Today there are so many books available on pregnancy, childbirth and newborn care that expecting parents can feel paralyzed by choice. In Tudor era England, there weren’t any options until 1540 and the publication of The Birth of Mankind. In this post, I am going to introduce you to the book and we’re gonna get a bit codicological.
The Byrth of Mankynde was the first book published in English on the subject of pregnancy and birth. The book had multiple editions and was in print for over 100 years. The Byrth of Mankynde was hugely influential to subsequent books on the subject. It brought women’s secret world of childbirth out into public discourse, connecting the real-world experience of the midwife with the scholarship of physicians and surgeons to improve outcomes for women and babies. With the inclusion of the diagrams, called Birth Figures, showing the positions of the fetus at the time of birth, the book was considered a marvel.
But who should get the credit for writing it?
The Birth of Mankind was based on Eucharist Rosslyn’s Der schwangern Frauwen und Hebammen Rosengarten (pregnant wives and midwives rosegarden) which was published in Germany in 1513. It was an immediate best-seller there too, being translated into French and Latin before being translated into English.
However, it’s not Rosslyn’s original work.
Rosslyn’s Rosengarten borrowed heavily from Muscio’s 5th century Genecia and there is reason to believe that Muscio’s treatise heavily borrowed or is an outright copy of the 1st-century work of the Greek Physician Soranus.
So this knowledge, birth figures and all, was at least a thousand years old before Rosslyn got to it. Yet, it was considered a breakthrough in Rosslyn’s time– without exaggeration, changing forever the way birth was thought of in western civilization.
It all has to do with the printing press… and Protestantism.
Manuscript to Print
Muscio’s writings were effectively locked away in manuscript form for a thousand years because before the printing press, all written knowledge had to be hand copied. And every element of the book required specialized trades to be produced, from the animal husbandry to the processing of skins for parchment, to the ability to hand copy letters, to the binding of the book itself.
And then, to read it an individual had to have access to that precious copy and the ability to read Latin– a universal scholastic language in Europe since the roman empire but exclusive to educated classes which included the rich and religious orders. The majority of people, most especially women involved in having or catching babies, would have had no chance of reading such a book.
Once the printing press and movable type was introduced books became accessible to the masses. After the type is set, multiple pages of text could be printed at once (on a large sheet of paper) with the pull of a lever (or crank) and hundreds (or thousands) of copies of produced from one setting. Books– though still exclusive to the people who have the money to buy them, the education to read, and the leisure time for reading– could be mass-produced and at astonishing speed for considerably less investment than manuscripts.
Along comes Eucharist Rosslyn, he’s a man who can read Latin and has access to manuscript copies of Muscio’s gyngeologica (and I say copies because even in Rosslyn’s time none of the 5th century originals survived, he was working from one of the 9th-15th cent copies) and he realizes that the people who could most profit (besides himself) from such knowledge are women and midwives.
So he translates the Latin manuscript into the vernacular, which in his case was German, gives it a flowery name, Der schwangern Frauwen und Hebammen Rosengarten and with the help of the printing press, hundreds of copies can be sold to the masses. It was bound to be a best seller. (eh?) What I am curious to know is how much he (and later translators) added to it. For example, there’s a bit about conjoined twins and it mentions how there was recently a case of in Werenburgh.
But you might be wondering: could women even read back then? And that’s where Protestantism comes in. One of the first things European printers created was The Bible (Gutenberg, the man credited with inventing moveable type and introducing the printing press to Europe, first printed the bible in Latin, the Gutenberg Bible). All the scholars started sourcing Latin manuscripts and translating them into the vernacular for mass consumption and it didn’t take long for people to start asking why the bible shouldn’t be translated too. What were they tryina hide?
The Catholic Church’s concern (aside from monetary/power loss) was that the average person did not have the education to understand what they read and would come to the wrong conclusion (i.e. literal interpretation of the bible) and put their souls at risk, and that was assuming the translation was faithful to the “original” Latin. Lay people, the church insisted, needed trained professionals, i.e. priests, to interpret the bible for them.
The protestants PROTESTed this and decided it was best to cut out the middle man, and as a result, a tenant of Protestant belief was that each man woman and child should be taught to read so that they could read the bible. European literacy rates skyrocketed, at least in protestant regions, which only fueled the printing industry to create more books for wider audiences and to translate more Latin manuscripts into the vernacular.
It inspired a new sense of linguistic nationalism: why should those German’s have this knowledge when we don’t, someone translate it now! Funnily enough, the Rosengarten was so popular in German that people demanded it be translated back into Latin so writers from all over Europe could translate it into their own mother tongue.
And this was why, in 1540, thirty-seven years after Rosslyn published the book in German, that Richard Jonas, translated the Latin edition of Rosengarten, De Parti Hominis into English, retitling the work The Birth of Mankynde.
“there is in the Latin speech a book entitled de parti hominis: that is to say of the birth of mankind compiled by a famous doctor in physics called Eucharius the which he wrote in his own mother tongue that is being a German in the German speech afterward by another honest Clark at the request and desire of his friend transposed into Latin”
Unfortunately for Richard Jonas, only five years later, Thomas Raynalde, a physician, published his own edition of the Birth of Mankind, though it was widely expanded on and had all kinds of book innovations, overshadowing the original English edition.
