May 24, 2019

What to Expect When You Were Expecting in Early Modern England

“Not long after I’d announced that I was pregnant for the first time, friends began offloading their pregnancy and childbirth books on me. I don’t know if their motivation was to free up space on their shelves or to help prepare me for a life-changing event, but it felt like my job to get through the pile of advice. As I tried to figure out how to be a mother to the unknowable being growing inside of me, I needed all the help I could get.

I’m far from the first expectant parent to search for direction within the pages of a pregnancy advice book. The original What to Expect When You’re Expectings were called midwifery manuals. “To conceive with child is the earnest desire if not of all, yet of most women,” wrote Jane Sharp, midwife and author of The Midwives Book, or, the Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered, first published in 1671. Historical scholar Victoria Glover borrowed Sharp’s observation as the title of her recent study, which analyzes 26 of these midwifery manuals published across nearly 300 years. It’s a fascinating view into changing attitudes and practices around pregnancy and childbirth when obstetrics was transforming itself from informed guesswork into something resembling science.

Midwifery manuals were the product of three major cultural forces intersecting with women’s health: the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, and the printing press. For Glover, the manuals are a lens to understand how the intellectual, religious, and scientific currents of the time influenced women’s lives. For us, they’re a reminder to be grateful for modern medicine.”

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