PIcturing Pregnancy In Early Modern Europe



When the womb began to appear in printed images during the 16th century, it was understood through analogy: a garden, uroscopy flask, or microcosm of the universe. Rebecca Whiteley explores early modern birth figures, which picture the foetus in utero, and discovers an iconic form imbued with multiple kinds of knowledge: from midwifery know-how to alchemical secrets, astrological systems to new anatomical findings.

           Detail of The Figure of the Child Turning Itself to the Birth, an engraving from James Cooke’s Mellificium Chirurgiae              (1693), which bears a striking resemble to the birth figures pictured in works by Eucharius Rösslin and Jakob Rüff 
          more than a century earlier.

Showing two nested bodies, the pregnant and the gestated, the birth figure is an image of something that, to the early modern viewer, was not just invisible but saturated with secrecy, mystery, and power. It shows the hidden world of the bodily interior, the secrets of life before birth, and the unfathomable powers, both human and divine, of generation. The first birth figures to be printed — illustrations by Martin Caldenbach for Eucharius Rösslin’s 1513 midwifery manual, Der Swangern Frawen und Hebammen Roszengarten (The Pregnant Women’s and Midwives’ Rose Garden) — contributed to a project that had already been ongoing for centuries, of exploring, defining, controlling, and making safe the pregnant body.
In the Rösslin depictions, the womb is represented simply and schematically, as a transparent, flask-shaped container. By rendering the organ exposed, and see-through, the images promise knowledge of the mysterious body, a peek into the still-living interior. The fetus is represented as a cherubic toddler, with curly hair, big eyes, chubby cheeks, and a self-conscious expression. With his head slightly inclined toward us, he seems to acknowledge our presence, our looking at what, by rights, shouldn’t be seen. The images might be understood as an attempt to make known the mysterious generative womb; certainly they formed part of a text that had the aim of spreading knowledge about the body and regulating midwifery practice. But the simplicity of these compositions — the human figure encircled — gives them the capacity to mean in many ways. They point to the universal importance of generation to early modern culture, drawing a link between the fetus in utero and the human in the world, and they neatly encapsulate the origins of human life. From this starting point, the birth figure as an iconographic form could be read for significance within a multitude of different spheres of culture and knowledge: anatomy, alchemy, mechanical physiology, medical professionalism, prayer, magic, midwifery practice, haptic knowledge, and portraiture, to name but a few.

            Woodcut birth figures by the draftsman Martin Caldenbach, from the first edition of Eucharius Rösslin’s Der                
                Swangern Frawen und Hebammen Roszengarten (1513)


         Woodcut birth figures by the draftsman Martin Caldenbach, from the first edition of Eucharius Rösslin’s Der Swangern 
              Frawen und Hebammen Roszengarten (1513)

