Roy Porter Essay Prize


Birth figures, or print images of the fetus in the uterus, were immensely popular in midwifery and surgical books in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But despite their central role in the visual culture of pregnancy and childbirth during this period, very little critical attention has been paid to them. This article seeks to address this dearth by examining birth figures in their cultural context and exploring the various ways in which they may have been used and interpreted by early modern viewers. I argue that, through this process of exploring and contextualising early modern birth figures, we can gain a richer and more nuanced understanding of the early modern body, how it was visualised, understood and treated.

midwifery, childbirth, pregnancy, visual culture, print culture

An earnest, cherubic toddler floats in what looks like an inverted glass flask. Accompanied by numerous fellows, each figure demonstrates a different acrobatic posture (Figure 1). These images seem strange to a modern eye: while we might suppose they represent a fetus in utero (which indeed they do), we are troubled by their non-naturalistic style, and perhaps by a feeling that they are rich in a symbolism with which we are not familiar. Their first viewers, in England in the 1540s, might also have found them strange, but in a different way, as these images offered to them an entirely new picture of a bodily interior that was largely understood to be both visually inaccessible and inherently mysterious. These images were published in the first print book in English to discuss pregnancy and childbirth, and to address itself to a female readership.

Fig. 1

Anon. 1545. ‘The Byrthe Fygures’. Four Plates. Engraving. Plates: 10.5 × 15.7 cm. Printed in Eucharius Rösslin, The Byrth of Mankynde, Otherwyse Named the Womans Booke, T. Raynalde (trans), (London: Thomas Raynalde, 1545). Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.

Fig. 1

Anon. 1545. ‘The Byrthe Fygures’. Four Plates. Engraving. Plates: 10.5 × 15.7 cm. Printed in Eucharius Rösslin, The Byrth of Mankynde, Otherwyse Named the Womans Booke, T. Raynalde (trans), (London: Thomas Raynalde, 1545). Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.

Originally published in German in 1513 by the physician Eucharius Rösslin, the book was translated into English under the title The Byrth of Mankynde by Richard Jonas (1540) and then again by Thomas Raynalde (1545). Although much of the medical content was not new in scholarly terms, this book and those that followed it radically changed the medical, cultural and social fabric of childbirth by introducing the subject to a broad reading audience for the first time: men and women, professional and lay. Over the next 250 years, childbirth went from an intensely private, all-female and essentially non-medical affair to a medical discipline presided over and publicly discussed by trained and professional male practitioners. These images were in print in midwifery books throughout this period of change, and as such they enable us to build a picture of how early modern people of all kinds, from pregnant women and midwives to surgeons and man-midwives understood, envisioned and treated the pregnant body and the unborn child.

These are images that depict the fetus in the uterus, but more than that, they are images that depict presentation, or the variety of postures a fetus can assume during labour. They range from the usual ‘cephalic’ or head-first presentation, to a variety of other difficult or undeliverable positions. Always printed in series, these images amount to an early modern system for understanding and categorising the possibilities of fetal malpresentation. Despite being widely reproduced in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these images have no established name or descriptor within scholarship. Lianne McTavish, for instance, calls them ‘images of the unborn’, Lyle Massey ‘the free-floating uterus’, Harold Speert ‘figures of the fetus in utero’ and K. B. Roberts and J. D. W. Tomlinson ‘figure[s] of the gravid uterus’.1 I propose, instead, that the term ‘birth figure’—used in The Byrth of Mankynde—might help scholars to think about these images as a unique iconographic group: distinct, in both composition and system of representation, from other images of pregnancy such as full-figure anatomical gravida figures.2

Rösslin’s book was enormously popular, among midwives and physicians, and also among the lay public. It was translated and published all over Europe and spawned the production of a whole genre of popular medical literature. In 1554, a Swiss surgeon Jakob Rüff published his own midwifery manual in Latin and German, De Conceptu et Generatione Hominis (1554). His book had newly commissioned birth figures and, like Rösslin’s work, was translated and published all over Europe (Figure 2).3 It is on the images found originally in these two works that this article will focus.4

Fig. 2

Anon. 1637. [four birth figures]. Woodcut. Figures: 4.5 × 7 cm. Printed in Jakob Rüff, The Expert Midwife or An Excellent and Most Necessary Treatise on the Generation and Birth of Man (London: E.G., 1637). Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.

