Mrs Jane Sharp. The name is innocuous enough, but this seventeenth-century midwife was undeniably a pioneer of women’s involvement in the dissemination of printed textual knowledge concerning obstetrics and the practice of midwifery in the seventeenth century. Until the publication of her text, The Midwives Book: or The Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered, in 1671, the distribution of knowledge in this field of medicine was dominated by two types of male-authored texts. Firstly, knowledge was passed on through translations of the Hippocratic writers, including Aristotle and Galen, and, secondly, through the publication of medical treatises such as Nicholas Culpeper’s 1662 Directory for Midwives (in spite of the fact that Culpeper concedes that he had never attended a birth) (Hobby 1999, xxii).
In this article, I will explore two components of Sharp’s work – her use of humour and her exposition on the causes of monstrous births – and use them to show how Sharp confronts and reinvigorates the arguments within the weighty antecedence of male-authored midwifery manuals. By drawing on and adapting sections of text from the works of Galen and Culpeper, Sharp succeeds in not only making her ground-breaking contribution to the oeuvre of printed texts on midwifery, but also in readdressing the gender imbalance, in terms of both authorship and perspective, that had blighted the science for much of the preceding two centuries.
As Elaine Hobby indicates in the introduction to her edited addition of Sharp’s text, critics including Patricia Crawford (Crawford 1981, 47-73) have suggested that Sharp’s work presents little that is new (Hobby 1999, xxii). Like Hobby, I beg to disagree with this! The first thing that struck me when reading Sharp for the first time, as I’m sure it did many other readers, is her unmistakable tone of humour and playfulness. In the context of considering how Sharp’s use of humour becomes part of the ground-breaking nature of her work, what is perhaps most notable is how it is often directed with scathing precision at the male, both in terms of their physical form and attitude. It goes without saying that this is something that would have seemed quite remarkable in a field of science whose printed culture was dominated by the exact gender that Sharp pokes fun at. I would therefore suggest that, through her humour, Sharp is able to outrightly challenge the common assumption that it was the female body and reproductive organs that were responsible for all problems or dissatisfactions in reproduction and sexual pleasure.
As these following two excerpts demonstrate, Sharp frequently mounts her challenge to this argument by directing her acid humour at the male genitalia or, as it was commonly referred to in the seventeenth century, ‘the yard’ (23). In this first extract that I have transcribed, Sharp is evidently mocking a man’s sexual impotence and erectile dysfunction.
‘By these porosities [the veins and arteries in the yard], [and] by help of Imagination the Yard is sometimes raised, and swells with a windy spirit only … True it is that … motion [an erection] is alwayes necessary, but the Yard moves only at some times, and riseth sometimes to small purpose’ (23).
What I would suggest that this passage also carries, therefore, is the argument that, contrary to opinions of Culpeper, the male is in fact equally responsible for the failure to gain an erection for the purposes of copulation and, by extension, the act’s failure to result in the conception of a child.
In the second extract that I have selected, and in another episode that showcases her well-directed use of humour, we can see that Sharp has turned her attention toward describing the ‘secrets’, or private parts, ‘of the Female sex’ (44). Speaking of the vagina and its size, Sharp states that it ‘is a fit sheath to receive the Yard’ and, as such, ‘the length and wideness cannot be limited, because it is fit for any Yard’ (45). Having set down this medical fact, Sharp then proceeds to refute what she asserts is the male belief that sexual intercourse becomes less pleasurable in older age due to the woman’s vagina stretching through childbirth. In order to achieve her goal of undermining this assumption, Sharp recalls the following memorable anecdote:
‘I have heard a French man complain sadly, that when he first married his Wife, it [the vagina] was no bigger nor wider than would fit his turn [penis], but now it was grown as a Sack; Perhaps the fault was not the womans but his own, his weapon shrunk and was grown too little for the scabbard’ (46).
Hence, what these two passages show us about Sharp’s position firstly as a midwife, and secondly as a ground-breaking woman, is not hard to discern. Through her unmistakablehumour, Sharp outrightly challenges and subverts the argument put forward in the male-authored midwifery manuals: that faults in copulation, conception or sexual pleasure are perpetually the responsibility of the woman, as Nicholas Culpeper and Ambroise Paré consistently concluded. Sharp recognises and, more importantly, is not afraid to state that the male physical form and reproductive organs are also far from flawless.
When it comes to this evident willingness in Sharp’s text to address and refute the criticism that was so persistently levelled at the female body in the early-modern period, one of the most notable sections of her work that succeeds in achieving this is the section of Book IV entitled ‘Of Monstrous Births’. Here, Sharp begins to carve a new path in terms of how she seeks to explain the births of deformed or disabled offspring.