Birth figures helped midwives to envision the body, and particularly the position of the fetus, in a newly concrete way. Working as a key to malpresentation, birth figures pointed to how a midwife might alter a presentation and physically guide labor. For many midwives not only was this a newly interventionist approach, it fundamentally reformulated midwifery as an active process of aid, rather than a passive attendance on an inherently invisible, mysterious, and uncertain event. But midwives were not the only people looking at and using birth figures. Their widespread popularity in vernacular books indicates their use by people of all kinds, from curious lay readers to learned doctors to pregnant women. For many of these viewers, the images were not primarily ones that provided an anatomically derived and spatially concrete system of knowledge about the body. They were at the center of many webs of knowledge: from humoral to microcosmic systems; from uroscopy to alchemy; from religion to the maternal imagination. Birth figures, in their iconographic simplicity, offered a flexible, adaptable tool for thinking about the body in many modes, often simultaneously.
The Birth Figure and the Universe
One of the most widespread and deeply naturalized systems for understanding the body in this period was the theory of the microcosm. The theory taught that man was a version of the universe or world in miniature. This idea led to the practical framework of analogy: things in the body and in the world that resembled each other or worked similarly were in fact more fundamentally connected. Not only could knowledge of one explain the other, but their inherent link meant that they could also influence each other. Knowledge of the stars and planets could, for instance, tell you about a person’s health, and the inherent links between celestial and corporeal bodies meant that the planets could also be used to effect healing. The human body was, in this system, the center of all things, as Michel Foucault describes it, “the possible half of a universal atlas” and “the great fulcrum of proportions—the centre upon which relations are concentrated and from which they are once again reflected.”
Foucault describes analogy as a fundamental part of knowledge until the end of the sixteenth century, but among lay people, and even informally among physicians and scholars, there is much evidence to suggest that an analogical worldview remained widespread throughout the seventeenth and even the eighteenth centuries. This understanding of man at the center of many circles of resemblance, his body mirroring and informing the universe, was something that learned readers would have been visually as well as textually familiar with. Astrological and microcosmic man illustrations common in medieval manuscripts showed a figure encircled by the zodiac or planets. Astrological and magical as well as microcosmic encircled figures continued in printed early modern books, describing the relations between man and the planets, or setting out horoscopes. In John Case’s The Angelical Guide of 1697, a circle with astrological figures and notations surrounds an oval containing a set of illustrations of the developing fetus borrowed from Theodor Kerckring’s Anthropogeniae Ichnographia. The image is accompanied by an English translation of Kerckring’s notes on the figures, which describe the age of the embryos and the anatomical parts, but no mention is made by Case of the astrological surround, or the four cherubs in the corners. The image shows how easy it was to combine new anatomical findings with old astrological systems — they did not even need to be mentioned. Case’s text discusses the human ovum with a mixture of physiological detail and mystical interpretation. This image makes the link between the circle of the heavens and the circle of the womb explicit, but the analogical resemblance was everywhere, present in birth figures as well as astrological figures. In the former, the circle of the womb could also stand for the world or the heavens. Indeed, looked at microcosmically, the birth figure becomes a summation of the microcosmic worldview: if the body was the world in miniature, then the unborn child was a microcosmic person in the world of the maternal body, as well as a person in the circle of the universe.

               Woodcut figure demonstrating anatomical and astrological relations, from John Case’s The Angelical Guide 
                      Shewing Men and Women their Lott or Chance, in this Elementary Life (1697)

The encircling womb was like the arch of the heavens and like the sphere of the world. The more three-dimensional and anatomical womb in Jakob Rüff's birth figures — originally appearing in both German and Latin editions in 1554 — draws out this comparison, not only situating the organ within contemporary knowledge gained from dissection, but also exploring its microcosmic resemblances to the verdant earth.
Field and Fruit
In the early modern period, pregnancy was perhaps most widely and fundamentally associated and interconnected with the daily processes of the rural agricultural life that most people led. Cyclical processes such as plowing, sowing, and harvesting were regularly used as frameworks for understanding pregnancy and birth, and are, arguably, at least as important in understanding the work birth figures did for early modern viewers as anatomical and practitional frameworks. Rüff’s images — produced for him by Jos Murer, which appeared in a 1637 English translation and many other midwifery manuals in the seventeenth century — look extremely fruitlike. The uterine wall and membranes resemble a skin or rind, protecting the tender flesh inside. The ovaries look like raspberries, and the vagina even resembles a stem or stalk. Rüff's anatomical images, too, are remarkably lush, with arteries and veins forming the trunk and branches of a bodily tree, on which organs are hung like fruits. Within this internal landscape, the fetus is simultaneously the “fruit” (a common verbal as well as visual analogy for children at this time) and a miniature person dwelling, hermit-like, in the maternal/arboreal environment. From farmers to physicians, this kind of verdant analogy was a powerful tool for thinking about the body. The child grew like a crop — it was fragile and important, a legacy and investment made by the parents. This kind of thinking gave ordinary people a sense of authority over the body, through association with work they knew. Good farmers husbanded land in order to produce healthy crops, and mothers did the same with the fetus.


