Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Jane Sharp: Midwife

Jane Sharp (21 July 1637)

A bit of explanation for why I'm posting about Jane Sharp today. We know very little about Sharp (well, okay, we know almost nothing, really), except that she wrote and published The Midwives Book: or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered.

One of the sources Sharp used in her book was Practical Physick, Nicholas Culpeper's English translation of the German physician Daniel Sennert's Practicae medicinae, a Latin work in six books published between 1628 and 1636. While we know nothing about Jane Sharp--not even the most basic information, such as when or where she was born, or when she died--Sennert died on 21 July 1637. And that's why I'm posting about Jane Sharp today.

All that said, Sharp's book was published in London in 1671. In the preface to her book, Sharp also indicates that she has been a "practitioner in the art of midwifery above thirty years"--which may suggest she started her career by about 1640. 

Since Sharp's book was published in London, we might also conclude that her work was London-based, though in her entry on Sharp in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Ornella Moscucci notes that some of Sharp's "west-country" phrases "suggest that Sharp may not have been from London at all," and may instead have been from Shropshire or Gloucestershire.

Moscucci also notes that Sharp dedicated her book to Lady Eleanor Talbot, about whom nothing is known except that she was the daughter of John Talbot and Eleanor Baskerville and the sister of John Talbot, the tenth earl of Shrewbury. If this is the woman to whom Sharp dedicated her book, she would have been in her sixties or seventies in 1671 (and unmarried).

One final bit of biographical information that Sharp provides is in the book's opening letter addressed "to the midwives of England," where she says that she has "been at great cost in translations for all books, either French, Dutch, or Italian" on the subject of midwifery.

Sharp divides The Midwives Book into six sections: the first, a "brief description of the generative parts in both sexes"; the second, on conception; the third on "hindrances to conception" and "the great pain and difficulty of child-bearing, with the signs, cause, and cure"; the fourth on labor, delivery, and miscarriage, with a focus on "how to order the child when born"; the fifth on how "to order women in childbirth," as well as how to treat the symptoms they suffer during pregnancy and illnesses they may suffer after delivery; and the sixth, with more on the diseases women may suffer after conception in addition to information about the "choice of a nurse" and her duties and, finally, "proper cures for all diseases incident to young children."

Sharp's illustration, "a dissection of the womb,
with the usual manner how the child
lies herein near the time of its birth
What's most intriguing to me in all of this is Sharp's motivations for writing, which are made clear in her introduction. She begins with a statement of the importance of her profession: "the art of midwifery is doubtless one of the most useful and necessary of all arts for the being and well-being of mankind." 

Midwives' knowledge must be "twofold," both "speculative," or theoretical, and practical. "Some perhaps may think," she asserts, that "it is not proper for women to be of this profession" since they lack the kinds of theoretical knowledge of those--men--"who are bred up in universities, schools of learning, or apprentice-ships" where they can attend "anatomy lectures." While Sharp commends such knowledge--"it is commendable for men to employ their spare time in some things of deeper speculation"--she is very clear that "the art of midwifery chiefly concerns us."

In addition to Moscucci's ODNB essay (you may not have access to this resource), there is an excellent piece by Anna Bosanquet from the journal The Practical Midwife, available by clicking here. And you may be interested in Elaine Hobby's excellent edition, a volume in the Women Writers in English, 1350-1850 series, published by Oxford University Press.