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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The ’popish midwife’ : printed representations of Elizabeth Cellier and midwifery practice in late seventeeth century England Evenden, Kirstin Jane


This thesis investigates the role of print culture in the re-definition of English midwifery practice during the seventeenth century. The printed representations, both visual and textual, of the Catholic midwife Elizabeth Cellier in The Popish Damnable Plot (BM 1088, 1680), The Solemn Mock Procession (BM 1085, 1680), and The Happy Instruments of England’s Preservation (BM 1114, 1681) will serve as a basis for my analysis. As part of a larger body of Whig imagery produced in London during the Exclusion Crisis of 1679—81, Cellier’s representation consistently referred to her alleged role in a ‘popish plot’ perpetrated by Catholics to kill King Charles II. In defining Cellier as part of a treasonous threat to the nation, this representation not only targeted her supposed involvement in criminal activities, but also focussed on her midwifery as being an integral aspect of her criminality. Licensed by the Church of England since 1534, midwifery practice was exclusively the province of women. Cellier’s representation as a ‘criminal midwife’ occurred at a time when the traditional societal role and organization of midwifery were being questioned. Increasingly, midwives during this period were criticized both by nonconformist groups critical of the Anglican rituals of birth, and by medical practitioners interested in controlling the supervision of childbirth. My aim in this thesis, then, is to explore how Cellier’s representation, while purporting to report a crime quite separate from her profession, would in fact serve to represent midwifery as a potentially criminal and dangerous practice. In Chapter One, I will examine both the political motivations behind her representation, and the conditions in London for the production and distribution of this type of printed imagery. Chapter Two will deal with how the genres representing Cellier were used to construct her as a ‘popish’ threat to English national unity, while addressing nonconformist audiences over the issue of exclusion. Finally, in Chapter Three I will analyze how this criminalized representation of Cellier as ‘popish’ involved and coincided with both nonconformist critiques of Anglican birthing rituals and attempts in medical discourse to transform previous childbirth practices into a written form of ‘professional’ medical knowledge. The overall aim is to show how Cellier’s representation was part of the process whereby traditional midwifery practice in England was re-defined, a process which ultimately resulted in the marginalization of women from midwifery practice.

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