By Kate Stidham (Vanderbilt University)
The Compleat Midwifes Practice is an intriguing midwifery text printed in England during the seventeenth century. The first edition was released in 1656 and the fifth and final edition was released in 1698. The first edition included a preface, descriptions of male and female anatomy, birth procedures and practices, how to care for the mother and child, a series of anecdotes about actual births, and, finally, a letter written from Louis Bourgeois, midwife to the Queen of France, to her daughter describing proper midwife behavior.
The second edition changed names to The Compleat Midwife’s Practice Enlarged and added a section pulling from the works of Nicholas Culpeper, a famous apothecary of the day, describing how to conceive wise, male children.
The third edition added a section from the papers and notes of Sir Theodore Mayern, physician to several kings of France and Charles I of England. This section expands upon the original bulk of the text, adding new recipes to bring about labor and treat various symptoms or discomforts of delivery. The fourth and fifth editions do not add additional content.
The text was produced during a time of change in midwifery. There were a rising number of men becoming interested in childbirth. Surgeons had traditionally been called for difficult deliveries only, but more and more people were relying on them to deliver their children without the help of midwifes.
Because the text has content attributed to female midwifes, male apothecaries, and male physicians and because of the changing times, the question of authorship becomes an interesting one. If women wrote this, they would be endorsing men that are encroaching on their field. If men wrote this, they would be praising the expertise of Louise Bourgeois, acknowledging that women are extremely capable of doing a good job. Unfortunately, there is no explicit naming of the authors or editors of these texts. The first edition was by T.C., I.D., M.S., and T.B., calling themselves practitioners. Doreen Evenden claims that the text was written by female midwives of the day, but with only a series of initials to work with, there is no way of knowing for sure who wrote it.
Evenden, Doreen. The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London. N.p.: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
Cody, Lisa Forman. Birthing the Nation: Sex, Science and the Conception of Eighteenth-Century
Britons. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
Pechey, John. The compleat midwife's practice enlarged in the most weighty and high concernments of the birth of man containing a perfect directory or rules for midwives
and nurses : as also a guide for women in their conception, bearing and nursing of
children from the experience of our English authors, viz., Sir Theodore Mayern, Dr.
Chamberlain, Mr. Nich. Culpeper ... : with instructions of the Queen of France's
midwife to her daughter ... 5th ed. London, 1698. Early English Books Online. Web.