Moderata Fonte and ‘The Woman Question’

Is there anything more enlightening than listening in while women discuss their role in society? As the recent adaptation of Miriam Toews novel Women Talking shows, this is a pretty fascinating premise. In Toews’ story, which was inspired by real events, eight women from a Mennonite community gather to decide what to do in the aftermath of horrific sexual attacks committed by the men around them against the women and girls. They come to question the immutability of their social roles, and whether it was fair that they had so little agency, so much responsibility, and virtually no education.

In Moderata Fonte’s 1600 book The Worth of Women, seven fictitious women are in a beautiful garden in the outskirts of Venice, considering similar issues. They discuss the way men treat women and pose themselves the ultimate question: how is it that men, ‘essentially inferior’ to women, have come to dominate them? And, crucially, can that be changed?*

Moderata Fonte was born in Venice in 1555, as Modesta Pozzo, literally, ‘modesty well’, before choosing as her pen name the more confident ‘moderate fountain’, replacing the traditionally feminine virtue of modesty (and silence) with the masculine moderation, evoking reason. Orphaned as a child, Fonte had been raised in a convent and at her grandmother’s home and, according to her guardian and biographer Giovanni Niccolò Doglioni, all those around her were impressed by her intelligence. Fonte was an autodidact, and her family’s wealth allowed her great access to books. In 1581, when she was 26, she published her first work, a chivalric romance called Floridoro, under her new pen name. She continued to write throughout her life but, as a wife and a mother, often had little time to do so.

Her most celebrated work, The Worth of Women, was written during a heated intellectual debate that swept European humanists, called the querelle des femmes (literally, ‘dispute of women’, better known as ‘the woman question’). It arguably started with Boccaccio in his 1360s De claris mulieribus (‘On Famous Women’) and Christine de Pizan’s 1405 Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies). This debate went beyond women’s role, dissecting their very nature, defining and describing female qualities and vices, in opposition to men. I use the word ‘dissecting’ here intentionally, as medical and scientific knowledge were key issues in this discussion, being weaponised against women as well as used in their defence. Fonte’s characters talk at length about medicine, alchemy, astrology, and natural philosophy, highlighting how women were involved in these spheres, not only as readers and writers, but as practitioners, much like Caterina Sforza or Isabella CorteseBy discussing these subjects, the characters showcase their rationality and intellectual powers, illustrating how they should be considered equals to men.

The women in Fonte’s work, reflecting different social states (widow, single, married), gathered in Leonora’s palatial garden, where she asked them how men had come to rule over women. Corinna, a stand-in for Fonte, replies that the explanation for gender inequality in sixteenth-century Venice was custom, not natural law, questioning the Aristotelian tradition of understanding men as inherently more rational, superior, and ‘perfect’ than women. This widely accepted idea justified male rule over women, who were ‘naturally’ inferior and weak, lacking reason. The Worth of Women is a unique and clever literary dialogue, not only questioning women’s role and painting a picture of women’s lived experiences but also imagining a world in which women could opt out of marriage, choosing singledom and enjoying female friendship. By denouncing the Aristotelian ‘natural order’ as a creation, Fonte’s women imply that it could change.

Other Renaissance writers questioned this assumption and argued for the equality of the sexes, besides Christine de Pizan and Boccaccio, who wrote two centuries before Fonte. The Worth of Women was published at the height of ‘the woman question’, when ‘pro-women’ works abounded, including Galeazzo Flavio Capra’s 1525 Dell’eccellenza e dignità delle donne (‘On the Excellence and Dignity of Women’) and Lucrezia Marinella’s 1600 La nobiltà et eccellenza delle donne co’ difetti et mancamenti degli uomini (‘The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men’).  In Fonte’s work, the characters’ erudition, especially in medicine and alchemy, serve to argue for a new kind of society, in which women would control their own lives.

