Interview with Dr. Rebecca Whiteley about Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body (Chicago, 2023)

Interview by Melissa Reynolds

Dr. Rebecca Whiteley, author of Birth Figures

In this issue’s publication highlight, we are delighted to share an interview with Dr. Rebecca Whiteley, whose book, Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body was just published this spring by the University of Chicago Press. Dr. Whiteley is a British Academy Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. An art historian by training, her research works on the intersections between visual and material culture, medical history and social history. Her current research focusses on the nineteenth century, the material culture of obstetric education, and the entanglements of medicine and sex. Her book, Birth Figures, is the first full-length study of the printed images of the pregnant womb that circulated widely in midwifery manuals and surgical books from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.

Below, Dr. Whiteley shares her insights about birth figures’ relationship to recipe knowledge, histories of women as practitioners and knowledge-makers, and the practicalities and pleasures of using images as historical sources.

Front cover of Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body, published by the University of Chicago Press in spring 2023.

MR: First, congratulations on the publication of your book! It’s a really important contribution to our understanding of early modern cultures of care work, medical practice, professionalization, print, and visual culture. I’m delighted to share it with our readers. Let me start with a simple but important question: What are “birth figures,” and why do they matter?

Birth figures are images of the fetus in the womb that describe the different ways in which it can present for birth. 

Images of fetal presentation had long been produced in medieval gynaecological manuscripts, but my focus in this book is on the explosion of printed versions in early modern surgical and midwifery guides. They mattered to early modern readers because they described an aspect of pregnancy and childbirth that was very important, but invisible and hard to detect, even once labour had begun. Most babies are born head first, but other positions do occur, and make it more difficult or even impossible to deliver without the intervention of a midwife or surgeon. The role of birth figures in the development of techniques to identify and deal with ‘malpresentations’ is one of the things this book tracks.

But birth figures were important beyond this relatively narrow and technical use. They were a wonderful window into the mysterious interior and held all kinds of power for early modern viewers: an expression of the troublesome womb; a symbol of the alchemy of conception; a tool for shaping the fetus; an argument for the good practice of their commissioning author; a picture of the anticipated child. I tried, in my book, to think as broadly as possible about the way that these little images might have been used and understood by their early modern viewers. Indeed, that is the core of why they are important: they were seen and used by all kinds of people, men and women, professional and lay, and so they encompass something of the vibrant plurality of early modern body culture.

MR: An important argument in your book relates to the idea that birth figures are “practitional images,” by which you mean that birth figures are “images of the body that are primarily concerned not with anatomy but with medical practice” (36). This framing got me thinking about the broader economy of early modern texts/prints that bridge a perceived divide between theoretical and practical knowledge, of which recipes are an important component. Are birth figures and recipes similarly “practitional,” or do you see key differences between the textual directions in midwifery manuals and their visual components?

Yes and no, I think! I find birth figures so interesting partly because they are visual productions, which could communicate things that people struggled to express in text: position, direction, temporality, sensation. Birth figures from the late seventeenth century get really experimental with what they could communicate. Recipes, as largely textual sources, often imply, but rarely attempt to teach this kind of embodied knowledge. A recipe is an aid to a skill still largely learned in the practice. Birth figures, at least in some cases, were attempting to transmit embodied knowledge at a distance (though their success in this is something I debate in the book).

On a deeper level, however, I think there are strong links between recipes and birth figures. Both are abstract, static and permanent expressions of embodied knowledge and lived experience. They make knowledge durable and shareable. They are sources that we need to treat in similar ways in that they give insight into lost knowledges, but they also draw our attention to the gaps, what wasn’t and couldn’t have been recorded. On a related note, in Birth Figures, I speculate briefly about whether birth figures were not just practitional, but also a tool for practice. Both paper and images were important parts of materia medica, especially in Catholic countries where holy printed images were regularly kissed, touched, worn and consumed to effect healing. Even in Protestant countries, prints were widely understood to have very direct and physical effects on the mind, shaping understanding, taste, and emotion. I would love to find out more about how printed images, including birth figures, worked as materials for recipes as well as conduits for knowledge.

Engraving of two fetuses with placenta attached, showing the internal anatomy that connects the umbilical cord to the placenta.
Paul Androuet de Cerceau (draftsman) and Lombars (engraver), engraving, 11 x 17 cm (plate). From Francois Mauriceau, Traité des maladies des femmes grosses et acchouchés (Paris: Jean Henault, Jean D’Houry, Robert de Ninville, and Jean Baptiste Coginard, 1668). Public Domain Mark. Wellcome Collection, London.

