Seventeenth-century France saw a rise of the prestige of the male midwife, or the chirurgien accoucheur. Two French male midwives who helped the male midwife secure a place in the traditionally female world of childbirth were Jacques Guillemeau and Francois Mauriceau. Their obstetrical treatises open the eye to midwifery practices, beliefs, and conflicts of the time (1).
by Danielle Kruglak
Guillemeau, who lived from about 1550 to 1613, wrote De l’heureux accouchement des femmes, which was published in French in 1609. His text was broken up into three sections: illnesses and remedies during pregnancy, midwife conduct, and illnesses and remedies after childbirth. Throughout his text, Guillemeau provides references to the methods of the ancients, and he also heavily follows Galenic theory (2).
As a male midwife, Guillemeau was not fond of his female counterpart, and distanced himself from what he considered to be a lesser profession. According to him, female midwives were cunning, not knowledgeable, and would commit errors. They mainly had three jobs: 1) to see if a husband and wife were compatible, 2) to be present at delivery and birth, and 3) to tell if a woman was pregnant (2).
Mauriceau, who lived from 1637 to 1709, wrote two main obstetrical treatises: Des maladies des femmes grosses et accouchees (1668) and Observations sur la grossesse et l’accouchement des femmes (1694). Similar to Guillemeau, Mauriceau followed Galenic theory, including the one-sex model. Much can be attributed to this famous male midwife, such as his tire-tete forceps, which pulled dead children from the womb, and the semi-recumbent or “French” birthing position. Mauriceau also did not approve of female midwives, and he blamed them for causing problems during difficult deliveries (3).
As with many things in life, there were also conflicts within the field of midwifery. One of the largest fights broke out between Mauriceau and Philippe Peu, another well-known male midwife at the time. Through their manuals, treatises, and conflicts, Guillemeau and Mauriceau offer invaluble insight into early-modern French midwifery and culture (1).
Image: Fores, Samuel W. “A Male Midwife,” 1793. Wellcome Library.
(1) McTavish, Lianne. Childbirth and the Display of Authority in Early Modern France. Boston: Ashgate Company, 2005.
(2) Guillemeau, Jacques. Childbirth, or, The Happy Delivery of Women. London, 1612.
(3) Mauriceau, Francois. Des maladies des femmes grosses et accouchees. Paris: Jean Henault, 1668.