cover of book

Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body
by Rebecca Whiteley
University of Chicago Press, 2023
Cloth: 978-0-226-82312-6 | eISBN: 978-0-226-82313-3
Library of Congress Classification RG518.E85W45 2023
Dewey Decimal Classification 618.20094

The first full study of “birth figures” and their place in early modern knowledge-making. 

Birth figures are printed images of the pregnant womb, always shown in series, that depict the variety of ways in which a fetus can present for birth. Historian Rebecca Whiteley coined the term and here offers the first systematic analysis of the images’ creation, use, and impact. Whiteley reveals their origins in ancient medicine and explores their inclusion in many medieval gynecological manuscripts, focusing on their explosion in printed midwifery and surgical books in Western Europe from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century. During this period, birth figures formed a key part of the visual culture of medicine and midwifery and were widely produced. They reflected and shaped how the pregnant body was known and treated. And by providing crucial bodily knowledge to midwives and surgeons, birth figures were also deeply entangled with wider cultural preoccupations with generation and creativity, female power and agency, knowledge and its dissemination, and even the condition of the human in the universe. 

Birth Figures studies how different kinds of people understood childbirth and engaged with midwifery manuals, from learned physicians to midwives to illiterate listeners. Rich and detailed, this vital history reveals the importance of birth figures in how midwifery was practiced and in how people, both medical professionals and lay readers, envisioned and understood the mysterious state of pregnancy.

See other books on: Anatomy | Europe, Western | Human Figure | Illustration of books | Midwifery
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