The creation of knowledge; or, the ramblings of a mad woman…

I realise that this is a bad way to introduce this post but I’m struggling to write today.  I have various jobs to do including article re-writes, minor edits to a chapter for my panel review meeting and the rapid yet high-quality expansion of my most recently started chapter – all before the children come out of school at 3.30pm.  Unfortunately, I have spent much of the day re-reading my primary sources and deciding NOT to add a paragraph to the ‘nearly finished chapter’.  The very kind @tomod14 has suggested via Twitter that the process of ‘not adding’ is just as important as ‘adding’ but I’m afraid that this will not cut the mustard with my (rather formidable) panel of supervisors next week.  You have, therefore, become the unwitting victims of my attempts to get the brain juices flowing.

It is relevant, however, to the topic of today’s blog post because I want to talk about the ‘creation of knowledge’.  I have entirely stolen this idea from an edited collection of articles that I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) last week: Ways of Making and Knowing: The Material Culture of Empirical Knowledge.[1] The collection covers a wide variety of subjects including dyeing, plant cultivation and transportation, and cabinetmaking in the early modern period.  It considers the links between artisanal knowledge and intellectual knowledge and, particularly, the way in which engagement with the material world created ‘tacit’ knowledge. I realised that this idea could be neatly applied to my own favourite subject: childbirth.

Knowledge of childbirth and midwifery before the early decades of the eighteenth century was almost entirely artisanal.  It was created through touch, manipulation, apprenticeship and personal experience.  To a certain extent, it still is as midwives must spend much of their degree course ‘on placement’ with experienced professionals.  In the early modern period, a great deal of importance was also placed upon a personal bodily experience of pregnancy and birth.  All of the birth attendants would have been mothers themselves.  They would therefore all recognise the first pangs of labour, would have opinions of the length of labour, the level of manipulation that was necessary, the shape of the stomach during each contraction. They would probably recognise the primal change of a woman in the transitional stage of labour and would understand the stinging pain of the final stages delivery.  Their knowledge was created by their own bodily experiences and those of their friends and neighbours whose births they may also have witnessed.

In all likelihood, the attending midwife would also have this type of bodily knowledge.  It was extremely rare for a midwife to be childless, the exceptions to this rule being the daughters of midwives that had been attending births with their mothers for many years.  She would also have the ‘tacit’ knowledge mentioned by Smith, Meyers and Cook in their introduction to their volume: that is knowledge through experimentation.  The successful navigation of a difficult situation created knowledge for the next time.  To a certain extent, this is why we see the rise of ‘case study’ medicine during the eighteenth century, as an acknowledgement of the value of tacit knowledge.

It would be easy to conclude here that these types of knowledge were gendered –  that male midwives arrived with their anatomically correct drawings, their assertions of superior scientific knowledge and set about appropriating female bodies upon which to apply their knowledge – but that would not be right.  For a start, male practitioners had tacit knowledge through their surgical involvement in difficult births – their longstanding role in childbirth was the (gory) extraction of infants, usually that had died in the womb or as a result of their intervention.  Once male practitioners became more widespread however, they acknowledged their difficulties of obtaining access to female bodies upon which to practice their intellectual knowledge, gained in lecture theatres and anatomy schools.  They knew the importance of tacit knowledge through practical application.

Perhaps the point of gendered difference here is the way in which these three types of knowledge were used and created in others.  For women, knowledge was created through bodily experience and ‘hands-on’ proficiency.  It was then shared with other women, by direct instruction, or through observation and might be altered or adapted as the situation or the experience of others demanded.  For men, knowledge was created intellectually as well as tacitly.  It originated (to some extent) in the brain before being practically tested.  It was often delivered to others from a position of authority and therefore became less malleable to individual situations.  Despite differing approaches to the creation and sharing of knowledge, however, both male and female practitioners remained dependent upon bodily experience as the test of their skill.  The value of their knowledge (and therefore their ability to find rich and generous patrons) was deeply rooted in the survival (or not) of their clients.

[1] Edited by Pamela H Smith, Amy Meyers and Harold Cook, University of Michigan Press, Michigan, 2014.


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