Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body. An Interview with Rebecca Whiteley

by | Mar 6, 2023 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

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!