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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 April; 54(2): 276–277.
PMCID: PMC2844285

Book Review

The birth of mankind; otherwise named, the woman’s book

Elaine Hobby (ed.),  The birth of mankind: otherwise named, The woman’s book, Literary and Scientific Cultures of Early Modernity, Farnham and Burlington, VT, Ashgate,  2009, pp.  xxxix, 310, £55.00 (hardback  978-0-7546-3818-6). 

Elaine Hobby’s critical edition of the earliest English translation of The birth of mankind, written (at least ostensibly) by Eucharius Rösslin, is a most welcome addition to several other recent volumes on childbirth and gynaecology that have appeared in this series. The phenomenal success of the volume, from the publication of the original German (1513) and its Latin translation, to the versions in many other European vernaculars, including English, alone justifies Hobby’s undertaking; in addition, she brings impeccable scholarship and some fresh insights to her task. In a relatively short but incisive introduction, she recognizes that her volume will be used by both specialist and general readers—just as Rösslin’s sixteenth-century English translators sought to appeal not only to the midwives for whom Rösslin originally wrote, but also to lay readers (of both sexes) with a broader interest in the subject of reproduction and sexuality. Thus, on the one hand, she engages with detailed critical debates (reassessing debts to Vesalian anatomy in the 1545 edition, and arguing strongly that Richard Jonas, the original translator, was probably the same Jonas who was Highmaster of St Paul’s school), and, on the other, she does not neglect to provide a clear overview of Renaissance understandings of reproductive physiology and humoral medicine.

Since there is already a very good modern English translation of Rösslin’s German text (by Wendy Arons), readers may ask why we need Hobby’s edition of the early English version. The answer is that from the viewpoint of historians of both medicine and of the book, The birth of mankind is particularly rich and complex. The first translation (1540) was undertaken by a layman, who added to Rösslin’s text a final section, drawn (without acknowledgement) from the Hippocratic corpus, and treating the conception of mankind. This version was revised in 1545 by a physician, Thomas Raynalde, who also added a new first part, setting out in English the very recent anatomical discoveries of Vesalius, as well as reproducing the latter’s anatomical illustrations.

Given that the work remained in print until 1654, going through many editions, Hobby faced a difficult choice as to the base text. She settled on the 1560 version for the reason that it underwent relatively little further change, and thus represents the version which circulated most widely for nearly a century. The decision reflects her wish to make her edition as accessible as possible to less specialist readers. Accordingly, only major differences from one edition to another are signalled in the footnotes, which—apart from useful indications of flagrant mistranslations, unacknowledged borrowings from classical sources or key historical references—are largely given over to translating less familiar sixteenth-century usage into modern English. In addition, the reader is provided with a generous medical glossary at the end of the volume. The illustrations, probably a key to the work’s early success, are reproduced satisfactorily, with the exception of the reversed images on p. 88. Specialist readers have to turn to the appendices (of which there are no fewer than fourteen) to track down both portions of text which had been excised by 1560 and tables of changes introduced between one edition and another. Hobby has painstakingly collated some fifteen different editions, but leaves it to others, should they wish, to draw their own conclusions as to the significance of the numerous small changes.

Hobby’s (and/or Ashgate’s) decision to organize the volume primarily so that the general reader can peruse it comfortably and conveniently may occasionally frustrate those of who work closely in this field, but on balance I think it is justified, for this is a work which made a major contribution to the circulation of knowledge about sexuality and reproductive medicine from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century, and thus deserves as wide a readership as possible. And it is important to stress that Hobby has certainly not compromised the quality of her scholarly research. This volume has surely set the agenda—and a very high standard—for a pan-European study of the reception of Rösslin’s Rose Garden.

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