It is telling that, on the ‘pro-woman’ side, there were people like the alchemist Henricus Cornelius Agrippa. In his 1520s Declamatio de nobilitat ed et praeccellentia foeminei sexus (On the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex), he argued that women excelled over men in many aspects, including scientific pursuits. Antifeminists, such as Giuseppe Passi, disagreed. In his 1599 I donneschi difetti (The Defects of Women), he denounced female vanity, sexual excess, and greed. But he also accused women meddling in science and medicine of overstepping their bounds: their practice was no more than witchcraft. Fonte, on the other hand, denounced male alchemists: while women could use this art for the good of the community, such as making medicines, men’s volatile nature could easily be lured by promises of wealth and be blinded by the pursuit of turning base metals into gold. Moreover, this transformation mirrored men’s unreliability and lack of constancy. Again, alchemy and medicine were used to make broader points in the debate over men and women.

Of course, we can and should question these ideas: it is clear that women are as capable of doing harm to those around them as men are (just look at the recent case of Elizabeth Holmes). Also, inspiring as proto-feminists might be, it’s important to keep in mind that both ‘pro-women’ writers like Fonte and antifeminists took for granted the fundamental and essential differences between the sexes, never questioning this rigid binary. This is a very cisgender, heterosexual debate. (Much like the influential 1992 best-seller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray.) In any case, this ‘war of the sexes’, as it was later called, was questioned by many, as illustrated by Virginia Woolf:

“All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are ‘sides’, and it is necessary for one side to beat another side…”
A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

Still, for Fonte, there was a fundamental paradox in her society. Renaissance Venice was built on the myth of republican sovereignty and liberty, which was incompatible with women’s social status as subjugated to men. She saw women as victims of illegitimate rule by ‘tyrannic’ men, which clashed directly against Venetian values. The characters dare to imagine a different Venice, with Corinna, representing Fonte in the text, choosing to remain single. (It’s hard not to think of the intellectual Jo in Louise May Alcott’s Little Women, forced in the end to get married, which probably went against the author’s wishes and was required by the book’s editor.) Corinna’s choice is also conditional: it’s only possible because the garden in which this conversation takes place is set apart from Venice, with its liminal position allowing for this conjecture. Through Corinna, Fonte makes the case for female autonomy and freedom:

“Wouldn’t it be possible for us just to banish these men from our lives, and escape their carping and jeering once and for all? Couldn’t we live without them? Couldn’t we earn our living and manage our affairs without help from them? Come on, let’s wake up, and claim back our freedom, and the honour and dignity that they have usurped from us for so long. Do you think that if we really put our minds to it, we would be lacking the courage to defend ourselves, the strength to fend for ourselves, or the talents to earn our own living? Let’s take our courage into our hands and do it, and then we can leave it up to them to mend their ways as much as they can: we shan’t really care what the outcome is, just as long as we are no longer subjugated to them.”
The Worth of Women, Moderada Fonte

Gender equality depended directly on access to legal, political, and scientific knowledge, including alchemy and medicine. Women should be given the same chances as men, including material resources, a point famously developed in the early twentieth century by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. Women’s potential had also been described by Fonte, in her romance Floridoro, through the alchemical image of ‘buried gold’, just waiting to be unearthed. Sadly, despite Fonte’s undisputed genius, we will never know how her literary and scientific life could have developed further. Fonte finished writing The Worth of Women the night before she died from childbirth, in 1592. She was just 37 years old.

*Because of the socio-cultural context of the querelle des femmes, I have embraced the binary men vs women in this text, as that was how these authors articulated their views. You can read my statement here about Language and Inclusivity.


Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, Declamatio de nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (London: 1652).

Cristofano Bronzini, Della dignità e nobilità delle donne (Florence: 1624).

Giovanni Niccolò Doglioni, Vita della Sig.ra Modesta Pozzo de’ Zorzi (Venice: 1593).

Galeazzo Flavio Capra Dell’eccellenza e dignità delle donne (Rome: 1525).

Moderata Fonte, Il Merito delle donne (Venice: 1600).

Moderata Fonte, Tredici Canti del Floridoro (Venice: 1581).

Ortensio Lando, Lettere di molte valorose donne (Venice: 1548).

