- Birthing Bodies in Early Modern France: Stories of Gender and Reproduction
In the past decade, the field of early modern women's studies has generated a wealth of specialized scholarship on obstetrics and gynecology. We now have experts (attentive to factors like class, country, and religion) in everything from lactation to menstruation, midwifery, pregnancy, and the queer bodies that resist birth altogether. Kirk Read's study touches on a number of these subfields in its exploration of the reproducing body in early modern France. Read considers medical and literary texts from the parodic to the poetic as he examines what birth narratives tell us about "the currency of the birthing body in the early modern period . . . its meaning and value in the birthing of human life and of literature" (p. 11).
Read openly pays homage to his intellectual ancestors, from the feminist thinkers whose "gynocritical mission of rescuing and making sense of women writers of the past" informs his own, to their more diversely oriented descendants working on "gender outliers"—hermaphrodites, women who refuse to marry, men who give birth (pp. 6, 8). While this is a generous gesture, it does make it difficult at times to locate Read's unique contribution to the multiple lineages he outlines. What can we learn from turning to French narratives as opposed to English, German, or Spanish, for example? "Stories of Gender" arguably are everywhere; why privilege the specific ones that he does? Toward the end of his Introduction, Read does stake out the newer territory he seeks to explore. Part of what he took away from an undergraduate encounter with Mary Daly was a determination to introduce "men into the gynocentric universe." His project does just that by considering at different points how men "envy, revile, embrace, and transform" birth in their writings (p. 18).
Chapter 1 focuses on the genre of the gossips' gathering, specifically as imagined in the 1622 Les Caquets de l'accouchée. Read argues that the male narrator, spying on a postpartum scene, casts the birthing body as "generative, restorative, and salutary," and not just repulsive (42). In a fascinating move, he then reads the text as a critique of Parisian salon culture and the "women's collaborative speech and assembly" that it underwrote (47). In Chapter 2, Read considers Rabelais's Gargantua alongside the writings of midwife Louise Bourgeois (dite Boursier). Both authors are medical practitioners and, as such, Read argues, their narratives of birth are attempts to display their medical authority. The question of "Who controls the birthing body?" continues into Chapter 3, where Read puts Bourgeois's work into conversation with other medical texts from the time. He introduces the mythological midwife figure Agnodice and explores her various [End Page 278] uses in seventeenth-century midwifery writings as well as in the poetry of Catherine des Roches. Chapter 4 considers the poetry of Pierre Ronsard and other members of the Pléaide elite, specifically their use of breastfeeding imagery as a metaphor for male mentorship. This chapter seems out of place in its focus on nursing, which brings with it unique issues of race and class infection as well as its own history of theological and literary associations that birthing does not necessarily share. Chapter 5, a focus on "unstable bodies," primarily examines images of hermaphrodites. Read's intellectual interest in destabilizing bifurcated notions of gender takes him a bit far here from his original focus on male negotiations of the birthing female body. That said, he does present some illuminating woodcuts from Ambroise Paré and Pierre Boaisteau that suggest male bodies giving birth, and his discussion of these images is especially astute. The final chapter focuses on the phenomenon of couvade, where men experience the feelings of labor and postpartum trauma/recovery along with their wives. In what is his most original contribution to early modern birth studies, Read provides an engrossing discussion of how the travel accounts that describe couvade "appropriate...