Fig. 2

Anon. 1637. [four birth figures]. Woodcut. Figures: 4.5 × 7 cm. Printed in Jakob Rüff, The Expert Midwife or An Excellent and Most Necessary Treatise on the Generation and Birth of Man (London: E.G., 1637). Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.

In England, Rösslin's book and his birth figures dominated the sixteenth century, Raynalde's translation going through 12 editions between 1545 and 1654. Rüff’s book, on the other hand, was only translated into English in 1637, and saw only one edition. However, his birth figures were appropriated by many other authors and came to dominate the visual culture of midwifery illustration after 1600 in England. Copies of Rüff’s birth figures were printed in at least six other midwifery titles, most of which went through multiple editions.5 While not every midwifery manual contained illustrations, many did and, until the late seventeenth century, most conformed more or less closely to the models of Rösslin and Rüff.6 Only with new developments in midwifery training and practice, and with the translation of new French manuals in the last decades of seventeenth century, did these two sets of birth figures begin to be overshadowed by new innovations in the genre. This article focuses on the period between 1540 and c.1680 in England because it was during this period that Rösslin and Rüff’s birth figures, and copies made of them, dominated the visual culture of midwifery manuals and, consequently, exercised a great influence over visual thinking about the pregnant body and the fetus in utero. As such, they both reflected and affected the period’s body culture and the ways in which people understood, visualised and treated the pregnant body and the unborn child.

While birth figures were widely disseminated as illustrations in midwifery and surgical books for several centuries, they have received almost no sustained attention from either historians or art historians. Historians of medical imagery have tended to employ a trivialising language, describing birth figures as ‘drawings of adult manikins, masquerading as fetuses ‘bottled-up’ inside the uterus, as ‘bizarre portrayals of fetuses in utero’ and as ‘wildly fantastic pictures’.7 Such texts tend to situate birth figures in a narrative of increasingly ‘accurate’ and ‘naturalistic’ portrayals of the bodily interior, comparing them, to their detriment, both with Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings, and the eighteenth-century anatomical illustrations commissioned by William Hunter and William Smellie.8

Some historians of midwifery and the body have, however, in recent decades, approached birth figures in less teleological and more historically sensitive ways. Some have, for instance, incorporated birth figures into feminist analyses of how power, agency and knowledge was lost by midwives to doctors and male practitioners during the early modern period. Such histories have tended to emphasise birth figures as images that functioned for male practitioners to deny the agency and the importance of the female body in birth, and to establish the fetus as the primary patient.9 I term this interpretation the ‘maternal erasure’ theory, as scholars such as Karen Newman and Eve Keller interpret the disembodied uterus as a statement of the irrelevance of the rest of maternal body to the practice of midwifery, and the importance of the fetus as individual. I will argue later in this article, however, within an early modern context, that the ‘maternal erasure’ interpretation can give at best a partial, and at worst an anachronistic, view of how such images were used and understood.

Other historians have suggested that birth figures are either ‘mnemonic’ devices, according to Mary Fissell, or ‘diagrams’, according to Elaine Hobby, that help midwives to understand and remember the variety of fetal malpresentations.10 While such interpretations may be more historically sensitive, neither historian interrogates or substantiates their analysis. Indeed, to my knowledge, the only scholar to treat these images at length is the art historian Lianne McTavish, who argues that ‘regarding images of the unborn as diagrams fosters a more historical understanding of them, while providing insight into how they actively produced meaning’.11 McTavish argues that birth figures were never intended to look like the interior of the body, but were instead images that helped practitioners to understand the invisible interior and practice upon it.