Lucrezia Marinella La nobiltà et eccellenza delle donne co’ difetti et mancamenti degli uomini (Venice: 1601).

Further Reading:

Paola Malpezzi Price, Moderata Fonte: Women and Life in Sixteenth-Century Venice (Vancouver: The Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003).

Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

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Elizabeth I and Ageing

A few days before Queen Elizabeth II’s death, she met the UK’s new prime minister, Liz Truss, at Balmoral Castle, in Scotland. Royal watchers were quick to point out what appeared to be a bluish bruise on her hand, as concerns over her health grew. At the time of her death, the Queen (1926-2022) was 96 years old, having reigned for 70 years. As the media coverage of the mourning and funeral rites took over the UK and much of the world, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Queen’s hands and ageing. I inevitably thought of Elizabeth I’s hands, famously beautiful with their long fingers, even into her old age. Although Elizabeth I (1533-1603) lived a much shorter life, during her 45-year reign her age was a matter of concern, for herself and others, especially as it became apparent that she wouldn’t marry and produce an heir. How did her gender shape the experience of growing old, and how did she deal with it? Most importantly, what does that tell us about our own feelings about the passage of time and our own mortality?

First things first: what exactly is to be ‘of old age’? Although Elizabeth II lived for almost three decades longer than Elizabeth I, both were perceived as elderly by their contemporaries. Naturally, life expectancy has changed from one Elizabethan age to another. Interestingly, in both cases, women tend to live longer than men. And, just like today, wealth and privilege played a big part in people’s health, not only because of access to healthcare providers but, crucially, to good nutrition and good living conditions in general.

In Tudor times, a person’s life was divided into seven phases, each one composed of roughly seven years. Shakespeare described the ‘seven ages of man’ as infancy, school years, youth, maturity, middle-age, old-age, and dotage/death. For women who had escaped disease and survived childbirth, the sixth and seven ages were considered ‘old’.

Menopause often marked the beginning of this period (sorry for the pun!), with most medical writers describing it as something that happened between 44 and 58 years of age, a considerable window. With the cessation of menstruation, not only did fertility leave women but also the perception of youth and often beauty, as the later Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote:

Ladys here [are] so ready to make proofs of their Youth (which is necessary in order to be a receiv’d Beauty […]) that they do not content themselves with using the natural means, but fly to all sort of Quackerys to avoid the Scandall of being past Child bearing..

It is often said that beauty standards change with time: think of Marilyn Monroe’s voluptuous figure followed by Kate Moss’ slim silhouette and back to the curvaceous ideal represented by the Kardashians. Different traits can be beautiful, across time and space. Yet many cultures tend to associate beauty with youth, making it a fleeting ideal. The Tudors were no exception: ideals of beauty included golden hair, a high forehead, smooth and white skin, and youth. Beyond the racial implications of these standards, it is also fair to say that this ideal could be more easily attained by wealthier people, who would not labour under the sun and had access to expensive ingredients to produce cosmetics. White and slender hands were considered particularly attractive – the paleness another reminder of a privileged life indoors.

Sixteenth and seventeenth-century recipe books were full of recipes promising to make one beautiful and young. In Gervase Markham’s 1615 The English Housewife, a domestic guide comprising medical formulas and recipes for preserving food, readers could find this entry ‘to make smooth hands’:

To make an oil which shall make the skin of the hands very smooth, take almonds and beat them to oil, then take whole cloves and put them both together into a glass, and set it in the sun five or six days; then strain it, and with the same anoint your hands every night when you go to bed, and otherwise as you have convenient leisure.

Many of us still use almond oil to moisturise the skin, just like early modern people did. This recipe was not too expensive to produce; similar formulas included egg white and other ingredients that most people would be able to afford. But Elizabeth I was not an average person. Not only did she have access to very costly ingredients, but her ageing (and indeed her body) was a matter of public interest.