Firstly, she creates a space to pursue her own explanations for these occurrences by distancing herself from the retributive religious explanation that had dominated many of her predecessors. For example, writers and medical practitioners such as Paré bolstered the idea that monstrous births were caused by the wrath of God who was punishing individuals for their sins. This is a notion that Paré dedicates an entire chapter to in The Workes of that Famous Chirurgion Ambrose Parey (1634), where he discusses ‘the caus of Monsters, and first of those Monsters which appear for the glory of God, and the punishment of mens wickednesse’ (Paré 1634, 648). Sharp, however, distances herself from this argument. Although Sharp must concede out of basic necessity, given the cultural significance of religion in the seventeenth-century, that ‘we must not exclude the Divine vengeance, nor his Instruments’ in explaining the cause of monstrous births, she asserts that the ‘Instrumental causes’ of ‘all these errors of Nature … are either from the material or efficient causes of procreation’ (91). By making this argument, Sharp succeeds in beginning to undermine the antecedence of religious or retributive explanations for monstrous births from her male predecessors, such as this fantastical one that Paré includes:
‘About the time that Pope Julius the second raised up all Italie, and the greatest part of Christendom, against Lewis the twelfth the King of France, in the year of our Lord 1512. (in which year, upon Easter daie, near Ravenna was fought that mortal battel, in which the Popes forces were overthrown) a monster was born in Ravenna, having a horn upon the crown of his head, and besides, two wings, and one foot alone, most like to the feet of birds of prey, and in the knee thereof an eie, the privities of male and female, the rest of the bodie like a man, as you may see by this figure’ (Paré 1634, 649).
Sharp is therefore able to nicely set up the opportunity to present her own exposition on the subject that is based not on retributive actions from God, but on empirical and medical explanations. Instead of continuing the trend of previous midwifery manuals, such as Paré’s, by including such fantastic anecdotal evidence in her work, Sharp instead presents her conclusion that, whilst ‘the causes of Monstrous Conceptions hath troubled many great Learned men’, the ‘matter is the seed [egg and sperm], which may fail three several wayes’ (91). She argues that these three possible ways are: ‘when [the seed] is too much, and then the members are larger, or more than they should be, or too little, and then there will be some part or the whole too little, or else the seed of both sexes is ill mixed’ (91). By so explicitly removing herself from the mystical religious explanations for the causes of monstrous births, Sharp is able to forge a new path of presenting sound medical reasoning for their occurrence, and becomes what we can reliably believe to be the first woman to present this in a printed work.
From this examination of these two facets of Sharp’s work, we can certainly see that early-modern scholarship is correct to identify Sharp as a ground-breaking woman. Although we sadly have little biographical information on Sharp – a fact that Elaine Hobby confirms in her introduction to the edition (Hobby 1999, xi) – the content of The Midwives Book reveals a remarkable degree of both Sharp’s own medical insight and her reinvigoration and reworking of the antecedence of the male-authored manuals that preceded her. Whilst at times Sharp essentially cuts and pastes sections of her text from other midwifery manuals, including those of Culpeper and Galen (a kind of blatant plagiarism that was common across much literature of the early-modern period), the moments where Sharp’s voice interjects with acid humour and innovative medical argument cannot be ignored, and are certainly worth our attention.
Although midwifery was a field of medicine that was traditionally dominated by female involvement at births in the roles of midwives and gossips (female companions present to support the mother), Sharp’s work provides us with a superb example of how a woman first succeeded in breaking into the male-dominated realm of printed knowledge on its science and practice. By having her work published, Jane Sharp succeeded, whether she intended to or not, in establishing herself as a pioneering woman who is certainly deserving of the critical attention that she is currently receiving in early-modern scholarship.
Culpeper, Nicholas, Directory for Midwives (London: Peter Cole, 1662), in EEBO
Galen, Art of Physic, trans. by Nicholas Culpeper (London: Peter Cole, 1652), in EEBO
Paré, Ambroise, The Workes of that Famous Chirurgion (London: Cotes and Young, 1634), in EEBO
Sharp, Jane, The Midwives Book, ed. by Elaine Hobby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)
Crawford, Patricia, ‘Attitudes to Menstruation in Seventeenth-Century England’, Past and Present, 91 (1981), 47-73
Hobby, Elaine, ed., ‘Introduction’, in The Midwives Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. xi-xxxi
Jenna recently graduated with a first-class degree in English Literature from Loughborough University, and will begin her MA in early-modern literature there in September. She wrote her undergraduate dissertation on George Herbert, and has a particular interest in seventeenth-century religious writing from all factions, including, most recently, Quaker women. During the course of her MA, she hopes to be able to develop her research and writing on the topic of the early-modern body and humoral theory, and investigate how this can inform our understanding of religious writing, with particular emphasis on religious poetry from both male and female writers of the period. She also has her own blog, My Early Modern World, on which she shares her thoughts on many aspects of her reading and research as well as any interesting seventeenth-century miscellany that she happens across! You can find it via its Twitter account ‘@MyEMWorld’, or here: myearlymodernworld.blogspot.co.uk