Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body Rebecca Whiteley Univ. Chicago Press (2023)
In 1690, acclaimed midwife Justine Siegemund became the first woman to publish a German medical text. She wrote The Court Midwife, a beautifully illustrated training manual based on her extensive experience delivering babies for both peasant and wealthy women in the city of Lignitz (now Legnica in Poland). “This book, which was long in seeing the light of day, as if in childbirth, will be what I leave to the world, since I have borne no children,” she wrote.
Portrayed in detailed embryological engravings by medical illustrators Regnier de Graaf and Govard Bidloo, the “fetuses depicted stand for all those infants saved by Siegemund herself and by all the midwives who learned from her”, writes historian of medicine Rebecca Whiteley in Birth Figures, a scholarly analysis of drawings of fetuses in utero between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.
In these times, nothing was seen so much as it was imagined. The earliest ‘birth figures’, woodcuts dating back to 1515, show chubby-cheeked, cherubic infants bouncing, diving and waving inside the womb, itself a balloon-shaped, upside-down flask seemingly detached from the body. Twins are depicted with their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, cuddling or with one upright twin grabbing the other’s upside-down ankle, as Jacob did Esau’s in the biblical story of their birth.
The figures in Siegemund’s manual come in intricately drawn series accompanied by precise instructions on how to deliver a baby that is in an unusual position — for example, lying in a transverse position in the womb. In one description and drawing of ‘podalic version’ (the procedure of pulling a malpresenting fetus out by its feet), she explains how a midwife can insert her arm into the uterus, tying a ribbon around the infant’s foot to “keep a firm grip on the slippery leg” and pull the baby out little by little -— a variation on a technique first published by the French surgeon Ambroise Paré in the mid-sixteenth century.