Elizabeth I was described as handsome when she was young, but also as vain and proud, especially as she grew older. She famously didn’t allow any mirrors in her rooms and made artists destroy paintings of her when she wasn’t pleased with the result. As her red hair turned grey, Elizabeth I covered it with wigs. Like many of her contemporaries, she lost many teeth, which was a source of distress for her. After contracting smallpox in 1562, Elizabeth I started to use make-up to cover the marks and scars on her face. This was a highly toxic formula containing white lead and vinegar, known as ‘ceruse’. Ironically, while it initially improved the skin’s appearance, it ultimately damaged it, creating even more wrinkles.

The use of cosmetics by elite and middling-sort women at the time was widespread. Yet many contemporaries saw make-up as a way to deceive others and defy God, especially in a society in which old women, often referred to as ‘crones’ or ‘hags’, were viewed with suspicion. As Elizabeth I grew older, she managed to fashion her image to become increasingly associated with perpetual virginity and ageless political power that transcended age and gender (as the moniker Gloriana illustrates). Dressed in armour addressing her troops before the famous victory against the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth I famously said she had the ‘body but of a weak and feeble woman’ – and an older one at that – but this body contained ‘the heart and stomach of a king’. Still, she was reluctant to name a successor or even acknowledge her own mortality, in the same way that her father, Henry VIII, did.

Growing old, in the case of female leaders such as Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, is a fraught process. Although widely respected, both had to face many obstacles to consolidate their authority, with the main one arguably being their sex. As they approached old age, these queens dealt with their bodily changes differently – Elizabeth II didn’t use toxic lead-based cosmetics, for a start! Still, ageing queens arguably have an additional layer of difficulty in maintaining their power, through the way women were (and are) perceived. While Elizabeth I never had children, effectively ending the Tudor dynasty, Elizabeth II had four children and multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren, assuring the continuity of the Windsor line.

And yet, Elizabeth II made headlines when she refused a wheelchair for her Jubilee celebrations; she reluctantly consented to use a walking stick for her engagements in the last months of her life. But would anyone judge a 96-year-old for having mobility issues? It seems that the Queen thought so. Going beyond individual personality traits both monarchs may have held, it is also fair to say that, as women, consolidating their power and authority involved the construction of a strong persona, transcending age and sex.

In some way, we all struggle with our mortality. But for both Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, doing so in the public eye while trying to hold on to an image of power and strength must have been unimaginably difficult. Still, although her youth and beauty faded, I hope Elizabeth I could take comfort in her beautiful and slender hands, with their impossibly long fingers. Seeing the two queens’ coronation gloves side by side is a reminder of how much hasn’t changed from one Elizabethan age to another, for better or for worse.


Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, ed. by Michael Best (Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986). (First edition published in London in 1615.)

Thomas Tuke, A Discourse Against Painting and Tincturing of Women (London: Edward Marchant, 1616).

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, ed. by Isobel Grundy (London: Penguin, 1997).

Pseudo-Albertus Magnus, Women’s Secrets, ed. by Helen Lemay (New York: State University of New York, 1992). (First edition De Secretis mulierum published in Leipzig in 1502.)

Further Reading:

David Cressy, Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Lisa Hilton, Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince (London: Hachette, 2014).

Elizabeth Norton, The Lives of Tudor Women (London: Head of Zeus, 2016).

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Caterina Sforza: Using All the Weapons in Her Arsenal

Some historical anecdotes are just irresistible. This is one of my favourites.

After her husband was assassinated and she and her children were taken prisoners by their political enemies, Caterina Sforza (1463-1509) found herself in a precarious position. The conspirators wanted to take control of the castle in Forlì, yet the people inside, loyal to Caterina, did not want to surrender. Leaving her children as hostages with her enemies, Caterina promised she would enter the fortress and make sure it surrendered. So, the conspirators let her go. Which mother would let harm befall her children, after all? Yet as soon as she was inside, Caterina started to threaten her enemies, promising violent revenge. But what about her children, you may ask? Caterina lifted her skirts, showing her genitals to her enemies and, pointing towards her vulva, stated that she could always make more children.

