Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 16, 2006
Lianne McTavish Childbirth and the Display of Authority in Early Modern France Burlington, Vt. and Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005. 272 pp.; 29 b/w ills. Cloth $89.95 (0754636194)

Lianne McTavish’s book, Childbirth and the Display of Authority in Early Modern France, is part of an Ashgate series entitled Women and Gender in the Early Modern World, a group of collected essays and single-authored volumes that investigate subjects as diverse as identity politics, widowhood, and the book trade. Ashgate is, indeed, one of the few publishing houses still willing to produce these sorts of studies, especially in the form of collected essays, and we are indebted to them for their efforts to bring new studies of women and gender into the scholarly realm. Like the other books in this series, McTavish’s is an interdisciplinary study, tackling here the role of surgeon men-midwives in the traditionally female midwifery practice of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century France. Initially, of course, there was a negative perception of these male practitioners, many of whom arrived at deliveries with the whiff of death already about them, carrying their hooks and tire-tête; they were called in as a last resort, to save either the infant or the mother at the expense of the other. However, by the late eighteenth century, these men were considered the birth attendants of choice, their presence regularly requested at elite deliveries over that of their female counterparts, regardless of their obvious lack of first-hand knowledge of pregnancy and labor.

It is this dramatic and somewhat unexpected change that McTavish examines. Her primary sources are twenty-four French obstetrical treatises composed between 1550 and 1730, more than half of them illustrated with woodcuts or engravings of author portraits, dissected female genitalia, unborn children in the womb, and various surgical instruments. These wide-ranging treatises, most of them written in the vernacular by surgeon men-midwives, were directed to other surgeons, as well as to female midwives, although the information contained within them was often too outdated, irrelevant, or obvious to be of much assistance in training and education. This may be why their audience also included pregnant women and even the curious general public, in search of a titillating sexual handbook under the guise of scientific authority.

But McTavish’s book differs from many other studies of these treatises, which tend to posit their very existence as a demonstration of the gradual acceptance of surgeon men-midwives in the birthing chamber and the eventual medicalization of the birth process. Instead, she looks at the treatises as attempts to demonstrate authoritative knowledge, at a time when various kinds of knowledge were striving to assert preeminence in the changing field of childbirth. What is particularly interesting here is what McTavish sees as the mutability of the surgeon man-midwife. According to these texts, he emphasized his authority through a more scientific approach to childbirth, while at the same time he allied himself with the best features of the female midwife, stressing his skills at manual labor (rather than the use of the much feared instruments) as on a par with that of the female midwife’s bodily experience. Here perhaps the most famous illustration from an obstetrical treatise comes into the discussion, the etching “A Man-Mid-Wife” from the frontispiece of John Blunt’s Man-Midwifery Dissected (London, 1793); the figure is half male surgeon, half female midwife, literally divided down the middle and surrounded by their appropriate settings and accessories. But McTavish demonstrates how, unlike the ridicule for the unnatural male midwife evidenced in this British illustration, French treatises provided respectable portraits of these hybrid male practitioners. The distinctions between birth practitioners cannot be governed solely by gender, although commonly held beliefs of the time did indeed associate women with the body and men with the intellect. According to McTavish, the bodies of the male practitioners, as part of the display culture prevalent in early modern France, were critical to the establishment of their identity and therefore the assertion of their knowledge at this crucial junction.

McTavish comes to this conclusion from a variety of angles. She looks into the birth chamber, at both how the male practitioners looked at their patients and, perhaps more interestingly, how their patients looked back at them and how the practitioners presented themselves. She examines the physical appearance and representation of the female midwife, particularly the case of Louise Bourgeois, midwife to Queen Marie de’Medici and the first French female author of an obstetrical treatise. She analyzes the “flexible masculinity” of the man-midwife, focusing on the ways in which both his physical appearance and personality had to reflect ideal male and female characteristics for him to succeed. She investigates the inherent rivalry between the authors of these treatises. And, finally, she considers the illustrations of the womb found in these treatises. Representations of infants floating in awkward or undeliverable positions in their spacious terrarium-like wombs are shown in need of the sort of medical intervention that was provided precisely by the skilled authors of the treatises themselves.

But the reader looking for an examination of the French visual culture of childbirth as evidenced outside of these obstetrical treatises will be disappointed. McTavish’s book is an avowedly multi-faceted study incorporating a variety of methodological approaches. However, because of its limited focus on obstetrical treatises this study will find more readers in history, literature, and the history of science than it will in art history. The rich information available in painted representations of confinement chambers or maternal activities is not examined here, although those representations have been investigated by Pierre Bertrand in a number of fascinating recent studies. Undoubtedly because of my own bias toward that approach, I cannot help but think that a closer look at some of those painted representations, not to mention what might survive of the material culture of childbirth from early modern France, might have enriched McTavish’s study. Nevertheless, by focusing so closely on the obstetrical texts, this book does allow for a detailed examination of a genre of visual material that has been otherwise almost completely ignored by art historians, and it will provide a trove of information for others who want to take on a more comprehensive examination of the art of childbirth. McTavish’s book stands on its own as a rich and thoughtful reinterpretation of the emergence and increasing popularity of the surgeon man-midwife as an authority in the birthing chamber, something he could only accomplish through a careful negotiation with traditional female roles in this display-oriented culture.

Jacqueline Marie Musacchio
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Vassar College