          Woodcut figures of pregnant woman and foetus in utero from The Expert Midwife or an Excellent and Most Necessary               Treatise on the Generation and Birth of Man (1637), an English translation of Jakob Rüff’s midwifery manual,                             originally  published in German and Latin in 1554

Indeed, this kind of thinking was utilized not just by the rural laity but also by trained medical practitioners in their explanations and treatments of the body. The medically trained midwife Percival Willughby, for instance, frequently employed agricultural analogy in explaining the logic of his practice: “Let all midwives observe the wayes and proceedings of nature for the production of their fruits in trees, the ripening of walnuts, and almonds, from their first knotting, unto the opening of the husk, and falling of the nut, and considering their signatures, to take notice, how beneficiall their oiles may bee for use in their practice, for the easing of their labouring woman.” The midwife is enjoined to look carefully at the natural world, and specifically to look for signatures that related to the pregnant and laboring body. Here Willughby links the process of pregnancy and labor to the ripening of nuts. Of the process of labor, he writes: “as the fruit ripeneth, so, by degrees, this husk, of it self, will separate from the shell, which, at last, by it’s own accord, chappeth, and, with a fissure, openeth, and, by degrees, separateth from the fruit. Then doth the husk turn up the edges, and give way, without any enforcement, for the falling off the nut.”

  Woodcut birth figures from The Expert Midwife or an Excellent and Most Necessary Treatise on the Generation and Birth of Man (1637), an English translation of Jakob Rüff’s midwifery manual, originally published in German and Latin in 1554

At the time of Willughby’s writing, there were competing theories about how to ensure the safest labor. One held that the quicker the labor was, the better, and some authors, including Rösslin, advised that the midwife manually dilate the vagina and cervix to hasten delivery. Others, including Willughby, held that labor was safest when left to run its own course, however long that was. He enjoins his readers to wait, because “the fruit would fall off it-self, when that it was full ripe.” What was known to be true about fruit served also for the womb. His description of the ripening nut brings us back to Rüff’s birth figures. The peeled membranes enact this “natural” process of birth. The husk, or womb, slowly peels away, freeing the fetal fruit without need for violence or intervention. Thus, these openings, typically understood as an imagined anatomical cut, are perhaps better understood as symbolic of the natural capacity of the womb to open during labor.
The Womb and the Workshop
In verdant analogy the womb was a field, a tree, a fruit, a stone, but the system also worked for humanmade objects. Physicians and natural philosophers saw the organ in various pots, vases, jugs, and flasks associated with their disciplines. During the medieval period, the womb was widely compared to a cupping vessel, including in Muscio’s Gynaecia. Accordingly, in many birth figures from medieval manuscripts, the shape of the womb is rounder, with a wider mouth than in Rösslin’s first printed figures. By the sixteenth century, however, the comparison was more frequently made with the urine flask, which, like Rösslin’s figures, had a longer, thinner neck.
Uroscopy, or the examination of urine, was one of the most widely used diagnostic tools of the early modern era: the color, consistency, and sediments in urine were understood as indicators of sickness in the body, and of pregnancy. Michael Stolberg has recorded that uroscopy was particularly valued as a test for pregnancy that did not rely on the testimony of the mother, who might misinterpret or misrepresent the sensations she felt. Rösslin’s birth figures, in this visual context, flicker between test and embodiment, between pregnant womb and flask of urine.

           Birth figure engravings from an English translation of Eucharius Rösslin’s midwifery manual titled The Byrth of                             Mankynde, Otherwyse Named the Womans Booke (1545)


