Blog

‘The birth of mankind’ and the revolutionary image of the foetus in utero

Show Navigation
11/06/2015

By | Early Medicine

Birth figure from 16th century book.

EPB/7091/B: Eucharius Rösslin, Der schwanngeren Frawen und Hebammen Rosengarte (Augsburg: Heinrich Steiner, 1529), leaf C4v. Wellcome Images L0004292.

This is one of the first images of the unborn child printed in Europe. Produced in the early 16th century in a book on midwifery, it offered readers a fascinating peek at the child hidden in the belly, and instituted an iconographic tradition lasting hundreds of years.

In 16th century Europe midwifery was practised almost exclusively by women. Levels of training and expertise varied by country and region, but in all cases childbirth was a secret affair, from which men were excluded in all but the direst of emergencies. It is hard to reconstruct exactly what practices and remedies were used by these female practitioners, because they left no written records. This was partly due to illiteracy among women at the time, but also to the fact that the topics of pregnancy and birth were felt to be secret, mysterious, and unsuitable for publication.

It was in this context that the German physician Eucharius Rösslin (c. 1470–c. 1526) published his book on midwifery, ‘Der swangern Frauwen und Hebammen Rosegarten’ (‘Rose Garden for Pregnant Women and Midwives’), in 1513. The aim of this book was to disseminate information among German midwives in their own language. In fact Rösslin had no experience of midwifery, and his book was mainly based on texts from classical antiquity. As such, it probably wasn’t a great help to the midwives who read it. But the text was revolutionary in bringing the secret world of midwifery into the public sphere, allowing many people, including men, to read about the pregnant body and the unborn child.

Birth figures in Wellcome ms. 49.

MS. 49 (Apocalypse, c. 1420), folio 38r. Wellcome Images L0029310.

In Rösslin’s text was a series of illustrations, called ‘birth figures’, which depict the different ways in which a foetus can be positioned during labour. These images had been circulating in manuscripts on gynaecology and midwifery since at least the sixth century, but the woodcuts in Rösslin’s book, made by Martin Caldenbach, a pupil of Albrecht Dürer, brought them out of the scholar’s library to a much broader readership.

Birth figure from 16th century book.

Birth figure from the 1545 edition of the English translation of Rösslin’s text: EPB/7358/B: The byrth of mankynde, otherwyse named the womans booke (London: By Tho. Ray[nalde], 1545), folio 102r. Wellcome Images L0041837.

Rösslin’s book was extremely popular, and went through many editions in both German and other European languages. It was translated into English in 1540 as ‘The Byrth of Mankynde’. The English edition also reproduced Rösslin’s images, but as expensive and prestigious engravings, rather than woodcuts. It is not known who engraved these plates, but if they were made in England, then they are some of the very earliest English engravings.

Clearly, the English printer, Thomas Raynalde, felt that the book was important and was willing to invest in expensive printing processes. The translator, Richard Jonas, describes ‘the syngular utilite and profete that ensueth unto all such as rede it and most spetiallye unto all women (for whose onely cause it was wrytten).’ Readers evidently agreed, as the book sold well. Only five years later a new extended edition was printed, this time with extra illustrations copied from Andreas Vesalius’s recently published, groundbreaking anatomy. The book remained in print well into the 17th century, and initiated the production of many more midwifery books and birth figures.

Image of female torso in 16th century book.

Illustration of the female torso copied from Vesalius: EPB/7358/B: The byrth of mankynde, otherwyse named the womans booke (London: By Tho. Ray[nalde], 1545), folio 77v. Wellcome Images L0041834.

It seems that the illustrations, both the birth figures and the anatomy, were highly valued by readers. In many copies of the early editions, including the Wellcome Library’s 1540 copy, the illustrations have been removed. Reasons for this are not known, but it seems likely that owners wanted to be able to display and examine this fascinating new kind of image outside the confines of a bound book.

In the 16th century, pregnancy was still very much understood in a religious context. Conception and the growth of the foetus were among God’s greatest and most mysterious wonders. When the foetus was thought about, it tended to be through a religious or domestic metaphor. Indeed, foetal growth was also understood as a domestic process, comparable to growing fruit or baking bread.

Birth figures offered something new because they directly represented the unseen child, always male, healthy and cherubic, in the womb. Although these images were primarily intended to teach midwives how to identify and correct difficult presentations, they also served to reassure and fascinate viewers, both professional and non-professional. These images became something of a trade symbol for early modern midwives, who could entertain, distract and reassure labouring women by displaying them. An integral part of midwifery books well into the 18th century, birth figures flourished because they appealed to people’s fascination with the unborn and invisible child.

Further reading:

When midwifery became the male physician’s province: the sixteenth century handbook the rose garden for pregnant women and midwives, ed. and trans. Wendy Arons (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1994).

Monica H. Green, ‘The sources of Eucharius Rösslin’s “Rosegarden for pregnant women and midwives” (1513)’, Medical History, 53 (2009), 167–192.

The birth of mankind: otherwise named, The woman’s book, ed. Elaine Hobby (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).

Rebecca Whiteley

Rebecca Whiteley

Rebecca Whiteley is a PhD student in the History of Art department at University College London. She is currently researching her thesis on early modern images of the pregnant body and the unborn child in England and France. Her wider specialisms are in social art history and print culture.

See more posts by this author

5 comments on ‘The birth of mankind’ and the revolutionary image of the foetus in utero
  • Helen King

    15/06/2015

    I suppose one question these fascinating images raise is how far viewers really thought this was ‘seeing inside’/’having a peek inside’ the body? Because as many commentators have noted, the babies are represented with adult, or at least non-baby, proportions. Would the original viewers have focused on the baby or simply on the relative positions?

  • Cecile

    18/07/2015

    How exciting to see these early prints. I wonder why the baby was drawn as an adult, surely it was recognized that new-borns are different, or were they swaddled immediately so only the mother or wet-nurse saw them naked? In contrast the anatomical drawings are very closely observed. Beautiful!

  • Elma Brenner

    Elma Brenner

    16/10/2015

    Rebecca Whiteley responds: ‘It is fascinating that these supposed fetuses look so developed. Not only do they look more grown up, but they seem to be more physically capable and mentally aware than true newborns. The historian Lianne McTavish has argued that these early modern images of fetuses were modelled on putti or cherubs, because that is what artists of the period were trained to draw.

    I think how they were viewed depends on who was looking at them and in what context. While midwives and physicians may have been focusing only on the positions, these books were also read widely by non-professionals for whom, I think, the look of the fetuses would have been important. One argument might be that many of the stories told about pregnancy in medical texts of this period described a fetus that was more active, capable and aware than fetuses are. Many people believed, for example, that the fetus could initiate labour when it felt that the uterus had become too cramped and oppressive, by breaking the uterine membranes with its fingers. In a culture that talked seriously about the fetus in these terms, it is perhaps less strange that people might have envisioned it looking so grown up and capable.’

  • Tina Horrocks

    29/04/2017

    It’s fascinating to see the early illustrations. These images are reminiscent of the representations of religious images.The babies have a cherubic appearance more like a young child than an unborn baby. The hair is thick and looks coiffured. These early images probably irresistibly drew the attention of the midwives providing a glimpse of the previously unseen.

  • David Harley

    27/05/2018

    “Read widely”. And we know this how? Note that the 2nd edition was very different from the Jonas one, in several ways.

Related Blog Posts