In this article, I will expand on McTavish’s argument, proposing a more detailed model for how the birth figure as diagram or key might have worked for early modern midwives. But I will also propose that neither ‘maternal erasure’ nor ‘diagrammatic’ analyses tell the whole story of these images, that in fact birth figures also engaged with parts of early modern body culture that are largely overlooked today. In my approach to these images I have followed Michael Baxandall’s work on the ‘period eye’, which attempts to look at images as they would have been seen by a contemporary viewer, through the lens of the culture in which they were produced. Such an approach, as Baxandall argues, assumes that ‘social history and art history are continuous, each offering necessary insights into the other’.12 I, therefore, approach birth figures as historical primary material: establishing a broad social and cultural context for these images and building a ‘period eye’ with which to look at them, and thus interrogating what they themselves can tell us about the culture that produced them. Baxandall argues of the historic image that ‘one has to learn to read it, just as one has to learn to read a text from a different culture, even when one knows, in a limited sense, the language’.13 This article will propose a ‘cognitive style’ for reading birth figures that does not rely exclusively on the context of new anatomical discoveries and the progression of obstetrical technique. Rather, to ‘read’ birth figures in their own ‘language’, I will look at analogical, alchemical and humoral systems for thinking about the body, as well as considering the way in which they were employed not only by practitioners and learned physicians but also by midwives and the women they cared for.

Baxandall’s argument, that the image must be understood within the framework of its own culture, chimes with another important methodological proposition for this article: Barbara Duden’s work on ‘body history’. While Baxandall argues that images are a product of their culture and must not be read anachronistically through the framework of our own, Duden makes a similar argument with regards to the body itself. She points out that too often the body is understood as a biological truth and a historical constant—the same in 1600 as it is today. Duden’s work challenges the idea of the body as a ‘natural given’ and instead attempts to look at it as a product of a period’s culture.14 Following her example, and using birth figures as primary historical material, I will here attempt to establish ‘the reality-generating experience of the body that is unique and specific to a given historical period’.15 I will demonstrate that the early modern body was the locus of multifarious and imaginative thinking not yet pinioned by ideas of physiological ‘truth’.

Birth figures represented the body and functioned for viewers in various ways: from providing diagrammatic keys to midwives, to speaking about the rich culture of early modern analogy, to working wonders upon the mother’s body. In this article, I will approach birth figures as primary historical evidence for a complex body culture, and make an argument for each of these functions. I will argue, finally, that their long lives and popularity in print indicate their perceived usefulness among early modern readers, and that, as such, they can tell us about elements of early modern body culture that are too often overlooked. In this approach, I have taken inspiration from Mary Fissell’s article on the frontispiece image common to many editions of Aristotle’s Masterpiece (1684). Fissell argues that ‘The image had many referents, and we need to consider multiple meanings and open-ended interpretations if we are to understand how the picture functioned.’16 It is this attention to multiplicities of function that this article brings to the discussion of birth figures.

Anatomy and Practice

Sachiko Kusukawa, in Picturing the Book of Nature, warns that ‘Pictures are of course visual, but understanding what exactly they have to do with observation or description requires careful investigation.’17 In the case of birth figures, it is tempting to assume that they formed part of the rising ‘epistemic genre’ of observatio, which, as Gianna Pomata describes, produced ‘a new self-consciousness on the part of the anatomical observer’ in the sixteenth century.18 But birth figures actually date back to at least the ninth century, to gynaecological manuscripts by the fifth- or sixth-century author Muscio.19 In all of this long history, the images were never presented as anatomical, as primarily informed by dissection or as describing the positions and qualities of the human organs. Instead, in depicting fetal presentation, these images are imagined, highly selective views of a living bodily interior that is in the process of labour. As early as 1545, with the new translation of The Byrth of Mankynde by Thomas Raynalde, midwifery manuals embraced the contemporary in anatomical research. This edition included images copied from Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Figure 3).20 First published only two years before, by 1545 Vesalius’ anatomical images were rapidly being disseminated all over Europe. Included in the midwifery manual alongside birth figures, the two kinds of illustrations demanded different systems for interpretation. As Kusukawa has argued, Vesalius’ anatomical images were produced to aid students in reading dissections—they are keys to and descriptions of the opened body, teaching the initiate how to make sense of the actual body, to locate it within medical and physiological theory.21 The editor of The Byrth of Mankynde felt similarly about these images, describing their effects on the viewer ‘as thoughe ye were present at the cuttynge open or anathomye of a ded woman’.22

Fig. 3

Anon. 1543. [Anatomical image of the female urogenital system]. Engraving. Figure: 10.5 × 18.5 cm. Copied from Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (Basileae: I. Oporini, 1543), printed in Eucharius Rösslin, The Byrth of Mankynde, Otherwyse Named the Womans Booke, T. Raynalde (trans), (London: Thomas Raynalde, 1545). Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.

Fig. 3

Anon. 1543. [Anatomical image of the female urogenital system]. Engraving. Figure: 10.5 × 18.5 cm. Copied from Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (Basileae: I. Oporini, 1543), printed in Eucharius Rösslin, The Byrth of Mankynde, Otherwyse Named the Womans Booke, T. Raynalde (trans), (London: Thomas Raynalde, 1545). Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.

Birth figures were not included under this claim. Indeed, for Raynalde, it was not remarkable that some images of the body should be anatomical and some not. Birth figures were working in a different register, imagining the bodily interior and depicting it living and in process. As Barbara Duden has pointed out, at this time, ‘the dead body did not yet cast its shadow on the living body’.23 As both she and Michel Foucault have argued, knowledge gained through dissection, giving a concrete physiological picture of the inside of the body, did not come to dominate how the living body was visualised until the nineteenth century.24 In the early modern period, anatomical images and birth figures could function side by side without contradiction; Vesalius’ anatomy could picture the dead body, and birth figures the living. Daston and Galison have argued that ‘Epistemic virtues do not replace one another like a succession of kings. Rather, they accumulate into a repertoire of possible forms of knowing.’25 The anatomical image and the birth figure provided different ways of knowing the bodily interior, and they formed part of a growing understanding of the body in which one kind of knowing added to and influenced, but did not render obsolete, the other.

After the 1545 edition of The Byrth of Mankynde, anatomy was regularly included in midwifery manuals, where it was presented as a kind of theoretical grounding for midwives. In The Byrth of Mankynde, for instance, anatomy was described as ‘the foundation and ground, … the better to understand how every thyng cummeth to passe within your bodyes in tyme of conception, of baryng, and of byrth’.26 But this knowledge was understood as peripheral to the main art and skill of midwifery, and as most midwives had no access to education in anatomy, it was, in practical terms, not a necessity. Indeed, even as late as 1737, the midwife and author Sarah Stone was still describing her attendance at public anatomies, and her reading of anatomical books as useful, but not a central pillar of the discipline. She states, moreover, that without extensive practical experience, anatomical knowledge ‘would have signified but little’.27

In midwifery manuals, anatomical images and text were invariably restricted to a prefatory section. They gave a highly restricted taste of the kinds of academic knowledge that were the province of male physicians. Birth figures, on the other hand, were often printed interspersed throughout the main body of the text, referring to the living body in labour with which midwives dealt in their daily practice. While the fetuses in anatomical images often look sombre, still, secretive, even totemic, birth figures present a fetus which is active, open and, taken as a series, various, changeable and acrobatic. Birth figures engaged with the living variability of the body, while anatomical images rendered it static, regular and typical. Certainly, in a birth figure the uterus is opened and excised from the body, but it is an imagined excision and an imagined cut, as the fetus is still alive and lively, ‘swimming’ in the amniotic fluid that is retained, despite the opening through which we look. Anatomical detail is subordinate to the depiction of fetal presentation. While birth figures and anatomical images were regularly collected together in midwifery manuals, they were practically and perceptually apart. The anatomical was static, theoretical and academic, while birth figures were active, practical and ‘practitional’.28