If the uroscopy flask analogically resembled the womb, it also resembled the alchemical flask. The two round-bottomed glass vessels were so similar that it is sometimes hard to distinguish the physician with his urine flask from the alchemist with his alchemical one in genre paintings. This flask was central to the special, complex symbolic language in which alchemical secrets and recipes were often recorded. In many alchemical illustrations, this symbolic marriage and birth happens inside a flask that is both the literal glass flask and a symbol for the generative womb. Anne-Françoise Cannella notes that the flask in alchemy was often understood as “mother” or “matrix”, that the two were analogically and symbolically intertwined, each standing for and explaining the other — both containers and both sites of generation. The macrocosmic generative earth, the microcosmic generative womb, and the artificial alchemical flask all enacted the same miraculous processes.
In the womb, according to some theories of conception, a process similar to the mixing and heating of sulfur and mercury was enacted. The male and female seeds met, mixed, and were heated and contained by the womb until they formed something finer and purer than the sum of their parts — a child. It would have been easy for an educated viewer to look at Rösslin’s birth figures and see both the womb and the flask, both the literal fetus in utero and the symbol of generation, alchemical and bodily. For the alchemically literate, birth figures would have been understood as a multifarious symbol of the generative faculty in the womb, in the world, and in the alchemist’s flask, and thus they symbolized the principle of generation itself, the power that spurred the turning of the universe.
To look at these images is to be confronted with what seem to us to be contradictions — images of medical practice, influenced by anatomy, that are also verdant and analogical, alchemical and humoral, even wondrous. Only by looking at these images as working simultaneously in multiple registers can we reconcile these seeming contradictions and gain a more thorough understanding of early modern body culture. The multiplicity, and the remarkably wide viewership, which makes it so hard to ascribe just one function or reading to these images, make them valuable sources for looking at a culture that was essentially inclusive, imaginative, and multifarious in its thinking about the body. Birth figures remind us that this was a period in which learned and vernacular, old and new, male and female ways of knowing met, interacted, and mingled at the site of the pregnant body. Just as the early modern woman could look at a birth figure as a window onto her own mysterious bodily interior, so we can approach these images as windows onto the rich and complex body culture of early modern Europe.
Adapted with permission from Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body by Rebecca Whiteley, published by the University of Chicago Press, 2023.

Picturing Pregnancy in Early Modern Europe. By Rebecca Whitely. The Public Domain Review, March 8, 2023.