This tale is, of course, a bit too theatrical to ring true. It was told by many contemporaries, however, starting with Niccolò Machiavelli, who mentioned it in The Prince and wrote about it at length in The Discourses (Chapter III). It’s possible that he was inspired by earlier writings (both Herodotus and Plutarch described skirt-raising episodes), but what I’m interested in is what this story tells us about how people saw Caterina. Machiavelli had met her in person several times as a Florentine ambassador, as Caterina became regent of Forlì and Imola, in the Romagna region of Italy. It’s clear in his writings that he greatly admired her, her strength, and her political skills.

Other contemporary sources depicted her as fierce, brave, and clever. And with good reason: Caterina Sforza was one of the most incredible people of her time. She occupied Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome after the death of Pope Sixtus IV, and she bravely resisted military attacks by Cesare Borgia. She was even later accused of having poisoned his father, Pope Alexander VI, and was imprisoned for a while. This was not an implausible accusation: as many noblewomen of her time (including her descendent Catherine de’ Medici), Caterina knew a thing or two about poisons.

Yet discussions about Caterina often neglect this crucial aspect of her life: her experiments with alchemy, medicine, and cosmetics. Her manuscript recipe book Experimenti(Experiments) counted 454 formulas, compiled throughout her lifetime. These included panaceas, the philosopher’s stone, recipes to protect the body from disease, poisons and their antidotes, and even a way to bring the dead back to life. See what I mean about Caterina being a fascinating person?!

An interest in scientific experimentation and collecting recipes was not rare among aristocratic women of the time, although there were few so well-known or respected as Caterina. She spent most of her life collecting recipes from all kinds of sources: written and learned texts, vernacular traditions and oral cultures, and her own empirical practices.  Her contemporaries were also important sources of knowledge, be they people from low social status (including from marginalised communities, such as Jews) or aristocratic backgrounds, with whom she corresponded. Many of these recipes concerned the secrets of women: menstruation, childbirth, and lactation were all subjects she was interested in. Several recipes were protected from prying eyes, written in Latin, and encrypted, such as alchemical formulas and treatments for impotence and lack of libido in men. Thankfully, the code has survived along with the manuscript recipes, so we can read everything today!

Caterina’s knowledge was not only theoretical. She designed gardens in which she could grow medicinal herbs and plants to use for cosmetic formulas. She had a close relationship with convents, and nuns involved in the preparation of medicines. These women exchanged recipes and ingredients from their respective gardens. And this was a key aspect of Caterina’s life and how she managed to use her empirical knowledge to further her political aims: she created networks of relationships, based largely on the exchange of recipes.

People sought and wrote to her asking for her famous recipes, which she used as currency. She corresponded with Lorenzo de’ Medici and Isabella d’Este, another noblewoman who collected recipes, most notably for perfumes. Caterina established alliances with men and women through the exchange of recipes and marvellous secrets. Her 19th-century biographer, Pier Desiderio Pasolini, described her work as themost complete and known’ medical text of the 16th century. That’s not surprising. Not only did she compile hundreds of recipes, but some of them made unique promises. Her Elisir vitae (elixir of life) could make ‘a person regain their youth and bring the dead back to life. If someone was so ill that even physicians had abandoned them, [the elixir] will restore them to health.’ She even had a recipe for an anaesthetic using opium to put patients to sleep (though I haven’t found any evidence of it having been used in surgeries). She was also famous for her poisons and invisible ink formulas (both useful for courtly life, for getting rid of enemies and for keeping written communication secret).

Caterina was also a source of knowledge about cosmetics. She was herself described as a beauty, as seen in her portrait by Lorenzo di Credi (1459-1537). Her formulas to attain the female beauty ideal of the time included ways of making the skin pale, the hair blond or ginger, and the breasts small. (All of them were characteristics Caterina embodied.) In a recipe addressed to women and girls, she wrote:

‘Take hemlock juice and use it daily. Even if [the breasts] are large they shall become small […] if you are still girls, and have not matured, if you use this [formula] every day they [your breasts] will not grow larger and will remain beautiful and firm.’

