"Be Fruitful and Multiply": Genesis and Generation in Reformation Germany *

By Crowther-Heyck, Kathleen | Renaissance Quarterly, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

"Be Fruitful and Multiply": Genesis and Generation in Reformation Germany *


Crowther-Heyck, Kathleen, Renaissance Quarterly


In 1545, Walther Hermann Ryff (ca. 1500-48), a sometime apothecary turned writer, published a book on the "secrets of nature" which he called the New Albertus Magnus. (1) The first part of this work was devoted to the "secrets of women" and consisted of a discussion of human reproduction. (2) Ryff began this section with a discussion of the causes and cures of infertility. He described conception and the stages of development of the unborn child. (3) He gave the reader techniques for determining whether or not a woman was pregnant, whether a pregnant woman was carrying a boy or a girl, and how a couple could increase their chances of conceiving a boy. He detailed the kinds of foods pregnant women should eat and gave remedies for common physical ailments associated with pregnancy. The material on reproduction in the New Albertus Magnus was drawn from various ancient and medieval authors, including Albertus Magnus, Aristotle, Galen, Pliny, and Avicenna. (4) The New Albertus Magnus went through more than thirty editions in the sixteenth century alone, making it one of the most popular sources of information on reproduction in this period. (5)

Eight years later, in 1553, Otho Korber (d. 1553), a Lutheran pastor, composed a small pamphlet entitled, A brief account [of] how pregnant women should comfort themselves before and during childbirth, and entrust themselves and their child to the Good Lord through Christ. (6) Korber, like Ryff, offered his readers information and advice on conception, pregnancy, and birth. He began by quoting Paul's words: "Woman will be saved through childbearing, provided she continues in faith, love, holiness and virtue." (7) Korber reminded women that the sufferings of pregnancy and childbirth were a punishment imposed on all women for Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden and advised them to accept these physical trials with patience and recognize them as the "punishment of a merciful father." Korber admonished pregnant women to trust in God and to turn to Him in their distress. This booklet was typical of the numerous Lutheran devotional treatises produced in the sixteenth century that offered spiritual comfort and advice to pregnant women.

The texts of Ryff and Korber are just two of the many vernacular works dealing with reproduction that rolled off German presses in the sixteenth century. At first glance it might seem that they have little in common other than a purely nominal concern with human generation. What, after all, does advising an infertile woman to ingest the testicles of a boar have to do with telling a pregnant woman to pray for the soul of the child she is carrying? However, closer examination reveals a common reservoir of metaphors and images used to describe and imagine the female body and the mysterious and fascinating processes of procreation. It also uncovers a set of common underlying assumptions about the meaning and significance of human generation. This article explores representations of reproduction in the vernacular print culture of sixteenth-century Germany. It examines religious texts, including sermons, devotional treatises, and sections of church ordinances written specifically for and about pregnant women. It al so analyzes medical texts such as midwifery manuals, books on the "secrets of nature," and anatomical works. These texts were written for, and available to, a broad lay audience, literate in German but not in Latin. They both shaped and were shaped by this audience's views of reproduction and the reproductive body. Such books can provide insight into the ways in which sixteenth-century Germans made meaning our of the bodily and social events of conception, pregnancy and childbirth.

This work builds on studies of popular understandings of pregnancy and childbirth in early modern Germany by Ulinka Rublack, Eva Labouvie and Barbara Duden. Using sources such as court documents, letters, diaries, and medical case histories, these scholars have recovered the language ordinary men and women used to describe pregnancy and childbirth. …

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