Skip to main content

Birth Figures

Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body

The first full study of “birth figures” and their place in early modern knowledge-making. 

Birth figures are printed images of the pregnant womb, always shown in series, that depict the variety of ways in which a fetus can present for birth. Historian Rebecca Whiteley coined the term and here offers the first systematic analysis of the images’ creation, use, and impact. Whiteley reveals their origins in ancient medicine and explores their inclusion in many medieval gynecological manuscripts, focusing on their explosion in printed midwifery and surgical books in Western Europe from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century. During this period, birth figures formed a key part of the visual culture of medicine and midwifery and were widely produced. They reflected and shaped how the pregnant body was known and treated. And by providing crucial bodily knowledge to midwives and surgeons, birth figures were also deeply entangled with wider cultural preoccupations with generation and creativity, female power and agency, knowledge and its dissemination, and even the condition of the human in the universe. 

Birth Figures studies how different kinds of people understood childbirth and engaged with midwifery manuals, from learned physicians to midwives to illiterate listeners. Rich and detailed, this vital history reveals the importance of birth figures in how midwifery was practiced and in how people, both medical professionals and lay readers, envisioned and understood the mysterious state of pregnancy.

312 pages | 6 color plates, 55 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2023

Art: Art--General Studies

Gender and Sexuality

History of Science



“With Birth Figures, Whiteley adds much to our historical understanding of pregnancy and childbirth. Moving beyond old historical narratives of the conflict between male midwives—with their instruments and interventionist approach—and traditional female midwives, who assisted in the natural process of birth, Whiteley presents a more complex and nuanced story of shifting understandings among both men and women and new skill sets required of both male and female birth attendants. The book also adds to the growing literature on the relationship between art and science and the creation of 'visual languages' to convey knowledge of different subjects.”

Kathleen Crowther, University of Oklahoma

“The history of midwifery is transformed by this first sustained analysis of printed drawings showing birth presentations in pregnant wombs. Recovering midwives’ pictorial practice while putting anatomy in its place, Whiteley reconstructs how copying drove innovation and viewers made meanings. Her appealing book thus extends reproductive, gender, and visual studies, as well as histories of art, medicine, and the body.”

Nick Hopwood, University of Cambridge

"Whiteley’s work, at the intersection of medical and art history, beautifully illuminates the multiple meanings of images of unborn children in early modern Europe. She offers fresh, sophisticated, and nuanced interpretations of images that have puzzled me for years!"

Mary E. Fissell, Johns Hopkins University

"In this fascinating porthole into English pregnancy culture in the 16th to 18th centuries, cherubic representations of fetuses in transparent wombs greet bewildered readers... By recasting birth figures as evolving feminist iconography, Whiteley places these artifacts in the context of contemporary debates over reproductive rights."

Scientific American

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
A Note on Terminology

Introduction: Picturing Pregnancy

Part I: Early Printed Birth Figures (1540–1672)
Chapter 1: Using Images in Midwifery Practice
Chapter 2: Pluralistic Images and the Early Modern Body

Part II: Birth Figures as Agents of Change (1672–1751)
Chapter 3: Visual Experiments
Chapter 4: Visualizing Touch and Defining a Professional Persona

Part III: The Birth Figure Persists (1751–1774)
Chapter 5: Challenging the Hunterian Hegemony


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press