As the grandmother to Cosimo I, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, Caterina played a key role in the development of early modern science. She left her recipe collection to her son, and it remained in use within the Medici family for generations. So, if the skirtraising incident told by Machiavelli depicts Caterina as a masculine, unnatural mother, her scientific work shows a different side of her, as an ‘empirical mother’ at the origin of a long involvement with medical, alchemical, and cosmetic experimentation on the part of the Medici and their court.

Caterina used all her skills as tools to further her political goals. But she also weaponised her knowledge about the natural world and the human body. By exchanging recipes (most notably through her epistolary network), she cemented diplomatic, political, and social connections. Many women of the period used medical recipes within their households, to take care of their families and communities. Caterina went beyond the private uses of recipes, employing them as a form of currency in the political and medical economy of the period. Her recipes became a way of managing power and influence, and, to Caterina, they were a central part of her life. She never stopped collecting recipes for transforming metals into gold, pursuing beauty, and returning the body to health. In doing so, Caterina illustrates the role Renaissance women played in the scientific investigation of the natural world. Regardless of having raised her dress or not at her befuddled enemies, she was someone remarkable.


Jacopo Filippo Foresti da Bergamo, De plurimus claris selectisque mulieribus (Ferrara: Lorenzo Rosso da Valenza, 1497).

Pier Desiderio Pasolini, Caterina Sforza (Rome: E. Loescher, 1893).

Caterina Sforza. Experimenti de la s.ra Caterina da Furlj, edited by Paolo Aldo Rossi (Arenzano: Castel Negrino, 2018).

Further Reading:

Elizabeth Lev, Tigress of Forli: The Life of Caterina Sforza (London: Head of Zeus, 2018).

Meredith K. Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (London: Harvard University Press, 2015).

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‘Let Nature Take its Course’: In Defence of ‘Gentle’ Midwifery

In the 16th and 17th centuries, a delivery room could be a noisy place. Childbirth was a social event, and birthing chambers were often full of women (friends, relatives, servants, midwives…), celebrating and helping the one giving birth. However, whenever I picture this scene, I remember how important it was to me that my birthing environment be calm and quiet.

Today, there is much discussion about the effects a tranquil environment can have on the person giving birth. The French royal midwife Louise Bourgeois (1563-1636) agreed. To her, one of the main tasks of the midwife was to make sure that before and after childbirth, the room was calm and relaxing, gently serving the one giving birth:

‘Your only task is to do things properly, and serve those who call you in, following their wishes […] A midwife’s gentleness produces better results than harshness’. (Instruction à ma fille II, 23)

Louise Bourgeois believed midwives should be patient, cautious, and reassuring. Most of her treatments were gentle, and she only intervened in extreme cases: ‘I advise letting nature take its course’ (Observations diverses, II, 49).

Her approach was unhurried, without unnecessary or distressing interventions or regular internal examinations to check how the labour was progressing. Midwives should help the one giving birth manage it by providing moral support and allowing them to choose how it would unfold. For instance, she believed the best way to give birth was lying on a bed. However, Bourgeois wrote that

‘I have often noticed that one of the most important things for a woman in labour is finding the best position for her comfort and that of the child’. (Observations, I, 97)

Therefore, according to Bourgeois, the midwife should be flexible. People who wanted to move, walk around, and climb stairs should be respected; moreover, depending on their constitution, Bourgeois would suggest more vertical positions for delivery (such as kneeling, on a birthing chair, standing up), or horizontal ones (such as on a bed). But she was against forcing anything:

… ‘this discomfort [childbirth] is so extreme that the one suffering should be accommodated a little. I am often sorry to see women being forced by mother or relatives […] so that it makes their condition twice as bad’. (Observations, I, 98)

As the midwife to queen Marie de Medici, Bourgeois delivered her six children, including the future king Louis XIII, bringing this mindset to the French court. She was a highly educated and ambitious midwife who wrote multiple medical books when it was very rare for women to be published. Bourgeois was the first midwife to write about her ‘art’ in print.

