En/gendering representations of childbirth in fifteenth-century Franco-Flemish devotional manuscripts
Elizabeth Anne L’Estrange
Doctor of Philosophy, University of Leeds, School of Fine Art, History of Art, and Cultural Studies, September (2003)
Representations of childbirth in fifteenth-century devotional and historical manuscripts are invariably depicted as postpartum confinement scenes in a domestic interior. These images appear to show a `gendered space’ in which women care for each other and men are marginalized. Neglected by medieval art historians, such pictures have been uncritically used by historians of obstetric and social history to prove that childbirth was the one time when medieval women exercised power and control in an otherwise patriarchal society. However, as with all historical evidence, these images do not offer us unmediated access to the past. This thesis brings these domestic postpartum pictures of childbirth to the centre of an art historical enquiry by undertaking a survey of this iconography in some fifty fifteenth-century manuscripts and incunables. Since the occurrence of this generic iconography cannot be consistently associated with female spectators, it has been necessary to reassess in what way they might be en/gendered: how they were received by their original viewers (male and female) and how we can bring them into meaning as sources for reconstructing the lives of medieval women. To avoid equating these images with reality and reducing the female sex at large to the maternal function, I develop a methodology to show how the social viewing positions occupied by certain spectators would have rendered them sensitive to images of maternity and childbirth.
Specifically, I argue that the images of childbirth in a group of fifteenth-century Books of Hours made for male and female members of the houses of Anjou and Brittany would have been seen with a `situational eye’ that was informed by the requirements of patriarchal, aristocratic families, and by the dangers surrounding childbirth. My thesis demonstrates that this situational eye can be extended beyond the field of art history to show how other sources from fifteenth-century childbearing such as charms, lying-in, and churching, can be brought into meaning for the women whose social position required them to conceive and give birth to male heirs.