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Maternal Measures: Figuring Caregiving in the Early Modern Period. .

Naomi J. Miller and Naomi Yavneh, eds. Maternal Measures: Figuring Caregiving in the Early Modern Period.

(Women and Gender in the Early Modern World.) Aldershot, England and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2000. xvi + 374 pp. index. illus. $69.95. ISBN: 0-7546-0031-9.

In early modern Europe maternity and caregiving were particularly fraught subjects, imbued with tension and conflict not least because they belonged, for the most part, to the sphere of women. Not only mothers but midwives, wetnurses, stepmothers, witches, amazons, and saints were female constructions which were seen as moving in part along the spectrum of the maternal; indeed, those women who had the power to give and nurture life could also threaten or extinguish that life, all the while exerting a level of authority which demanded some kind of containment or explanation. These themes resound throughout Maternal Measures: Figuring Caregiving in the Early Modern Period a collection of essays edited by Naomi J. Miller and Naomi Yavneh; while studies of female caregivers have been treated within larger analyses of women in history, no work has so comprehensively delved into the subject with such variety and innovation of interpretation.

As with all large and somewhat unwieldy collections, some essays are stronger than others, but as a whole great advances are made toward understanding topics which range across Europe and are organized under thematic sections such as "Conception, Childbirth and Lactation," "Nurture and Instruction," "Domestic Production," "Social Authority," and "Mortality."

All argue in favor of what Naomi Miller calls "the malleable boundaries of... social roles for women" (3), while claiming the maternal as a social and bodily space in which women exercised power and agency. Representations of female sexuality and reproduction, the breast and the uterus, the ideal mother and the murderous witch, are all treated through various cross-cultural and interdisciplinary prisms; the sources in which these ideas are examined include mothering guidebooks, medical works, didactic treatises, reformation polemics, literary texts, and carnival plays, as well as paintings (especially by women artists) and even musical scores and songs.

Among the more interesting of the essays are those examining the role of breastfeeding in early modern culture, including Naomi Yavneh's "To Bare or Not Too Bare: Sofonisba Anguissola's Nursing Madonna and the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding," which explores the more naturalistic rendering of breast-feeding (and its nutritive rather than sexual element) by a female artist, especially as it contrasts with a time in which the humanity-oriented Madonna lactans was overtaken by portrayals of "the Assumption and Immaculate Conception, which stress [Mary's] divinely privileged difference" (75). Rachel Trubowitz's "'But Blood Whitened': Nursing Mothers and Others in Early Modern England" also takes up the theme, utilizing a variety of texts--including engravings and travel narratives--to argue the perceived importance of mothers' milk in the creation of cultural constructions and English national identity (for example, as evidenced in the contrast between the "idealized Christian mother, feeding her child with the milk from her own virtuous white body" and the "demonized/criminalized figure of 'the Jew' hungering for the blood and bodies of Christian children" [83]).

At the highest level of mother-idealization, of course, stands Mary, who makes numerous appearances in the essays. In Francis Dolan's "Marian Devotion and Maternal Authority in Seventeenth-Century England," "Mariolatry" constituted an issue by which Protestant and Catholic writers weighed in on broader questions of female authority, centering around "the Nursing Virgin, so confusingly combining service and power, nurture and eros" (288). Working from an entirely different perspective is Claire Fontijn, whose essay "The Virgin's Voice: Representations of Mary in Seventeenth-Century Italian Song" explores the ways in which the Virgin Mother is depicted as expressing her maternal role, as a young nursing mother or a weeping mourning one, through contemporary lullabies and laments. At the opposite end of the spectrum, witches are explored in Nancy Hayes' "Negarivizing Nurture and Demonizing Domesticity: The Witch Construct in Early Modern Germany," which focuses on the witch as "the negative maternal, the deprive r of her children's food and comfort, the Other to the Mother" (179), while Kathryn Schwarz's fascinating "Mother Love: Cliches and Amazons in Early Modern England" places the Amazon in the middle of the ongoing tension over maternity, with texts "[imagining her] in a simultaneously intimate and disruptive relationship to domestic structures" (294).

Since maternity in the early modern period--and female gynecology in general--was overtaken by the patriarchal medical institutions of modernity, an essay accounting for the shift might have added further to the volume; nevertheless, Maternal Measures is a fine and exhaustive treatment of its subject, opening up new and rich perspectives onto a time when early modern mothers and caregivers, in Naomi Miller's words, "found the knowledge and power to connect with one another, and variably resist or even reform some of the practices and expectations that determined their standing in society" (19).
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Author:Covington, Sarah
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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