blogs, Research

Birth Figures

On Wednesday I attended the Association for Medical Humanities conference at the splendid Keele Hall, at Keele University.

My presentation was focussed on some of the woodcut and copperplate images of the gravid womb which appeared in English language medical texts throughout the early modern period, and I thought I’d share some of these wonderful images here too.

The engravings have their origins in medieval manuscript illustrations such as this one.

At the top of this drawing are four representations of foetal presentations in the womb. These drawings are sometimes referred to as bottle or flask babies because of the design.

Into the print era the images appeared in a German book, Eucharius Rösslin’s The Rosegarden for Pregnant Women and Midwives (1513).

In 1540 this book was translated into English and became known as The Birth of Mankind. This book was a big hit and stayed in print until 1654. It’s hard to imagine a medical book staying current for over a 110 years now!

In The Birth of Mankind the figures are more paired down than the ones in the Rosegarden favouring the clean lines of the medieval flask images. The ones in the image below are from the 1565 edition. One of the things that is striking about the figures is the space around the infant, who is meant to be depicted on the point of delivery, and who would normally be quite cramped by this stage of development. The other thing, of course, is the proportions of the infant’s body. Babies’ heads normally account for 1/5 of their length and in adults this is 1/7. So a quick glance reveals these to be much more in line with an adult body than a baby’s.

 

The images weren’t meant to be accurate to scale though, but rather serve as diagrams of the types of presentations and malpresentations a midwife might encounter. They remained in print for centuries. The next ones are from Jane Sharp’s 1671 Midwives Book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These images keep on going in many variations, and the final image is from a mid-eighteenth century text, A General System of Surgery (1757), but later examples yet can be found.

All images are courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

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If you would like to read more on this topic see:

  • Monica Green, ‘The Sources of Eucharius Rösslin’s “The Rosegarden for pregnant women and midwives” (1513)’, Medical History (2009: 53), 167-192.
  • Lawrence D. Longo and Lawrence P. Reynolds, Wombs with a View: Illustrations of the Gravid Uterus from the Renaissance through the Nineteenth Century (Springer, 2016)
  • Thomas Raynalde, The Birth of Mankind, Otherwise named The Woman’s Book, ed by Elaine Hobby (Ashgate, 2009)
  • Jennifer Richardson, ‘Reading and Hearing The Womans Booke in Early Modern England’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine2015, 89(3), 434-462.
  • Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book, ed by Elaine Hobby (OUP, 1999)
  • Rebecca Whiteley, ‘The birth of mankind’ and the revolutionary image of the foetus in utero’  http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org