But today, I am focusing on the original English edition published by Richard Jonas in 1540.
Features of the Book
I’m eye-humping the Wellcome Collection’s edition, which is linked, so that you too, may eye hump it at your own pace.
The title page has a generic woodcut border, featuring monkeys jousting on sheep (or dogs?). What’s missing from the title page that I would normally see: author’s name, printer’s information, or the date. It does have in small font at the bottom, “Lum privilegio regali, ad imprimendum solum” which is literally “Heaven privilege and royal imprinted” in otherwords, “exlcusive printing rights”. Much good it did him.
Looks like it’s been rebound, probably in the 19th century (but I am not 100% on that, but it’s got the look of a victorian I-want-all-my-books-to-match dark spine with gilt lettering thing happening) and the new binding isn’t accurate: it lists Raynalde as the author/translator instead of Richard Jonas, even though it also has the printing date of 1540 correct.
The original paper was laid paper, you can tell from the ribs made by the wires and chains of the paper mold. If I were able to get my mitts on this book, I would look for a watermark, because with that information it’s possible to look up where and who made the paper. The last page’s repairs are made more obvious by the difference in the paper textures (but often conservators aren’t attempting to match the original, it’s something of an ethical issue determining how closely to match the original when you aren’t trying to hide your repairs but also don’t want to take away from the focus on the original.) Since I can’t actually handle this book, I’m not going to attempt fancy things like counting the quires or egads! a collation diagram.
The printing is an even crisp black ink, however certain letters are a pain: the e’s get flooded and the m’s loose their tops. But that’s more to do with the gothic font than the skill of the printer. At the bottom of each page, there is a catchword, the first word that will appear on the following page. This can be helpful for readers but they were also helpful for the bookbinders to know the pages were printed properly. On every other page, you’ll notice a letter/ number combination next to the catchword, this is called a signature mark. That is just for the bookbinder. The printer prints multiple pages on one large sheet of paper, then the bookbinder collates using that signature mark and folds these sheets into the individual pages, then they can check the signature marks or the catchwords to know it’s all in order.
The birth figures were removed from the book itself, which is a darn shame. But this kind of vandalism is all too common– please don’t buy artwork torn out of historical books without confirming the source of the material is legitimately obtained.
This particular copy is in pretty good condition considering its age and purpose. There are some water stains on the fore-edge of the text block, at the front of the book, maybe someone had it lying face down and knocked over their beverage, rescuing the book before it was more damaged. There are the usual grubby finger smudges at the corners that have built up and darkened over the centuries, and a few “blood or ink” stains throughout.
The final page gives the printing information:
Jonas dedicated the book to Queen Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife. It’s the usual obsequious pandering but he mentions her own publications (on Protestantism):
“Where as of late (most excellent virtuous queen) many goodly and proper treaties as well concerning holy Scripture wherein is contained the only comfort and conciliation of all goodly people”
Then he goes into how important it is to translate texts from Latin into English for the benefit of the English people.
“among other things out of the noble science of physics have been diverse proper and profitable matters compiled and translated from the Latin tongue into the English by the reading of which right many have confessed themselves to have received great light and knowledge of such things in which they have found no small comfort and profit.”
And especially for English women:
“considering then that the same commodity and profit which they in their regions do obtain by enjoying of this little book in their maternal language might also ensue unto all women in this noble realm of England if it be set forth in the English speech as concerning this I have done my simple endeavor for the love of all women hood and chiefly for the most bound service the which I owe unto your most gracious Highness to translate the same into our tongue.”
It is heartbreaking to know that though this book was dedicated to Queen Catherine Parr, who remarried after the death of King Henry VIII, died after giving birth to her only daughter Mary in 1548. It is believed she died of childbed fever. Maybe the placenta was being stubborn, and on the advice of this book, the midwife decided to just leave it in to “putrefy” and so get flushed out naturally.
There is a table of contents, with page (or folio) numbers, a new innovation for books. The chapter titles give an idea of their contents.
There are three books, or parts, in the 1540 edition of The Byrth of Mankynde:
“In the which is entreated of all such things the which chance to women in their labor, and all such infirmities which happen unto the infants after they be delivered. And also at the latter end on the third or last book is entreated of the conception of mankind, and how many ways it may be leaded or furthered, with diverse other fruitful things, as doth appear in the table before the book.”
The first book begins with an anatomy lesson: How the fetus is positioned in the womb (matrix). This is a much bigger deal than we can conceive of today. There is good reason to believe that visualizing the fetus in the womb just wasn’t something that was done, even by midwives. That’s why the birth figures were so novel to popular audiences in the 16th century.
“wherefore you shall understand that the birth lieth in the mother after this manner: first it lieth round in manner as a bowl the hands being between the knees and the head lying on the knees: either of the eyes joining upon either of the knees: The right eye upon the right knee: and the left upon the left the nose depending between the knees so that the face and forepart of the infant is toward the inward parts of the woman lying in manner upright in the mother’s matrix.”
