The Monstrous Womb of Early Modern Midwifery Manuals
Thomas Raynalde’s The Byrth of Mankynde (1540), the first printed midwifery manual in the English vernacular, features an illustration of two conjoined fetuses in the womb described as “a monster … such as of late was seen in the dominion of Werdenbergh.” This illustration inaugurates a trademark feature of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century midwifery manuals: sensational accounts of monstrous births. This project argues two key points relating to the inclusion of monstrous birth accounts in midwifery manuals. First, as printed midwifery manuals begin to attract a more diverse audience than midwives, monstrous birth accounts take up increasing space in these manuals. As the content of these manuals tips more toward monstrous subject matter, an increasingly negative association builds between reproductive processes and representations of monstrosity. Second, I consider how, rather than vilifying the “monstrous” nature of nonstandard bodies, such inclusions instead recast what should be accepted as normate bodies in the early modern period. The signification of monstrous childbirth in early modern midwifery manuals, then, works at cross-purposes, creating and reinforcing pejorative representations of monstrosity, while unintentionally offering a space to challenge the normate representation of childbirth in the early modern period.