Despite advances in anatomy, the labouring body was still profoundly mysterious and essentially unseeable in the early modern period. It was a realm completely outside the province of the midwife’s art. Before visualising technologies and widespread detailed physiological knowledge, midwifery rarely included attempts to understand or intervene in the interior processes of birth. Both midwifery manuals and later accounts of practice by English midwives, including those of Percival Willughby and Sarah Stone, suggest that most midwives restricted their practice to the bodily exterior and were often unable to visualise what has happening inside.29 One seventeenth-century diarist, Alice Thornton, for instance, recounted one of her own labours in which her ‘sweete goodly son was turned wrong by the fall I gott in September before, nor had the midwife skill to turne him right, which was the cause of the losse of his life, and the hazard of my owne.’ 30 She reports a case in which it was known that the fetus was positioned wrongly for birth, but that the midwife did not have the skills in visualising the position or turning the child to put it right.

As has been noted, this is not especially surprising, as most babies, presenting in a cephalic or ‘head-first’ presentation, will be born spontaneously and can simply be received by the midwife. In this period, therefore, the midwife’s main tasks included care and encouragement of the mother, the administering of various receipts and medicines, and after birth, the cutting of the umbilical cord, delivery of the placenta and washing and swaddling of the fetus.31 Even in cases of malpresentation, where the fetus presented another part of the body and often could not be born spontaneously, the usual remedy was to push back the presenting part of the fetus and to toss the mother around in the hopes of shaking the fetus into the ‘natural’ cephalic presentation.32 I argue that this approach to the labouring body and to midwifery practice meant that the midwife was almost never required to visualise the exact position of the fetus, or to intervene inside the body.

However, I also argue that, in the sixteenth century, the publication of midwifery manuals, and particularly of birth figures, began to offer a different way to visualise the body, and a different way to practise midwifery. Podalic version, which involves finding the feet of a malpresenting fetus and pulling it out by them, presented an entirely new conception of the body and of childbirth. The method was first published by the French surgeon Ambroise Paré in the mid-sixteenth century in France, and was slowly disseminated in text and practice throughout the seventeenth century in England.33 This intervention offered a new way to deliver obstructed fetuses who would otherwise have been delivered using craniotomy, which would certainly, or dismemberment, which would likely, kill them. But it also offered a completely different way of looking at childbirth. No longer was the aim to return the body to a state of unseen and independently functioning ‘naturalness’, but rather to actively intervene in its processes, and to deliver the baby in an ‘unnatural’ yet much more convenient presentation. However, to do this, the practitioner had to engage with a process of concretely visualising the body. First, they would have to establish the exact position of the fetus, what presented at the cervix and where the feet were, then they would have to move their hand inside the uterus to manipulate the fetus’s position and exert traction on its feet and legs, in order to effect delivery. Midwives were no longer attendants at a natural, internal and unknowable process, now they were agents in a new way, intervening in, correcting and ameliorating the body’s processes.

This ideal of ‘natural’ labour should be understood within the context of Hannah Newton’s argument that ‘Nature’, in this period, was an active and personified agent within the body who helped to rebalance the humours and purge disease.34 Within this framework, the midwife’s job would have been to aid that Nature in her processes, in this case, by returning the fetus to its ‘natural’ position. This commitment within physic to aiding Nature may explain why reduction to the head was so often advised, and why podalic version took so long to disseminate.

