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"To Procure them a Speedy Delivery"

Childbirth was a woman’s affair in early modern England, with most deliveries attended by midwives. Midwives were licensed by church officials and could thus be paid for their practice, which did not give way to that of male doctors until the eighteenth century. Along with the midwife, other women would be present at the birth as well, lending a hand in more difficult situations and giving support to both practitioner and mother. Thus, as mothers, midwives, and helpful neighbors, women collected recipes for all kinds of difficulties and illnesses surrounding pregnancy and childbirth.

Thomas Chamberlayne. Compleat midwifes practice. London, 1656

The centerpiece of the volume pictured above was written by Louise Bourgeois Boursier (ca. 1563–1636), midwife to the queen of France, Marie de Médicis, and it records basic lessons of midwifery learned through Boursier’s extensive experience.  Her accounts of unusual cases and general advice about how to choose a wet-nurse do not prescribe as much as they provide examples. Boursier bequeathed her writings “to her Daughter as a Guide for her.”


Other books on midwifery were written by men for a female readership. In one such volume, Thomas Raynalde tells his female readers that the book is meant for a better understanding of “how every thing cometh to pass within your bodies, in the time of conception, of bearing, and of birth.” The images (seen at right) depict examples of “when the birth cometh not naturally” and the midwife must “do all her diligence and pain . . . to turn the birth tenderly with her anointed hands.” Here we see male textual authority in dialogue with the midwife’s experience. The hand authoring the book is male, but the hands facilitating the birth are female.

Helkiah Crooke. Mikrokosmographia. A description of the body of man. London, 1631

Thomas Raynalde. The birth of man-kinde; otherwise named the womans booke. London, 1626


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