This was no small feat. In Bourgeois’ time, university physicians, surgeons, midwives, and other medical practitioners competed in the medical marketplace for patients, who could change providers if they were not satisfied with the service. While most births were attended by women (including a midwife), surgeons might be called in particularly complicated cases. Bourgeois advocated for mutual respect between midwives and other medical practitioners, who had different kinds of expertise. Bourgeois herself delivered more than 2000 babies, performed minor surgeries, and was present at autopsies, working alongside physicians. She was confident about manually extracting a retained placenta and a child through a podalic version but argued that ‘handling’ the person giving birth should be the exception – not the norm.

Reading her instructions to aspiring midwives, it is clear how Louise Bourgeois was a departure from other midwifery manuals of the time. Contemporary authors such as Eucharius Rösslin, Ambroise Paré, and Jacques Guillemeau all favoured constant activity on the midwife’s part. They advised frequently checking the child’s progress, lubricating the birth canal, and pressing the belly to help the baby be born.

We should be careful not to make generalisations, however. For instance, some male writers advocated breaking the waters if the birth was not happening by itself, while others did not. What they did have in common was an expectation that midwives should ‘supervise’ the one giving birth, ‘order’ them and manipulate their bodies. They also shared a sense that midwives were ‘imprudent’, ‘obstinate’ people who needed to be themselves guided by medical men.

Louise Bourgeois had read medical texts and was married to a barber-surgeon; moreover, she wrote within the humoral theory framework of the time. Yet her work was a break from tradition. She occupied a liminal space, close to learned medical practitioners, yet apart from them because of her gender and field of expertise. This is evident in her case histories, which showcase both the midwife’s vulnerability and the limitations of male practitioners. Her ambivalent relationship to medical men is symbolic of midwifery’s shift in this period, which saw a gradual medicalisation (and indeed ‘masculinisation’ of childbirth). Bourgeois respected other practitioners (even if she criticised them) and expected to be valued as well:

‘I have had the honour of delivering all the Queen’s children, and I was not contradicted by the King nor her, nor by any physicians or ladies’ (Observations, II, 51).

Bourgeois likely exaggerated to make her point that midwives’ knowledge should be acknowledged. According to her,

‘… to know the secrets of women’s conditions, it is crucial to have worked with midwives and to have been present at multiple deliveries, as your great Master and legislator Hippocrates did, [since he] on the point of women’s conditions consulted midwives and relied on their judgement’ (Apologie, 19).

There is a clear sense of the increasing encroachment of medical men into midwifery, and Bourgeois protested this marginalisation of midwives. To her, childbirth should continue to be a social event requiring support rather than a medical one requiring treatment.

Louise Bourgeois was not a typical 17th-century midwife. She received 900 livres for her deliveries at court (18 times what average midwives received for the same service). While she was not a ‘regular’ midwife, her ambivalence about medical men was not an isolated case. Bourgeois strove to belong to learned circles while demanding midwives’ knowledge be respected and recognised. To her, the relationship between a midwife and her client should be based on trust. But that did not only mean that the patient should trust the midwife, but also that both should trust nature and respect the ‘natural’ way childbirth unfolds. Bourgeois was not shy about intervening, when necessary, but those instances were rare and not the way deliveries usually happened. Therefore, the midwife’s primary role was to support the one giving birth while nature took over, which involved offering nourishment, reassurance, and making sure the birth room was calm. Times have surely changed but she still strikes me as someone I would be happy to have by my side while giving birth!

*All French translations are my own.


Louise Bourgeois,  Observations diverses (Paris: 1609).

Louise Bourgeois, Instruction a ma fille (Paris: 1617).

Louise Bourgeois, Apologie de Louyse Bourgeois (Paris: 1627).

Louise Bourgeois, Recueil des Secrets (Paris: 1635).

Jacques Guillemeau, De l’Heureux accouchement des femmes (Paris: 1609).

Ambroise Paré, Deux Livres de chirurgie (Paris: 1573).

Eucharius Rösslin, Der Rosengarten (Strasbourg: 1513).

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