Elaine Hobby (ed.), The Birth of Mankind

Elaine Hobby (ed.), The Birth of Mankind, Otherwise Named, The Woman’s Book (Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009). xxxix + 310 pp. £60 hb. ISBN 978-0-7546-3818-6

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

The Birth of Mankind, Otherwise Named, The Woman’s Book is a complex work. The book first appeared in 1540 and its final edition – until now – was in 1654. Its popularity thus spans a long period of medical history, coming out as Hippocrates was first being hailed over Galen as the great gynaecologist, and surviving into a very different England in which much of the classical heritage was being overthrown. The present edition comprises an intoducton covering the history and origins of the work, and sets it in the context of the beliefs about the human body, its diseases and their treatment, that existed in early modern Europe. Hobby locates the first two editions within the context of the ‘new anatomy’ based on human dissection rather than on repeating the words of authorities such as Galen; here she could do more to distinguish between ‘Galenism’ and Galen himself, as although he did not perform human dissections himself, there is a strong argument that he would have welcomed the opportunity. A section of the introduction is devoted to the illustrations, including those that were only used in the 1545 edition; all are reproduced in Hobby’s book.

The Birth of Mankind was based on a Latin translation of Eucharius Rösslin’s Rosegarten (1513), which was in turn substantially taken from fifteenth-century sources: a manuscript on paediatric medicine and Savanorola’s Practica Major.[1] Where the German Rösslin was addressed to midwives, the different status and licensing system of midwives in England meant that the readership was reconfigured as a general one. In keeping with the interests of this audience, material on fertility remedies was added in 1540, while in 1545 – a mere two years after the publication of Vesalius’ immensely significant anatomy work, On the Fabric of the Human Body – a further edition included some illustrations from Vesalius as part of a new 18,000-word first chapter, a move that Hobby notes made the book even more saleable, since while Vesalius’ work was an expensive folio, Birth of Mankind was a much cheaper quarto. The popularity of the illustrations may well explain why so few of the 1545 editions still have them; in this edition, unlike later ones, the pictures were simply stuck on, rather than printed as part of the book.

The text Hobby presents here is the 1560 edition, chosen because this was the point at which the book became ‘broadly stable’ (p.xix); two of the fourteen appendices list the differences between this and both the earlier, and the later, editions, while the others give the text of chapters, tables, dedications and prefaces found in editions other than that of 1560. Hobby identifies Richard Jonas, the translator of the 1540 edition, as Richard Jones, the high master of St Paul’s School in London. As a layman, he changed his source text to stress ‘the experience of the mother rather than the necessary skill of the midwife’ (p.xxxii). Thomas Raynalde,who was in charge of the 1545 edition (not to be confused with Thomas Raynald, the T.R. who printed the first three editions of the book), was himself a physician. Raynalde updated the remedies given to bring them into line with current ideas, and also changed some of the terminology. Hobby’s close reading produces some fascinating examples to support his claim to have worked as a physician in France; for example, he uses the words ‘foetified’ and ‘aptified’ which sound like ‘the ghosts of French verb-forms’ (p.xxxvi).

The illustrations used in Birth of Mankind included not only the Vesalius pictures, but also diagrams of foetal positions; these were reused in Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book (1671), another early modern midwifery text edited by Hobby.[2]In an article on Sharp, Hobby noted that ‘The mother’s body is not an attractive entity in the majority of early modern midwifery writings’.[3] In contrast, Raynalde writes, ‘I know nothing in woman so privy ne so secret, that they should need to care who knew of it; neither is there any part in woman more to be abhorred, than in man’ (p. 20). This assertion of the acceptable female body both challenges the traditional rhetoric of ancient and early modern works on midwifery which state that they are going to reveal ‘women’s secrets’, and contradicts an enduring view, going back to Avicenna, that the womb is a drain or sewer for the body; in 1586 Mercuriale could still state that ‘It is agreed by all physicians, that the womb is like dregs and a drain.’ Hobby comments that ‘Sharp responded to such attitudes with direct assertions and with tactical rewritings of her male-authored sources’, using as an example Sharp’s comment ‘we women have no more cause to be angry, or be ashamed of what Nature hath given us than men have, we cannot be without ours no more than they can want theirs’.[4] Hobby noted that this passage in Sharp is also close to Culpeper’s introduction to his section ‘Of the Genitals in Women’: ‘Women, who have no more cause than Men (that I know of) to be ashamed of what they have’.[5] The present book means that Sharp’s can now be seen clearly as a female voice taking on the sentiments of Raynalde. Only by knowing Birth of Mankind can we understand the ways that later writers on midwifery worked. Furthermore, seeing Culpeper as simply repeating Raynalde casts an interesting light on the point that the publication of Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives, in 1651, may have been the reason why Birth of Mankind stopped being reprinted. Hobby notes that Raynalde also ‘challenges some of the masculinist assumptions of Vesalius’ in the text accompanying the illustrations in book 1 (p. xxx), and he appears to have been ahead of his time here too.

The great merits of Elaine Hobby’s meticulous edition are that she not only unravels the details of the multiple authorship, sources and printings of Birth of Mankind but also leaves open so many interesting routes for future scholars to take. The footnotes giving current English equivalents for word or phrases, and examples where the book is clearly reusing earlier sources, allow the modern reader not only to understand the details of the language but also to explore the relationship between the book and its precursors. Hobby demonstrates that the complex relationship between the different early modern midwifery texts, authored by men and women, trained physicians and lay people, is ripe for still further exploration. In particular, the Latin texts in circulation need to be compared to the vernacular works so that we have a better sense of what was new, and what simply rephrased; the latter case is perhaps the most exciting because, as Hobby’s work on Jane Sharp also demonstrates, it is only by understanding the nuances of language that we can see how one text can be put to many uses. Those interested in book history, the reception of ancient medicine, sexuality, midwifery, recipes, language and childhood will find a wealth of possibilities in this important and timely edition.

Helen King, University of Reading

[1] See M.H. Green, ‘The sources of Eucharius Rösslin’s Rosegarden for Pregnant Women and Midwives, 1513,’ Medical History 53, 2009, 167-192.

[2] E. Hobby (ed.), The Midwives Book, Or, the Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[3] Hobby, ‘“Secrets of the Female sex”: Jane Sharp, the reproductive female body, and early modern midwifery manuals’, Women’s Writing, 8 (2001), 201-212, p. 202.

[4] Hobby, The Midwives Book, p. 32.

[5] Hobby, ‘“Secrets of the Female sex”’, pp. 210-211, n. 7; N. Culpeper, Directory for Midwives (London: Peter Cole), p. 26.