Catherine Morphis | University of Texas, Arlington


In 1671, When Jane Sharp published The Midwives Book, she became the first English woman to trespass upon the male-dominated world of medical publication. While Sharp’s text is addressed to her midwife “sisters,” it is clear that she is responding to more than just a desire to share her knowledge of medical texts and the birth chamber with midwives. Sharp confidently asserts the right of female midwives to the birth chamber and additionally seizes and twists English scholarship and values to fit her unique gendered purposes. Whereas early modern physician-scholars knew the texts of midwifery and relied upon words, Sharp knew the bodies of women and relied upon her sight of those bodies to interpret the words of medical texts and traditions. I argue that because Jane Sharp’s manual was the first of its kind that was accessible to a broad non-scholarly audience, it uniquely shaped the early modern understanding of the body and of midwifery. Jane Sharp wrote that swaddling a baby literally created the shape of its limbs. I use swaddling as a metaphor to understand how Sharp’s text shaped the limbs of Hebraic-Christian tradition, textual medical history, Englishness and Otherness, and Nature – all while relying upon the ocular impulse and empirical habits common to seventeenth century scientific inquiry.