And then he goes on to describe the skins that the baby is wrapped in, the amniotic sac, the placenta, and the vernix. It then goes into a lot of detail on pregnancy, labor and delivery. There is a second on neonatal care including: cord care, cord-lore, afterbirth anointing and bathing, the first poo, breastfeeding, feeding schedules, swaddling, and even where the best place for the cradle is.
The second book is a collection of newborn conditions and their treatments, very similar in format and content to what is in The Boke of Chyldren. The third book, which was about conception and fertility, includes chapter titles like:
“How to know whether lack of conception be of the woman or of the man, and how it may be perceived whether she be conceived or no.”
The Birth Figures
Unfornately, the birth figures for the Wellcome Collection’s edition were removed at some point. Inside the front cover there is a note in pencil that the plate are “wanting” but otherwise the book was complete. I found another 1540 edition with Birth Figures through the New York Academy of Medicine. The fourth Birth Figure is mislabeled as the third.
However, because the Birth Figures were what made the book so ground breaking, it’s important to understand their purpose. They were used in combination with written instructions on the internal version of the fetus during birth.
Basically: labor is in progress, the midwife catches the first glimpse of the fetus in the birth canal and it’s two feet inside of a head. So she consults the book, finding the Birth Figure with two feet coming down first. Then she finds the associated text for instructions on pushing the fetus back into the uterus to change it’s presentation, or failing that, how best to guide it out.
Note that the word “thrust” was frequently used to describe the motion of shoving the partially born fetus back into the uterus. This can and probably did cause serious injury to both woman and baby, everything from permanent pelvic floor damage to uterine hemorrhage; fetal injury to cerebral palsy. All this because someone over a 1000 years ago decided there was only one natural presentation at birth and the rest needed to be fixed before completely coming out.
It is very clear that this book was intended for women, both midwives and mothers. In fact, in Jonas’s edition, he states:
“[this] book for this singular utility and profit that ensues unto all such as read it and most especially unto all women (for whose only cause it was written)”
You can really sense his compassion for women throughout the book but especially in the introduction/dedication:
“The women which sustain and endure for the time so great dolour and pain for the birth of mankind and deliverance of the same into the world”
He hopes that midwives will read this book even though he admits they probably have more experience/knowledge, but that it’s possible his book might help clear up gaps in knowledge and that reading his book won’t hurt, and it’s much riskier to not read the book in the case that you might be able to save a baby or a woman.
“wishing greatly that it might please all honest and motherly midwives diligently to read and oversee the same of the witch although there be many which you know much more peradventure then is here expressed yet I am sure in the reading of it their understanding shall be much cleared and have somewhat further perseverance in the same. It is no small charge the which they take upon them for if when any strange or perilous case doth chance the midwife be ignorant or to seek in such things which are to be had in remembrance in that case then it is the party lost and utterly doth perish for lack of due knowledge requisite to be had in the midwife.”
And he even has a stern warning for any men who might read the book: The first page “an admonition to the reader” gives a long warning to any men who might read the book, that they are not to make any ribald, unseemly, or uncharitable words about what they might learn of women. Because they have to answer to God. “They ought rather to know much, and to say little, but only where it made do good”
Though these birth figure books took birth from a secret world of women into public discourse, it still remained, even in the eyes of men, a women’s domain.
So we have this book explicitly marketed at women and midwives… but as many book historians want to know: how was it actually used? Coffee table book? Reference? Or in the field so to speak? A recipe book with food stains is a favorite with a book historian.
So a midwifery book would have what kinds of stains?
The 1637 edition of the birth of mankind at the Royal College of Physicians has a suspiciously blood-like smudge but testing has been inconclusive. Nearly every historical book I have seen there is a game of “blood or ink” somewhere inside– old ink takes on a blood-stain color and even if it is blood, if someone was writing in the margins, knives were probably involved to cut quills, so there’s no way to say if the blood was from a birth.
Richard Jonas, in his dedication, said that he hoped all literate matrons and women would have a copy of the book always at the ready, as a reference, whenever it was needed:
“set forth and printed in great number so that there be few matrons and women in that parts but (if they can read) will have this book always in readiness”
In other words, midwives should read the book for its information and be sure to show their clients the book to assure them that the midwife was well informed and that their baby would be delivered safe and healthy. Of course, we now recognize that a lot of the information in this book isn’t accurate, or even safe to follow (please don’t bathe in mercury water for an easy birth), but believing themselves to have this additional knowledge would have felt powerful. I am curious if there is a way to determine what impact, if any, the publication of this book had on maternal or neonatal mortality in England.
In a time when a swollen belly wasn’t a guarantee of pregnancy and pregnancy wasn’t a guarantee of a baby, midwifery books in the vernacular provided assurance both of a safe birth and healthy child, but also that the attendant of the birth who had such a book was well-read and prepared for all eventualities.
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Book and Baby Historian, frolicking through archives. Panics when low on chocolate rations. Will embarrass self in any social situation to point out or pet other people's dogs. Habitual stumbler, peppermint tea drinker. People watcher, pizza slayer.