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  • The King’s Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame du Coudray
  • Elborg Forster
Nina Rattner Gelbart. The King’s Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame du Coudray. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. xi + 347 pp. Ill. $35.00.

Americans have been fascinated with the biography of Martha Ballard (1735–1802), the pioneer midwife who, coming out of a tradition of “social childbirth,” delivered babies and treated a wide variety of ailments in the newly settled wilderness of Maine.1 Midwifery was a very different matter in eighteenth-century France, as we learn from Nina Rattner Gelbart’s wonderfully readable biography of an almost contemporary French midwife, Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray (1715–94).

Madame du Coudray, trained by an established midwife and certified at the age of twenty-five after a demanding examination before a panel of royal surgeons and the four sworn midwives of Paris, became “the king’s midwife” at forty. Commissioned by the government, she ceaselessly traveled throughout the French provinces in order to teach young women as well as established surgeons the latest techniques of delivery. The government’s policy was based on the widespread but erroneous perception that France was undergoing depopulation, in [End Page 503] large part through the incompetence and carelessness of the traditional midwives who plied their trade in the provinces without the benefit of “enlightened” obstetrical information. The provincial intendants were therefore instructed to give stipends to promising young women and to provide housing for the royal midwife and her assistants. At length she received a royal “pension,” to be continued even in retirement, of 8,000 livres per annum—the equivalent of what a decorated general would receive. The king’s midwife was a powerful woman who knew how to deal with powerful men on an equal footing without, for the most part, upsetting them. She was a good politician and a very hard worker.

In the course of a quarter-century, du Coudray traveled hundreds of miles (her itinerary is given on p. 7), taught in more than forty cities, and instructed an estimated ten thousand women in the newest techniques of childbirth. She also wrote a beautifully illustrated textbook, Abrégé de l’art des accouchements (1777), and invented a teaching “machine”—that is, a life-sized model of the female pelvic area complete with fetus, umbilical cord, and placenta (photograph on p. 62). One of these machines was left wherever she taught, so that “her women” could continue to practice on them and also instruct others.

All of these facts can be established from a wide variety of public documents (reports, petitions, administrative correspondence), which Gelbart has assembled with exemplary diligence and mined with exemplary inventiveness. However, there are no private documents (diaries, letters, memoirs) to shed light on the midwife’s family background, her personal relationships, her joys and sorrows. The “mystery” of Madame du Coudray is so deep that the author surmises that she may well have been a foundling; that she may never have been married, calling herself “Madame” for greater respectability; and that she may have created a family for herself when she declared one of her favorite students to be her niece.

Under these circumstances, Gelbart has had to rethink the genre of biography, and this too she has done with great subtlety and imagination. Refusing to follow the postmodernist credo to its logical conclusion, she welcomes “the opportunity for useful storytelling anyway” (p. 11). And useful it is indeed to re-create a birth conducted by young, newly graduated Marguerite Le Boursier (pp. 31–36), contrasting it with the same event taking place under the supervision of a traditional midwife (pp. 79–87); to analyze the French debate over depopulation; to describe intrigues in high places; or to disentangle the motives of royal administrators and competing surgeons.

The King’s Midwife is enhanced by an extensive bibliography and a thorough index. This valuable contribution to medical history is also a pleasure to read.

Elborg Forster
Baltimore, Maryland


1. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 (New York: Knopf, 1990; Vintage, 1991...

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