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.

March 8, 2023

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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 — Source.

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.1

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.

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

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

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.2 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.3 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.”4

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.5 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.6 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.7 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.8 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.

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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) — Source.

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.9

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.10 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.

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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 — Source.

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.”11 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.”12

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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 — Source.

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.13 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.”14 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.15 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.16 Rösslin’s birth figures, in this visual context, flicker between test and embodiment, between pregnant womb and flask of urine.

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

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.17 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.

Rebecca Whiteley is a British Academy Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. She works on the intersections between visual and material culture, medical history, and social history. She has published on various aspects of the visual culture of pregnancy and childbirth in early modern Europe, including in her monograph Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body. More recently, her research has focussed on the nineteenth century, the material culture of obstetric education, and the entanglements of medicine and sex.

Adapted with permission from Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body by Rebecca Whiteley, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2023 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.