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Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England.

Mary E. Fissell Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England.

Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. x + 283 pp. index. illus. bibl. $74. ISBN: 0-19-926988-2.

This book is an exhaustive survey of changing attitudes toward the workings of the female body through an analysis of what Fissell calls cheap print: the broadsides, pamphlets, ballads, jokes, popular religious, and medical works available in English in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She argues that these have to be read carefully, since they are not simple mirrors of everyday belief but a variety of sources that call for careful reading and interpretative strategies. From such sources she can chart a change in the view of women's bodies from almost apologetic works about reproductive bodies in the early sixteenth century to anatomically more-or-less accurate descriptions offered without hesitation or apology in the seventeenth century.

The author illustrates how the introduction of Protestantism in England brought about a rethinking of pregnancy and childbirth, a rethinking that continued over the course of the next century. One result was the downplaying of Mary as protector of pregnant women, which involved such activities as wearing sacred girdles and other items associated with the statues of Mary. The result of the change was somewhat contradictory, since the womb came to be seen as a kind of container in which God works the wonders of fetal development on the one hand; on the other hand, it was seen as a source of women's maladies, through which the witches could work their evils.

The literature she relies on is tremendously varied, ranging from the Ranters and Levellers and believers in witchcraft at one end of the spectrum to Catholics at the other. Midwives were particularly important in imparting changing interpretations, although until the seventeenth century they had been more or less put down by the medical establishment, which regarded them as little more than a woman's support group. Particularly influential in changing such attitudes were the writings of Nicholas Culpeper--who felt everyone was a physician--in the middle of the seventeenth century. His goal was to make this multitude of vernacular healers more effective by giving them knowledge. In his book for midwives he started with male anatomy and followed with a discussion of female anatomy. Although this was the first midwives' book to deal with male anatomy, Fissell holds that the result in the comparisons of the two was to make women into inferior versions of men. Though this concept of inferiority had a long history dating at least from Greek times, and though Fissell dislikes such comparisons, it did give the midwife some understanding of how reproduction took place. Culpeper's anatomical descriptions (he had no illustrations) were fairly accurate and easy to grasp and more importantly to her was his positive attitude to midwives. His purpose in writing was to educate them to what medicine did or did not know in order that they could better serve their clients. This marked a stronger invasion of males into what in the past had been mostly an almost female affair, with the physician only appearing when natural delivery appeared hopeless, and usually resulting in the destruction of the fetus in utero in an often-hopeless attempt to save the life of the mother.

Each change in political conditions brought on new issues. With the restoration of the monarchy, discussion of reproduction came to focus on the transfer of characteristics from one generation to another. How royal was royalty? There was also a change in regarding wives as simply innocent victims of their husband's infidelity, but instead often recognizing them as potential aggressors themselves in seeking extramarital relationships. There was widespread discussion of how conception occurred, with some holding that it resulted from the mixing of two seeds and with others advocating a more classical view that the female provided the matter and the male the seed. Deliberately ignored by Fissell are major developments in science, such as William Harvey's discovery of the mammalian egg as a key to reproduction. Harvey, however, wrote in Latin, and his view did not become part of the popular medical literature until later. Fissell's purpose is what the cheap literature said, not what was taking place in medicine itself.

Her book concludes with the popular literature dealing with the "birth" of a baby boy to Queen Mary of Modena, wife of James II, a fearful event to the Protestants. The result was an outpouring of "cheap literature" challenging the very legitimacy of the infant, as well as claiming the king incapable of fathering a child. One version claimed that the baby was not the queen's but an infant smuggled into the birth room in a warming pan. Another had Queen Mary as the mother of the infant but claimed that the father was the Queen's Jesuit confessor Father Peters. Still another claimed the whole pregnancy was a sham and that the baby was really the child of a miller and his wife.

Fissell uses the debate to illustrate that by the time of the Restoration, cheap literature had exploded the range of possibilities for talking about women's bodies, and that women's bodies had become a language of politics. Male writers no longer had to apologize for discussing the process of conception, pregnancy, and delivery. Women's secrets were much less secret. Once women's bodies became a topic for public discussion, in the words of Fissell, they opened the womb to the world.

In sum, the book deals with a complex subject by gathering snippets from various popular sources, weaving in and out of changing events of the period. Fissell finds a growing willingness of women to express their own beliefs and feelings and to even challenge traditional (male) assumptions. This pioneering study using previously neglected source material is a hard read, demanding much of its reader even though the author makes a continuing effort to keep her readers informed as to where she is going. It is heavily documented, and has an exhaustive bibliography.


State University of New York, Distinguished Professor Emeritus
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Author:Bullough, Vern L.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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