CLIO TALKS BACK: Louise Bourgeois, midwife extraordinaire

Reproduction of title page
Louise Bourgeois's Observations 1609 (vol. 1)
Today’s guest blog on the French midwife Louise Bourgeois is contributed by Clio’s longtime colleague, historian Alison Klairmont Lingo, at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Louise Bourgeois (1563-1636), French midwife extraordinaire, was the first woman to publish a printed medical treatise on childbirth and women’s illnesses (1609). In her capacity as royal midwife to queen Marie de Médicis, the second wife of King Henri IV, she also had the honor of delivering the future king Louis XIII, thus ensuring peace and stability in France by facilitating the birth of a healthy male heir for the Bourbon dynasty. Only males could succeed to the French throne.

“Born into a wealthy, property-owning family living just outside the city gates of Paris, her life fell apart in 1589 during the religious civil wars when royal troops reduced everything in her neighborhood to rubble, including her home and other family properties. With her surgeon husband already at the front, Bourgeois fled to safety within Paris with her mother and three small children.

“Upon her arrival in Paris, Bourgeois eked out an existence by doing needlepoint, her only marketable skill, and by selling personal property. She discovered her medical calling by chance when a honneste femme; i.e., an unlicensed midwife who had delivered her children, counseled her to become a midwife. Bourgeois’ reading skills and connections to the medical world through her surgeon husband made a career in midwifery a natural choice, the older woman told her. Reluctant at first to engage in a craft, perhaps because it seemed lowly to her, perhaps because of the responsibility for human life it entailed, Bourgeois considered the woman’s advice more seriously once economic necessity forced her to do so.

“Bourgeois trained herself by reading the works of the famous royal surgeon Ambroise Paré who had reintroduced birthing techniques for delivering malpresenting babies without the use of crochet hooks or knives, as was the usual practice. She then began delivering the children of women from her district. Word spread of her skill until ultimately she rose to the position of royal midwife, a post she acquired through a vast networking scheme that called upon her aristocratic clients, their husbands, and the royal physicians who had recommended her to Marie de Médicis.

“Clearly Bourgeois benefitted financially by becoming royal midwife. The celebrity and confidence that the king and queen bestowed upon her resulted in a payment to her of 900 livres for each of the last four royal births, when a salaried midwife hired by municipality earned only fifty livres per year. Eventually the king settled upon a yearly pension of 300 écus, a goodly amount when compared to the 26 livres a year made by midwives in the city of Nevers in 1602. Thus, in 1605, Bourgeois and her husband were able to buy a house in Paris to replace the one they had lost during the civil war (known as the ‘troubles'). They were still living there during the second decade of the seventeenth century.

“The life of Louise Bourgeois, published author and royal midwife, is a true success story and a warning tale. Bourgeois’s economic future depended on the royal family's trajectory and her own success at court. After Henri IV was killed by an assassin in 1610, she continued to receive her pension but found herself with little work. At this juncture, she complained that she lost the Paris clients who she had neglected out of necessity during the peak of her activity at the royal court. Nevertheless, she continued to write and to publish while concerning herself with building a family medical dynasty. Two more volumes of her three volume work Observations diverses appeared in 1617 and 1626, respectively. These volumes include case histories, autobiographical materials, advice to her daughter, her thoughts on the moral and spiritual role of the midwife, criticism of physicians’ and surgeons’ behavior in the birthing room, as well as recipes for medicaments that any housewife could make up in her own kitchen.

“Bourgeois’s daughter Antoinette became a midwife and married a physician while one of her sons became an apothecary and another became a royal physician. Another daughter, Françoise, married a medical student who launched a brilliant career facilitated by Bourgeois’s professional connections and the huge dowry she and her surgeon husband gave to their son-in-law. Thus, Bourgeois remarked, ‘The whole body of Medicine is complete in our house.’

“In 1627, one year after the final volume of her Observations diverses was published, Bourgeois suffered a serious professional blow when King Louis XIII's sister-in-law Marie de Bourbon Montpensier died a few days after Bourgeois attended the birth of her child. The royal death sent the court physicians and surgeons into an attack mode. Their autopsy report left the impression that Madame de Montpensier died as a result of Bourgeois's failure to remove all of the placenta, which caused a lethal infection. While Bourgeois responded to the post-mortem autopsy report with great vigor, an anonymous author responded in kind, accusing the royal midwife of incompetence and insubordination. (At the time, physicians and surgeons were the midwives’ professional overseers). We don’t know how Bourgeois fared after her fall from grace. However, her overall reputation seems not to have suffered outside of courtly circles. The appearance of her last publication, Recueil de Secrets (1635), published a year before her death, suggests that at least as far as her publisher was concerned, her practical wisdom was still in demand. Recueil de Secrets contains recipes for a variety of illnesses, including, but not limited to, women’s maladies.

“Louise Bourgeois’s popularity can be measured by the numerous editions of the Observations diverses that appeared in French throughout the seventeenth century. German and Dutch translations were published in the seventeenth century as well as a partial English translation. While Bourgeois's fame and the recognition of her contributions to the field of obstetrics has waxed and waned over the centuries. today she is widely recognized by historians as an outstanding woman of her time.”

Clio Notes: The author of this profile, Alison Klairmont Lingo (University of California, Berkeley), is currently writing an introduction, medical glossary and other accompanying notes for the first complete English translation (by Stephanie O’Hara) of the Observations diverses sur la sterilite. perte de fruit & foecondité , accouchements et maladies des femmes et enfantz nouveaux naiz (Paris, 1609, 1617, 1626). The volume is being prepared for publication in a series entitled “The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe,” produced by the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies Publications (CRRS), Toronto, Canada. For further information, contact