MR: One of the themes that I loved the most in your book is its emphasis on women readers and users of birth figures. You reclaim the birth figure as an especially important epistemic site for women, through which they could learn about their bodies, about pregnancy, and about labor and delivery. I can’t help but think about similar arguments regarding recipe collections and recipe knowledge in works by Elaine Leong, Sharon Strocchia, and Alisha Rankin, to name just a few. How do birth figures, like recipes, better help us understand women as healers, practitioners, and experts in their own right? And building from that question, how do birth figures help to complicate a longstanding narrative in the history of medicine and science about women’s displacement from positions of authority as healers and practitioners?

There’s lots of evidence to suggest that birth figures were as much a part of women’s culture of birthing, as they were of men’s culture of learned medicine. Not only do they cross this boundary, they show it up for the flimsy thing it is! Some women were learned, expert medical practitioners who used tools effectively and kept up to date with the medical literature. Others, of course, were completely without these professional masculine spheres and incorporated birth figures into their own epistemologies of birth. Women of both camps, particularly when they worked as midwives, were respected within their communities as experts. Focussing on a printed source that had valence in these different social and epistemological spheres shows the real mobility, flexibility and power that early modern women could have as medical practitioners.

If we take a rare but interesting comment on birth figures by the seventeenth-century midwife and surgeon Percival Willughby—

“all the schemes, and various figures, on which midwives look, making their women to think of wonders, by shewing them these pictures of children, assuring them, that, by these, they bee directed, and perfected, and much enlightened in the way of midwifery”

—we can see that birth figures worked as symbols of women’s knowledge and practice that was simultaneously denigrated, exploited, and respected by medical men. If Willughby was ambivalent about the usefulness of birth figures, he knew better than to try to remove them from his planned midwifery manual. Because, as with recipes, we really can link birth figures to women’s practice and knowledge in childbirth, they offer a valuable insight into these aspects of history that are both difficult to trace, and too often neglected or side-lined.

Engraving of four fetal presentations showing the internal anatomy of the uterus, the spine, and the position of the fetus within the womb.
Frederick Birnie (draftsman) and William Taylor (engraver), engraving 35.6 x 21 cm (plate). “Anatomical tables illustrative of the theory and practice of midwifery. See the System. Plate 4. Reduced from Smellie’s tables by Frederick Birnie, anatomical draughtsman to the late Dr. William Hunter, and engraved by William Taylor.” London: C. Cooke, 1791. Wellcome Collection 561823i. Public Domain Mark.

MR: Finally, recipe collections often feature diagrams or illustrations intended to represent process, very much as birth figures do. What advice would you give to our readers who might be interested in thinking about visual sources of “practitional” knowledge alongside textual sources like recipes?

I would say… good idea! Technical or informational images, which are often called ‘epistemic images’ in scholarship, are rich and valuable sources that haven’t received nearly enough attention. Working on them, then, is not only interesting, but it can also help historians to break new ground. I imagine that images in recipes might help scholars to enrich their understandings of practice, to unearth hidden elements of knowledge, but potentially also to read at a cross grain, to see criticisms, challenges or jokes on the textual matter. Images are good at doing these things because they can be more ambiguous and pluralistic, less direct and implicating, than words.

Working on this kind of image involves juggling different disciplines. To research Birth Figures, I combined methodologies from book and print history, art history, social history, the history of medicine, and material culture. But there is also an increasing body of excellent work on epistemic images specifically. Guiding lights for me include: Susan Dackerman; Lorraine Daston; James Elkins; Peter Galison; Nick Hopwood; Matthew Hunter; Sachiko Kusukawa; and Alexander Wragge-Morley. My one word of warning is that if you want to work with images, be prepared to approach them as complicated sources in their own right. It is all too easy use an image as a simple illustration for a point you want to make, or as ‘evidence’ for a practice you think existed. But all images are creations, they are interpretations of reality, not simple records of it. You need to interrogate not only what they say, but how and why, and always with an awareness of the capacity of an image to be read and used in very diverse ways.

Thank you, Dr. Whiteley! Readers interested in learning more about birth figures and their relationship to medical practice should order Dr. Whiteley’s book here.

Cite this blog post
Melissa Reynolds (2023, June 29). Interview with Dr. Rebecca Whiteley about Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body (Chicago, 2023). The Recipes Project. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from

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