The King’s Midwife

Angelique Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray rose out of obscurity to design and execute a series of training sessions for French country midwives, during the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI. A self-sufficient woman of uncommon gifts, she carved an unprecedented sphere of influence in male-dominated Ancien Regime society. Her courses, sponsored by the Crown, were distinguished by realistic mannequins, which allowed “hands on” experience in delivery. Surviving replies to a survey taken in 1786, soon after her retirement, show two-thirds of the practicing midwives of France had trained with her or been trained by one of her surgeon students.

Nina Rattner Gelbart is intrigued by Mme du Coudray’s self- defined mission, to proselytize enlightened childbirth throughout eighteenth century France, and her stoutly feminist study of this mission is solidly documented. However, Gelbart found the midwife’s personality even more impressive than her deeds. Unfortunately, despite a plentiful paper trail, du Coudray left almost no direct personal information. This is Gelbart’s “mystery” in THE KING’S MIDWIFE: A HISTORY AND MYSTERY OF MADAME DU COUDRAY. She reconstructs du Coudray’s travels, but the personality of this vibrant, opinionated, and influential woman is deduced from mere snippets of clues.

In THE KING’S MIDWIFE, Gelbart presents a medical and social world in flux, with Mme du Coudray using politics and persuasion to secure the assistance of rich and powerful men in educating peasant women. Gelbart offers a richly detailed version of this world in her text, accompanied by period illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.