The new monograph of Dr Rebecca Whiteley—British Academy Fellow at the University of Birmingham, member of The Bodies, Emotions and Material Culture Collective Manchester, and former Shreeve Fellow in the History of Medicine at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library—has now been published with Chicago University Press. Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body has been praised as an “appealing book” that “extends reproductive, gender, and visual studies, as well as histories of art, medicine, and the body,” and as a book that “offers fresh, sophisticated, and nuanced interpretations.”
Edward Wouk, Reader in Art History and Visual Studies at Manchester, and Leah Astbury, Research Associate at the Wellcome Trust-funded project Sleeping Well in the Early Modern World, both members of the Collective, have taken the time to interview the author.
 Edward Wouk [EW]: What would you describe as the main take-aways from your book?
Rebecca Whiteley [RW]: When I first began researching ‘birth figures’ (the images of fetal presentation that are the focus of this book) my main aim was to stop scholars of medicine and childbirth calling them ‘babies in bottles’ and dismissing them as naïve, uninformative or even damaging to the practice of midwives. In fact, birth figures were packed with relevant, novel and extremely useful knowledge for early modern viewers.
And birth figures were not the only small, unassuming printed images in the early modern world that had surprisingly various meanings and uses. As recent scholarship in print history and visual culture shows, this was rather the rule than the exception. I hope my book contributes to this new recognition of the importance of non-elite print and visual culture in writing history. Birth figures can tell us much about cultures of pregnancy and childbirth as they were experienced by women and midwives, by people who could not read or did not own books. They illuminate how body knowledge was made by all kinds of people, with all kinds of priorities, outside of the circle of elite medical authors.
Leah Astbury [LA]: What might surprise readers about your book?
RW: Central to my approach is the idea that one relatively simple-looking kind of image could have a multivalent life in early modern England: it could mean in many ways. Readers looking for a history of medicine may be surprised to find not just anatomical knowledge and medical practice, but also social, affective, magical, alchemical, aesthetic, and political bodies of knowledge represented in birth figures.
 EW: Could you say a few things about the role that the artists played in constructing the group of images at the focus of your analysis?
RW: Artists are a consistent presence in this book, of course, but they move from the background to the foreground, from anonymity to individuality, as I move through time. For the early birth figures, we sometimes know the name of an artist or printmaker, but it is almost beside the point. These images were so widely copied and iconographically consistent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that I approach them, not as the production of one individual, but as a manifestation of a collective and collaborative printmaking culture. This is rather freeing, as established modes of thinking about the artist’s contexts, techniques and motivations must give way to thinking about the very wide and diverse audience, their interpretations and uses of images.
From the late seventeenth century onwards, as is treated in Parts 2 and 3 of the book, birth figures become more individualised and the identities of the artists involved necessarily become more important. Writers began to praise the specific abilities of their artist in seeing, understanding and representing body knowledge. There is an increasing body of literature on the role of artists in the production of ‘epistemic’ images and I hope my later chapters contribute to this. It was particularly rewarding to think about the famous images by Jan van Rymsdyk for William Hunter (though actually they weren’t all drafted, and only one was engraved, by him!). So much art historical scholarship has considered these images as indicative of the new medicalised childbirth culture of eighteenth-century Britain, yet they were only one style of image. Other contemporary birth figures by artists such as George Stubbs, as well as van Rymsdyk himself for other authors, present very different understandings of the pregnant body.
 LA: What would you say are the difficulties as a historian of art and the body in using birth figures given, as you point out, they were used in both sanctioned and unsanctioned ways?
RW: I actually found it liberating, rather than difficult, when I realised that I was going to have to look beyond what the medical authors said their images were for. As art historians, we are trained to centre our study on the image, to privilege it as a source. This allows us to see ideas and aspects of body knowledge that are not present in textual sources. Of course, there is a line to tread when describing ‘unsanctioned’ uses, between productive speculation, and support for your analysis. I was largely guided by a wider study of visual culture, and found drawing links between different kinds of images a rewarding and exciting way to investigate how birth figures worked for early modern viewers.
 EW: How did you strike a balance between using terminology from the time period whilst remaining sensitive to contemporary debates around terms relating to birth, gender and the body?
RW: Gender essentialism is something that, as historians, we have a responsibility to combat, particularly because over-simplified or simply misguided interpretations of historical cultures are often used to justify this approach in the world today. When editing my book, I thought hard about my use of ‘woman’ to describe the pregnant people depicted in birth figures, and the pregnant users of them. In the end, I decided to use this term in the body of the work because it was the one used at the time. It is true that for most early modern viewers of birth figures, the concept of womanhood was intimately tied up with the physical capacity to gestate a child. But this in no way makes early modern gender identity simple, nor was sex understood to be a concrete binary. People then, as now, had diverse and vibrant identities and dealt with cultural expectations around gender in many different ways. If birth figures equated womanhood with the womb, as some scholars have suggested, then by turning our attention to what individual users might have done with this statement, we can gain a better understanding of the period’s culture of gender. The author Justine Siegemund, treated in Part 2 of the book, could not have children and presents the birth figures she produced both as her biological children, and her intellectual offspring, creating an identity for herself as medical author that combined typically female and male attributes.
In the conclusion, I point out that birth figures persist in our own culture, where they can still perpetuate notions of the normal or standard body, against which individuals measure and define their own complex identities. Looking at the history of birth figures as cultural agents can help us to question essentialist or normative statements about the body in our own culture.
 EW: What was the role of The John Rylands Research Institute and Library in the making of this book?
RW: The initial research for the book was undertaken in the Art History Department at UCL, but its journey into a fully-fledged monograph happened during my time as the Shreeve Fellow in the History of Medicine at the John Rylands Research Institute. For a project so engaged with the material, affective and intellectual lives of books, this was the ideal environment. Not only was the community of book scholars and curators so diverse and interesting, but the medical book collections at the University of Manchester are enormous. I could access copies of many of my core works in the collections for both research and for photography. It is thanks to the photography department at the Rylands that my book is so well illustrated! The images they took for me are also now freely available via Luna and Manchester Digital Collections.
 LA: How does the book fit with the themes and interests of The Bodies, Emotions and Material Culture Collective at the University of Manchester?
RW: The Collective, and the lecture series on Affective Artefacts, were enormously influential to the development of my book. Meeting the scholars in the Collective and attending seminars clarified for me that both affect and material culture were crucial themes for understanding birth figures. The image and the book as an object, and one that had physical as well as intellectual power over early modern users, came to be a central concept for me as I worked up my manuscript. Moving forwards with my research, I find I am increasingly working with material culture methodologies, in no small part thanks to the inspiration of the Collective!
Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body. An Interview with Rebecca Whiteley. By
Stefan Hanß.  The University of Manchester,  March 6, 2023

Rebecca Whitely  The University of Manchester