The need for a better understanding of obstetrical practice was great among both the poor and the wealthy throughout sixteenth-century England, and was particularly urgent for the monarch himself. By 1536, Henry the VIII had enabled ten pregnancies, resulting in only three live births. The Byrth of Mankynde, published in 1540 and dedicated to Katherine Howard, the king’s fifth wife, is the oldest manual for midwives printed in the English language. It remained in use both as a guidebook for midwives and as a source for physicians in the practice of obstetrics throughout Europe for the next two hundred years, until the more accurate scientific research of Smellie and Hunter superseded it.
The authorship of this book has been in debate for centuries. Until the early twentieth century, Thomas Reynalde, a physician who practiced in London and Paris, was credited as the author. We now know that the 1540 Byrth was a translation from the Latin edition of De Partu Hominis of Eucharius Rösslin’s Rosengarten (full title: “A Rose Garden for Pregnant Women and Midwives.”) Reynalde revised and added material for the second and several subsequent editions of the book. By strange coincidence, the publisher and printer of this English edition involved a second Thomas Reynalde, who worked in London at the Sign of the Star in St. Paul’s Churchyard, further confusing the authorship issue.
Rösslin (d. 1526), named town physician of Frankfurt in 1506, was charged with supervising that city’s midwives. He found them to be largely careless and ignorant. Rösslin assumed this role at a time when the professionalization of midwifery was accelerating rapidly. By 1491, many of Frankfurt’s midwives were paid, and had achieved municipal appointments. In many cases, they were also required to pass an exam before they could practice. As such, the Rosengarten found an eager audience, and was published in three separate editions that same year. Later editions appeared in Dutch, Czech, French, Danish, Latin, and here, in English.
Little evidence exists to suggest that Rösslin actually delivered any babies, and the Byrth does not break new ground in the field of obstetrics. Instead, it makes available the teachings of the Roman physician Soranus, popularized by Moschion, author of a 6th century question – and –answer book for Roman midwives. Other influences include Galen, Hippocrates, Aetius, Magnus and others.
While the book contained sound instruction on delivery procedures, there was a good deal of misleading information here too. Among the fallacies perpetuated in the pages within are the suggestion that a baby born in the seventh month was more likely to survive than a baby born in the eighth month, that the vigor of male babies made them easier to deliver than female babies, and that eating fruit would delay labor.
Most captivating are the volume’s seventeen copper-engraved plates, among the first in England to be produced by a roller press. The first illustrates the “the Womans Stwle,” or birth chair: “meete for her to sit downe, leaning backward, in manner upright.” This birth aid had been in use at least since Soranus’ time. Sixteen additional plates depict “Byrth Figures” in various positions, in utero. These were originally included in the Rosengarten of 1513. The babies in these images, who resemble children age three or four, and not fetuses, float dreamily in light-bulb-shaped vessels.
Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama courtesy of George Blumenthal.