Rebecca Whiteley

Jun 26, 2023

Birth Figures

Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body

University of Chicago Press 2023

Rebecca Whiteley's book Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body (University of Chicago Press, 2023) is first full study of “birth figures” and their place in early modern knowledge-making.

Birth figures are printed images of the pregnant womb, always shown in series, that depict the variety of ways in which a fetus can present for birth. Historian Rebecca Whiteley coined the term and here offers the first systematic analysis of the images’ creation, use, and impact. Whiteley reveals their origins in ancient medicine and explores their inclusion in many medieval gynecological manuscripts, focusing on their explosion in printed midwifery and surgical books in Western Europe from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century. During this period, birth figures formed a key part of the visual culture of medicine and midwifery and were widely produced. They reflected and shaped how the pregnant body was known and treated. And by providing crucial bodily knowledge to midwives and surgeons, birth figures were also deeply entangled with wider cultural preoccupations with generation and creativity, female power and agency, knowledge and its dissemination, and even the condition of the human in the universe.

Birth Figures studies how different kinds of people understood childbirth and engaged with midwifery manuals, from learned physicians to midwives to illiterate listeners. Rich and detailed, this vital history reveals the importance of birth figures in how midwifery was practiced and in how people, both medical professionals and lay readers, envisioned and understood the mysterious state of pregnancy.

Jana Byars is the Academic Director of Netherlands: International Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender.

Listen to more episodes on: