In This Chapter


Authored by: Lianneh McTavis

The Ashgate Research Companion to Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe

Print publication date:  April  2013
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9781409418177
eBook ISBN: 9781315613765
Adobe ISBN: 9781317041054


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Maternity has not always been considered a subject worthy of historical scrutiny, largely because of its association with both women and nature. During the 1970s, feminists insisted on the value of women’s roles, noting that they were socially and culturally determined rather than unchanged over time. Early twentieth-century narratives about the past were for the most part written by male historians, who focused on such important events as wars and elections, but ignored the everyday lives of working-class men and women, in addition to a broad array of social practices. A new generation of scholars turned its attention to unexplored topics, stressing the experiences of women, including their participation in pregnancy, birth, motherhood and marriage as gendered cultural activities that had shaped society in significant ways. Consider, for instance, the case of midwifery. During the 1960s, historians assumed that men had become more involved in providing obstetrical services during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries because they were better educated and able to deliver more live children than untrained female midwives. 1 1

Forbes, 1966.

The careful archival and historical research conducted since then has shown, however, that early modern female midwives were often knowledgeable and successful, and that men expanded their practices for reasons that differed according to class status and geographic location. 2 2

Marland, 1993.

Current analyses of midwifery are now site specific, considering the practices of particular regions, and addressing the gendered roles of both men and women in the delivery of midwifery services. The discussion that follows explains this and other revisions in the scholarship on maternity published during the past 30 years or so, highlighting the most influential material stemming from the study of gender and women. Though the chapter strives to be as expansive as possible, it necessarily features Western Europe, especially France and England, which have thus far received more attention than non-Western parts of the world.

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