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  • Birthing Bodies in Early Modern France: Stories of Gender and Reproduction
  • Sybil M. Jack
Read, Kirk D., Birthing Bodies in Early Modern France: Stories of Gender and Reproduction (Women and Gender in the Early Modern World), Farnham, Ashgate, 2011; hardback; pp. xiii, 205; 14 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £55.00; ISBN 9780754666325.

Like many literary scholars today, Kirk Read has added works of lesser or no special standing to the canonical literary works once deemed to have the literary merit worthy of study. These include the work of Catherine and Madeleine des Roches, Les Serees, and the satirical work Les Caquets de l’Accouchée which have hitherto mainly been the preserve of historians and discussed at their basic literal level of sense. Once mainly seen as a commentary on the phenomenon of the ‘ruelle’ and the literary and factional history of the Court, this written material is now the subject of abstruse literary analysis and the boundaries between historical and literary approaches have been broken down.

This is particularly evident in studies like this one, addressed to aspects of women’s lives that were once regarded as private and to the long-running discussion of the involvement of men in the birthing process and their preoccupation with the unclean aspects and yet attractions of the body. Read uses the normal list of obstetric works as set out in bibliographies such as that of Valerie Worth-Stylianou, that are well known and already widely exploited and also the stories of births and birthing that literary sixteenth-century thinkers retained from the classical past.

The materials available for France are rather more substantial than most countries and over the last two decades new scholarly editions of some of the more important sources have made studies such as this one easier. Even so, more weight is being placed on the work of Louise Bourgeois (Boursier) than it can perhaps bear. Read, however, limits himself to presenting her work as a literary oeuvre that provides him with some examples of the woman’s sense of modesty and reluctance to endure male sight or touch.

He is not, in fact, directly concerned with the practice of childbirth in the period but with the idea of the body, control of the production of offspring, and unnatural events. He focuses his discussion of particular examples against the increasingly critical controversy over how the nature of childbirth was seen by the observer and the observed, the controlled and the controller, the speaker and the audience. He is especially interested in the appropriation of the female body – in fantasy or reality – by a male and vice-versa. The instability of gender identity is critical to his thought.

The chapters in this book, each of which focuses on a specific aspect of the birthing body such as touching and telling, are only loosely linked to a [End Page 244] central argument; they approach it from different texts, different periods and aspects of birth such as hermaphrodites, the birth of monsters, and stories of male parturition. Read’s main preoccupation is the aim and ambition of men in their representation of relationships created by the processes of birth and the extent to which their ideal goal might be parthenogenesis. The argument that lack of control over childbearing creates insecurity in their sense of authority and perhaps identity meshes well with Lianne McTavish’s arguments, but if this is the conclusion Read was attempting to reach, it needs to be more tightly presented.

He might perhaps examine more closely how far the overt purpose of a text like Les Serées, which acknowledges its purpose as bringing together ideas and authorities that were already known to a literary audience, can be shaped to elucidate gendered anxieties of the time. He reads his texts in search of various levels of symbolism, some of which are perhaps counter-intuitive or questionable. He would do well to engage with the long-running debate over when or whether symbolism that would not have been recognized by the authors may reasonably be extracted from a text.

His authors would have recognized the standard fourfold medieval religious divisions that were employed in glossing...


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