A Mysterious Midwife
The King's Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame du Courdray. Nina Rattner Gelbart. 360 pp. University California Press, 1998. $35.
Long overdue, this book captures the essence of the life of a seminal figure in both the practice and teaching of midwifery. Against the backdrop of the Enlightenment, Madame Angelique Marguerite Le Boursier du Courdray worked as a midwife during the reign of Louis XV. Du Courdray was officially registered as a midwife in Paris in 1740. Her skill was noted by the king, who commissioned her for more than three decades to travel through rural France teaching midwifery to 10,000 illiterate peasant women. Her royal commission to educate women as birthing practitioners was in itself a significant event, for the practice of midwifery had already begun its still tense relationship with medicine.
Du Courdray worked to break with status quo both in her relationship with surgeons and traditional village birthing practices. Her place in medical and social history has been previously undervalued and largely absent, and Nina Rattner Gelbart goes far in placing du Courdray in the limelight. As a part of her teaching, du Courdray wrote an illustrated text on birthing. Most of the women she taught were illiterate, so one can assume that her main audience for the book was the medical profession. However, du Courdray was probably as well known for her invention to assist students in learning the art of various deliveries: a model of the birth canal (sometimes made with actual human skeleton), complete with sponges of fluid to represent blood.
Du Courdray's position in French history has not been told in a full biography before; however, this in no way denies the place of this traveling midwife and teacher in the politics and social climate of the time. As indicated by the title, much of the life of du Courdray remains a mystery. Gelbart worked for over a decade unraveling du Courdray's life history through the use of hundreds of official records such as letters from provincial academics to medical schools and local parish records. It was a difficult task for a biographer, as du Courdray left no personal journals or letters to solve the mystery of her thoughts and feelings, and indeed a few years of her midwifery practice as well as her retirement remain unrecorded. Gelbart takes the reader through du Courdray's life by including excerpts of official letters that piece together du Courdray's lecture-trail through rural France. She reminds the reader of the physical and political conditions in France during her subject's life. The reader is invited to see du Courdray as a strong woman in her times. In the absence of personal data, Gelbart asks the reader to consider the absences and what they might mean, rather than filling them with supposition. Both Gelbart's research process and her delivery to the reader are enticing, and she displays her skill as a biographer-historian in a unique style.
The place of du Courdray as a central figure in French history and as a role model to women is finally secure with the publication of this biography. This book comes highly recommended for many disciplines—namely, social history, biography, gender studies, politics, nursing and medicine. It is also an exciting read for anyone who enjoys the piecing together of a mystery.—Pamela June Weatherill, Health and Human Sciences, Edith Cowan University, Australia