The Pick - Books & Babies

July 14, 2011

Books & Babies

Cambridge University Library

A scholar sits at a plush desk as a woman in a see-through wrap parades before him. This enticing image forms the frontispiece to a 19th-century edition of a strange compilation called Aristotle's Masterpiece, first published in 1684, which incorporates a manual on midwifery.

For generations, a wide variety of people - a group of boys in a mining community, a factory girl in 1920s Manchester, even Molly Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses - turned to this improbable source for titillation and basic information about sex. It was still available in Soho in the 1930s.

Today, of course, it is impossible to avoid sex. The "facts of life" have featured on the school curriculum since the 1960s. Students are issued with contraceptive "survival kits". Feminists and "pro-lifers" openly promote their very different views on the same issues.

Yet for much of human history, those wanting to find out about "where babies come from" had limited options. Few had access to expensive volumes such as William Hunter's The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (1774), where the text was in Latin and the illustrations tainted with violent misogyny.

This remarkable exhibition, at the Cambridge University Library until 23 December, explores how reproduction has been communicated from the age of fertility figurines to the age of the internet. It was curated by the "Generation to Reproduction" group of Cambridge historians of science as part of a broader project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, to re-examine the history of reproduction.

On one level, it tracks a crucial shift from the notion of "generation" - the moment when a human being acquired a rational soul - to a scientific, sperm-meets-ovum understanding of reproduction. This may represent an advance in understanding, but it also paved the way for eugenics, racial science and the vast tracts of pseudo-erudition that underlay Nazi sterilisation policies.

Despite the changes in communications media and the ways we think about reproduction, Books & Babies suggests that some of our anxieties keep recurring. Nineteenth-century fears about evolution mutate into the imagery of Stanley Kubrick's science-fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Certaine Secrete Wonders of Nature, recorded by Pierre Boaistuau in 1569, included abnormal births alongside demons and sea monsters. Martin Luther created a "pope-ass" to satirise the corruption of the Catholic Church. Others have been fascinated by conjoined twins and the extraordinary Mary Toft, who was said to have produced a litter of rabbits in 1726. Even today, unusual births attract a good deal of lurid interest and often indignation, beautifully captured in a 2009 Daily Mail headline about "Octomom" Nadya Suleman: "How the heartwarming tale of the U.S. octuplets became a seedy story of self-indulgence".

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