Another reason for the slow dissemination of podalic version must be that it required, first, an entirely new framework for perceiving the body. As Jakob Rüff wrote in his manual, the midwife’s duty was now to ‘gently apply her hands to the worke as she ought, by feeling and searching with her fingers how the child lieth’.35 By feeling what part of the fetus presented at the cervix, midwives were learning how to concretely establish the position of the fetus. And for these practitioners, I argue, birth figures formed a kind of visual training and a ‘practitional’ key. Midwives could map the scant tactile information they had gathered from a labouring woman’s body onto the series of images in a midwifery manual. Doing so, a midwife would develop and fill out her picture of the fetus and thus how she might rectify its presentation.

It is impossible to establish whether (and how many) midwives did read birth figures in this way, because so few recorded their experiences of reading, or of learning and practising their trade. However, Jennifer Richards has cited evidence for English early modern midwives as ‘thoughtful, practical readers’—whom she contrasts with both learned male readers and ‘ill-informed’ female midwives—in Edward Poeton’s manuscript The Midwives Deputie (c.1630s).36 Moreover, this process of learning though images is described in the manual of the German midwife Justine Siegemund. Siegemund was a remarkable midwife, first because she published a treatise in a field almost entirely dominated by male authors, and secondly because she learned her profession not through the traditional system of apprenticeship and practical experience, but from books. Her understanding of the body and of midwifery practice are, therefore, extremely important in understanding how books and their images were understood and used by early modern readers.37 Siegemund initially began to read about midwifery to satisfy her own desire for knowledge after suffering a traumatic misdiagnosis of pregnancy as a young woman. She later became a practising midwife when local women and midwives, aware of her reading, asked her to consult on difficult labours. In her book, Siegemund describes the first case she was called to attend, one of arm presentation:

The midwife, that is, her sister-in-law, entreated me, for the love of God, to advise them because she had seen me with books with illustrations of sundry births. So I got out the books and looked to see what postures were depicted there. Because, however, it was impossible for this midwife to determine which picture corresponded to the posture of the laboring woman’s child, they despaired.38

Siegemund, however, delivered the child and, winning the confidence of the local midwives, began to be regularly called to difficult births. As she gained practical experience, she also honed the skills that allowed her to reconcile actual labours with the presentations depicted in birth figures, becoming more and more able to visualise and rectify malpresentations. Siegemund’s narrative describes a community in the middle of great perceptual and ‘practitional’ changes. The midwives were aware of the usefulness of birth figures, and of books more generally to their practice. Indeed, all were agreed that birth figures might be useful if they could be matched with the malpresentation in question. Yet the midwife with her traditional ‘practitional’ understanding, and Siegemund with her knowledge exclusively from texts and images, could not readily reconcile the two. It was Siegemund’s continued practice, combining practical and textual knowledge, that allowed her more and more easily to enact this reconciliation, and so more easily deliver obstructed births. Eventually, she developed her own podalic version and, when committing her knowledge and experience to a treatise, produced her own birth figures. Siegemund’s text is largely written as a dialogue between herself and a young midwife-pupil, and, in a remarkable meta-narrative, those engravings that are published in the book are also provided, within the narrative, to the fictional pupil as learning aids. This pupil gives voice to Siegemund’s own deep conviction in the ability of the birth figure to teach practice: ‘I can grasp it better by looking at a copper engraving together with a detailed report than from the report alone. The copper engravings light up my eyes as it were and place understanding in my hands.’39

Presumably, many other midwives and surgeons who did not produce treatises went through a similar process of learning to reconcile the body, text and image in the pursuit of good practice. It is important to note, however, that in England especially, where there was no formal system for midwifery training, such perceptual and practical skills can only have developed very slowly and sporadically: only where midwives who were willing to change their habits met with books and those able to interpret them.

I propose that birth figures disseminated a new way of thinking about the bodily interior; they gave the women who saw them a visual system for thinking about the opaque, mysterious and troubling pregnant body. And within this context, many of their features come into focus. The uterus is balloon-like because it is simply meant to locate the fetus in relation to the cervical opening. The fetus itself is small and spread out to give clarity to an operation which, in reality, is ambiguous, difficult and cramped. The fetuses here seem to perform—limbs akimbo, they show the viewer how they are positioned. This is not merely a strange quirk of early modern bodily representation, but a system that allows midwives to more clearly understand, remember and apply various presentations to cases they encountered. Rather than being naive or outdated anatomies, therefore, birth figures should be understood as ‘practitional’ images which engaged with the living, individual body and facilitated the development of new ways of picturing and practising on that body.

