaken in a period in which many so-called translations [End Page 180] disguise substantial reworkings. The very popular obstetric and gynecological works of Liebault would be a case in point: it is startling to find only one reference to this author in the index. Among the treatises McTavish has studied, there are a number of dating errors: Paré's Broefve Declaration first appeared in 1549 (1550 was the date of the reissue); Fontaine's short work was first published, under a different title, in 1607 (1611 is a reprint); and Bienassis's translation of Rösslin is from 1563 (1586 is the third edition). Although not substantial in themselves, these inaccuracies are indicative of an approach which unfortunately dissociates the copy of the printed text McTavish had to hand from its publishing history. Thus, when she looks — very interestingly — at the engravings and figures in various treatises, she may be right to play down the status of individual artists who created them, but she surely needed to look far more closely at the commissioning role of publishers. And she perpetuates the erroneous tendency among scholars of French midwifery treatises to accord equal weight to the pronouncements of each text without much regard for evidence of its circulation. For example, Bury's treatise of 1623 may have unusual engravings, but it was never reprinted and few copies have survived, indicating a limited circulation. Its value to the historian should thus be sharply differentiated from that of Joubert's best-selling but unillustrated Erreurs populaires. The other fundamental limitation of McTavish's analysis is the relative lack of attention to the linguistic parameters of the medical debates. She observes at the outset that it is difficult to locate what is specifically "French" about the treatises. Her main point of comparison throughout is with English treatises of the same period. I would suggest that it would have also been fruitful to focus on comparisons and contrasts with obstetric texts available in Latin, since one of the sharpest subjects of the many quarrels between authors — chapter 5 gives some good indications of the debates and their rhetoric — is precisely an abiding suspicion of the use of the French language for the...


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pp. 180-181
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Archived 2009
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