- Midwife to the Queen of France: Diverse Observations by Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois’s works deserve to be far better known today on several counts. She was the first practising midwife in Europe to publish an account of her professional [End Page 451] experiences, and also one of the rare French women of her age to write in a professional rather than literary capacity. Her case histories provide valuable insights into women’s medicine and family life at both the royal court (where she attended all the deliveries of Marie de’ Medici) and through all levels of Paris society. Of interest to feminist historians is her staunch defence of the right of midwives rather than male surgeons to attend normal deliveries, at a time when male-midwifery was just beginning to gain some ground in Paris. The original French of her three-volume account (published in 1609, 1617, and 1626) is not overly difficult for early modern scholars; however, there is no critical edition of the Diverses Observations (although in 2000 François Rouget and Colette Winn published an excellent selection of her autobiographical texts, Récit véritable de la naissance de messeigneurs et dames les enfans de France (Geneva: Droz), which I reviewed in FS, 56 (2002), 235). French scholars and anglophone readers alike should therefore be grateful to Stephanie O’Hara and Alison Klairmont Lingo for making Bourgeois’s three volumes available in their entirety in this annotated translation. Klairmont Lingo is responsible for the Editor’s Introduction, for most of the very detailed footnotes clarifying historical and medical references in the text, and for an extensive glossary of early modern therapeutic methods and ingredients. She expertly situates Bourgeois within the much broader social and institutional context of midwifery in France through the late Middle Ages and the sixteenth century, yet she also recognizes — and applauds — Bourgeois’s exceptional status, actively reflecting on her own profession once chosen to serve the queen. Building on studies by critics such as Wendy Perkins, Lianne McTavish, and Colette Winn, Klairmont Lingo pays close attention to Bourgeois’s defensive strategies, from her self-assured portrait (engraved by Thomas de Leu) to the rhetorical devices asserting her right to publish in the face of (unnamed) male critics. Hence, Klairmont Lingo makes a compelling case for understanding this text within the early modern Querelle des femmes. In her style, Bourgeois deliberately distances herself from the ornate, learned language she associates with male physicians, preferring to offer what she presents as the unadorned truth of her embodied, innate knowledge. O’Hara captures this down-to-earth lexis very well in her English version. However, in her Translator’s Introduction, she reminds us that Bourgeois’s syntax often meanders, with proliferations of long sentences, sometimes peppered with anacolutha. In the interests of intelligibility, O’Hara has allowed herself editorial latitude to cut through these. I think she has struck the right balance, and the combination of her vigorous, graceful version and Klairmont Lingo’s impressive scholarship will allow many new readers to encounter Bourgeois. Specialists interested primarily in the language of seventeenth-century French women writers will still need to return to the original text (available on Gallica) until a full critical edition exists in French.