The Analogical Body

Apart from being ‘practitional’ images—ones that functioned practically for midwives and, as I have argued, helped to develop a new way of visualising the living bodily interior—birth figures interacted with established early modern body culture more widely. As well as projecting a more concretised view of the bodily interior, birth figures interacted iconographically with ancient and deeply pervasive analogical thinking about the body.

As Foucault has discussed in The Order of Things, resemblance was the fundamental system upon which things, and their relations, were understood in the early modern world. ‘The universe was folded in upon itself: the earth echoing the sky, faces seeing themselves reflected in the stars, and plants holding within their stems the secrets that were of use to man.’40 Analogy was a way of seeing different realms of the universe as fundamentally connected, reflective of each other. Through analogy, knowledge of one could give knowledge of the other.

One of the most pervasive early modern analogies was between the world at large, or the macrocosm, and the human body, or the microcosm. This system allowed people to comprehend those things that were not readily accessible—like the bodily interior. It also placed the human body at the centre of a universe of concentric rings of resemblance, each connected to the other and thus speaking of an overarching order. This analogical system was also often expressed in early modern imagery. As Foucault asserts, ‘It was resemblance that largely guided exegesis and the interpretation of texts; it was resemblance that organized the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them.’41

Birth figures were no exception to this fundamental tenet of early modern knowledge, and analogy is central to how they speak about the body. These are images that can only be understood in the context of an early modern body culture that placed at least as much emphasis on the analogical body as it did on the anatomical. Resemblances in birth figures range from the alchemical flask, to fruit trees and domestic spaces. Each analogy spoke about a different aspect of the pregnant body, connecting the invisible bodily interior with other kinds of more accessible knowledge.

It was common in the early modern period for the uterus to be associated with all kinds of pots and vessels. Thomas Laqueur has noted the handled vase in the foreground of one of Charles Estienne’s erotically charged female anatomies, arguing that ‘It too may represent the womb—the uterus with handles as “seminal vessels” and the bearded men as ovaries—both linguistically and because of its shape (Latin vas, French vase, container or vessel)’.42 Laurinda Dixon has made a similar argument about the small charcoal burners often depicted in seventeenth-century Dutch genre paintings of sick women. ‘Given common contemporary references to the womb as a vessel and the female abdominal cavity as a box (a slang term that is current today), this image becomes a conspicuous visual equivalent for the heated, displaced womb implicated in furor uterinus.’43 Dixon argues that pots were a common symbol for the uterus, and thus a broken pot a symbol of birth, miscarriage or loss of virginity. The open and yet enclosing nature of such vessels has obvious associations with the uterus, symbol par excellence of the ‘leaky’ female body. In such paintings as Dixon describes, these charcoal burners draw the viewer’s attention to the hidden subject of the painting: the uterus, and they are a kind of medical prognostic: the uterus has moved out of its normal place and is causing problems.

