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History of childbirth: fertility, pregnancy and birth in early modern Europe. Essay review.

Medical History
Cambridge University Press
Publication Date
  • Research Article
  • Anthropology


Essay Reviews JACQUES GELIS, History of childbirth: fertility, pregnancy and birth in early modern Europe, transl. Rosemary Morris, Cambridge and Oxford, Polity Press, 1991, pp. xvii, 326, illus., £39.50 (0-7456-0677-6). It is a paradox that although the sources on childbirth in the past are so voluminous that "Historians are in danger of losing themselves in a labyrinthine superabundance of documentation" (p. xiv) we still know little about normal labours and the customs surrounding childbirth in early modern Europe. Here, to fill that gap, is what the author describes as "the fruit of ten years research into the anthropology of childbirth": a compendium of old beliefs, folklore, rituals, and customs concerning menstruation, infertility, pregnancy, childbirth, infant care and so forth and even a memorable section on the naming of children. There are numerous case-histories of the normal and abnormal, many of them gruesome, and some bizarre, such as the accounts of women who died and were buried undelivered, but when exhumed there was the baby between their legs. The variety and detail make compulsive reading, for there is much original material. As a fascinating collection of folklore this book may well achieve deserved popularity. Sadly however, it fails to live up to its English title as a history of childbirth in early modern Europe. There is no spatial or temporal structure. We zigzag round France at speed from Picardy to the Jura, from Cantal to Aurillac, from Angouleme, Avignon, Soissons, and Strasbourg to Le Mans, leaping from one century to another. There is little historical analysis. There is much that is slipshod, and inaccurate. There are assertions based on little or no evidence, and the style is often pretentious. From the first chapter ('Man, the Earth and the Cosmos') there is a great deal about macrocosms and microcosms, Mother Earth and the cycle of life. It is difficult to understand the purpose of passages such as "The most familiar image of human destiny is the span, or c

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