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.
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.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.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.