Given the general understanding of the uterus as a vessel in this period, and the specific use of pots and vessels to represent the uterus in images of various kinds, it is likely that Rösslin’s birth figures would also have been understood as actively associating the uterus with the vessel (Figure 1). Indeed, the uterus here looks like nothing so much as a round-bottomed glass vessel or flask—a piece of equipment that would have been familiar to some early modern viewers from the iconography of alchemy. And just as the uterus in the birth figure resembles a flask, in alchemical imagery the flask is often associated with the uterus by the placing of an infant, often representing the white stone, inside it (Figure 4). The uterus and the alchemical flask were analogous because they were both the sites of generative processes. In the alchemical flask, sulphur and mercury would be mixed and heated in a symbolic marriage and consummation. The product, or conception, would be the white stone, the first step in making the philosopher’s stone. In alchemical imagery, these three substances were often anthropomorphically represented as a male sulphur, a female mercury and the white stone as their child. In the uterus, according to some ideas of conception, a similar process was enacted. The male and female seeds met, mixed and were heated and contained by the uterus until they formed something finer and purer than the sum of their parts—a child. The surgeon Ambroise Paré, for instance, describes conception in very alchemical terms: ‘the male and female yeeld forth their seeds, which presently mixed and conjoyned, are received and kept in the females wombe. For, the seed is a certaine spumous or foamie humour replenished with vitall spirit, by the benefit whereof, as it were by a certain ebullition or fermentation, it is puffed up and swolne bigger’.44

Fig. 4

Anon. 1628. [Alchemical figures]. Engraving. Plate: 10.5 × 14.8 cm. Printed in Johann Daniel Mylius, Joannis Danielis Mylii philosophiae & medicinae doctoris Anatomia auri, sive Tyrocinium medico-chymicum, continens in se partes quinque… (Frankfurt: Lucae Iennisi, 1628). Photo: Warburg Institute (The Warburg Institute Iconographic Database). This material is licensed under \t blank Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial 3.0 Unported License.

Fig. 4

Anon. 1628. [Alchemical figures]. Engraving. Plate: 10.5 × 14.8 cm. Printed in Johann Daniel Mylius, Joannis Danielis Mylii philosophiae & medicinae doctoris Anatomia auri, sive Tyrocinium medico-chymicum, continens in se partes quinque… (Frankfurt: Lucae Iennisi, 1628). Photo: Warburg Institute (The Warburg Institute Iconographic Database). This material is licensed under \t blank Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial 3.0 Unported License.

While it was common for alchemists to think analogically about their work in terms of human conception, some also felt that human conception itself was within their purview. William Newman, in his book Promethean Ambitions, describes how alchemy was felt to be an art that had dangerous powers to exceed or better the processes of nature.45

Roy Porter Prize Winners

The following articles are past winners of the Roy prize. Click on the titles to read these articles FREE online:

2015: Rebecca Whiteley, University College London
Figuring Pictures and Picturing Figures: Images of the Pregnant Body and the Unborn Child in England, 1540–c.1680

2014:Erica Storm, Stanford University
Gilding the Pill: The Sensuous Consumption of Patent Medicines, 1815–1841

2013: Julie Hipperson, King's College London
Professional entrepreneurs: Women veterinary surgeons as small business owners in interwar Britain

2012: Caitlin Mahar, The University of Melbourne
Easing the Passing: R v. Adams and Terminal Care in Postwar Britain

2011: Bradley Matthys Moore, University of Wisconsin
For the People’s Health: Ideology, Medical Authority, and Hygienic Science in Communist Czechoslovakia, 1952-62

2010: Seth LeJacq, Johns Hopkins University
The Bounds of Domestic Healing: Medical Recipes, Storytelling and Surgery in Early Modern England

2008: Mark Honigsbaum, University College London
The Great Dread: Cultural and Psychological Impacts and to the 'Russian' Influenza in the United Kingdom, 1889-1893

2007: Olivia Weisser, Johns Hopkins University
Boils, Pushes, and Wheals: Reading Bumps on the Body in Early Modern England

2006: Matthew Smith, University of Exeter
Psychiatry Limited: Hyperactivity and the Evolution of American Psychiatry, 1957-80

2005: Beth Linker, Yale University
Feet for Fighting: Locating Disability and Social Medicine in First World War America

2004: Matthew Warner Osborn, University of California, Davis
Diseased Imaginations: Constructing Delirium Tremens in Philadelphia, 1813-1832

2003: Marianne Samayoa, University of Missouri-St. Louis
More Than Quacks: Seeking Medical Care in Late Colonial New Spain

Categories: 1

0 Replies to “Roy Porter Essay Prize”

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *