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Birthing Tales Les récits de naissance

Simon de Provanchières

A provincial doctor relates an aborted and monstrously delayed birth (1582)

Copy of a letter sent to Mr Arnoul Dean of Sens and Grand Vicar of Monsignor the Reverend Cardinal de Pellevé, from Mr Simon de Provanchières, doctor in Sens, reporting a child retained in the womb for twenty-eight whole years.
Printed at Sens by Jean Savine, residing in the main road near Saint-Estienne. 1582.
Provanchières, a local doctor in Sens, wrote an account (based in part on a Latin version by another local doctor, Jean Ailleboust) of what became a celebrated obstetric case : the calcified foetus which the mother had carried for twenty-eight years without knowing it! It is only after the death of the mother that an autopsy, carried out at her request in order that the true reason for her sufferings might finally be known, brought the 'miraculous' truth to light. Provanchières wrote a report in the form of a letter to the Dean of Sens, and it soon circulated in print (in two different editions). In keeping with many doctors and thinkers of the period, Provanchières views the incident as an illustration of the manifold wonders of God's powers. The petrified foetus was in fact kept as an object of scientific curiosity and the midwife Louise Bourgeois is amongst those who report having looked at it.


1) Two Surgeons Discover a Calcified Foetus whose Existence had not been Suspected

Provanchières addresses his report to a reader who is educated but has no medical training. He does not therefore include the same level of technical detail that we find in Gelée, who records a similar incident for the benefit of surgeons and doctors. But Provanchières does allow the reader to follow the autopsy stage by stage. It takes on something of the character of a caesarean operation, with the climax being the moment when the surgeons discover the existence of the foetus. The author is particularly concerned to record the various emotions experienced by the surgeons, as their initial amazement is succeeded by a more scientific curiosity.

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Scarcely had you gone to Paris than on 16th May God called to him Colombe Chatri, wife of the tailor Louis Carita. She was sixty-eight years old, but had the face and appearance of one older because of the infirmity and illness which had afflicted her for these past twenty years. [...] Now before she breathed her last, God, who wishes to make manifest the effects of his omnipotence over those he has created, inspired this woman to ask of her husband that her body be opened up after her death in order that the cause of her death might be established, and made known to people that they might wonder at His works.


This autopsy was carried out by Claude Le Noir and Jean Cothias, chief surgeon of this town, both well versed in their profession and skilled in their execution of it. They together divided the lower abdomen, after having uncovered the muscles of the epigaster and the parts below it; they came to the womb, where the child is conceived, fed and grows until the time when Nature, using all its strength, gives it passage and delivers it. This womb was drawn upwards, tumorous and hardened in places, where its consistency was like bone, and elsewhere it was arid, dry and lacking in any moisture. The surgeons judged that the whole body was a single mass. And not suspecting the womb, nor the child whom their autopsy was to reveal to them, both on account of the age of this woman and because she had never borne a child, they forcibly cut the womb. The razor met the shoulder of the child, cut through it and separated it, and they saw the shoulder blade and the brachium. Then they came to suspect the wonder, and in order to be sure of the matter they excised the whole womb, and transported it to Jean Cothias's house, where, in amazement, they revealed one arm, finding the hand well formed, together with part of the body of the child. And because the child was affixed to the wall of the womb, and because part of the child had become as one with the matter of the womb, they put it into a solution of salt and vinegar in order to soften it and be able to handle it more easily, and also in this way to prevent the stench which the body might have caused. [...]

1) Deux chirurgiens découvrent un fœtus pétrifié dont personne n'avait soupçonné l'existence

Le compte-rendu de Provanchières est destiné à un lecteur instruit mais qui ne fait pas partie du corps médical. Nous ne relevons donc pas autant de détails que chez Gelée qui raconte un phénomène semblable, mais en s'adressant à des chirurgiens ou à des médecins. Néanmoins, Provanchières permet au lecteur de suivre le déroulement de cette autopsie – qui ressemble à une opération césarienne – le moment fort étant celui où les chirurgiens découvrent le fœtus. L'auteur insiste sur les émotions de ceux-ci – l'émerveillement faisant place à une curiosité plutôt scientifique.

fol. Aii recto

Monsieur à paine avez-vous esté à Paris, que le sezieme de May Dieu a appellé Colombe Chatri femme de Loys Carita cousturier, aagée de soixante et huict ans, elle avoit face et apparence de plus, à l'occasion de l'infirmité et indisposition qui l'a travaillée depuis vingt huit ans en ça. [...] Ores avant que de rendre les derniers soupirs, Dieu qui veut faire paroistre les effects de sa toute puissance sur ses creatures, inspira ceste femme d'impetrer de son mari, que ouverture fut faicte de son corps, apres qu'elle seroit expirée ; afin que l'occasion de sa mort vint en evidence, et fut notifiée aux hommes pour les exciter à la contemplation de ses ouvres [...]


L'evenement de ceste dissection faicte par maistre Claude Le Noir et Maistre Jean Cothias lieutenant des chirurgiens en ceste ville, tous deux bien instruits en leur art et hardis en leurs operations. Ces deux divisans le ventre inferieur, apres avoir descouverts les muscles de l'epigastre et parties au dessoubs, rencontrent la matrice, ou l'enfant est conceu, nourri et accreu jusques au temps que nature aydée de toutes ses forces luy donne issue et met hors. Ceste matrice estoit retirée contremont, tumefiée et endurcie en plusieurs endroits, ou sa matiere avoit similitude d'os, et ailleurs elle estoit seiche aride et sans suc. Les chirurgiens estimoient que tout le corps ne fust qu'un amas : Et ne se doubtans de la matrice, ny de l'enfant, que la dissection leur fait voir, tant à raison de l'aage de ceste femme, que pour n'avoir oncques eu enfant, trenchent ceste matrice à force, le rasoir rencontre l'espaule de l'enfant, l'entame et separe, apperçoivent l'omoplate et le brachium : lors ils se doubtent du merveille, de sorte que pour estre certifiez de la chose, ils font abstraction de toute la matrice, fut portée en la maison de maistre Jean Cothias, ou curieusement ils desveloppent un bras, trouvent la main bien formée avec partie du corps de l'enfant. Et pour tant que l'enfant adheroit aux parois de ceste matrice, et que partie d'iceluy estoit infiltrée en la substance d'icelle, ils le mettent tremper en sel et vinaigre pour l'amollir et manier plus à l'aise, par mesme moyen empescher l'odeur mauvaise, que ce corps eut peu rendre.



2) On a number of occasions the mother had thought she was about to give birth, but each time the labour had ceased

After reporting the autopsy which had caused such a sensation, Provanchières looks back to the mother's symptoms as the pregnancy had reached its natural conclusion. His account of an aborted birth takes on the form of a struggle between Nature which strives in vain to accomplish the delivery and the foetus which cannot break free of the womb. As almost always in medical understanding of the time, the foetus is represented as the active agent who must try to leave the womb ; the mother is the passive vessel suffering the consequences of the foetus's efforts.

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And so from this time onwards thousands of people have seen it, and it can still be seen in this house, where it is most carefully kept as a curiosity for the instruction of all. I hope that on your return you may take the trouble of seeing for yourself what I have reported to you, and more besides. The most surprising thing in this is that this first and last pregnancy started twenty years ago. At this time, milk came from Colombe Chatri's breasts, as I have it on the authority of Marguerite and Tiennette Trouillot, her nieces, Mr Saviniane, Jeanne Giraude and other of her neighbours. This led Colombe Chatri, confident that she was pregnant, to prepare everything she would need when she gave birth, such as sheets, swaddling clothes, a cradle and other necessary items, expecting to deliver the fruit of her womb when her time came. From this time on, her womb remained in the same state, enlarged and swollen. Since then, on a number of occasions Nature attempted to deliver this burden. So much so that over twenty years on ten or twelve occasions she experienced the waves, contractions and pain of labour such that she summoned the midwife, but in vain, since the child clung too firmly to the womb. from which it could not be removed by any effort on the part of Nature, nor by any human assistance. One cannot imagine, much less affirm, that this child was conceived at an age when she was sterile, unable to bear a child in the normal course of Nature, given the absence of menstrual blood. In addition, from the true and inescapable signs of pregnancy, it appears that she carried this child in her loins for twenty-eight years, and Claude Le Noir, summoned by this woman to determine the nature of her suffering, examined her a number of times over ten years, as did Jean Cothias over the last eight years, and they are eyewitnesses to this [...]

2) Plusieurs fois, la mere avait pensé mettre un enfant au monde, mais a chaque fois l'accouchement s'arrêta

Ayant raconté l'épisode ci-dessus qui venait de défrayer la chronique, Provanchières revient en arrière pour exposer les symptômes de la mère au terme de sa grossesse. Il s'agit donc du récit d'un accouchement manqué, qui se présente sous la forme d'une lutte entre la nature (désireuse de l'accouchement) et le fœtus qui ne peut se détacher de l'utérus. Comme toujours, c'est le fœtus qui doit essayer de s'expulser ; la mère ne peut qu'en souffrir les conséquences.

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Tant y a que devant et depuis nous mille et mille personne l'ont veu, et se pourra tousjours voir en ceste maison, ou il est curieusement et soigneusement reservé pour l'instruction d'un chacun. J'espere qu'à vostre retour vous daignerez bien prendre la peine de voir à l'œil ce que j'en ay remarqué, voire plus. En cecy la chose qui se presente plus admirable, c'est, que ceste premiere et derniere grossesse d'enfant a commencé vingt huit ans a : auquel temps le laict ruisseloit de ses mamelles, comme il m'a esté rapporté par Marguerite et Tiennette Trouillot ses niepces, Saviniane le maistre, Jeanne Giraude, et autres ses voisines. Ce qui donna occasion à Colombe Chatri assurée de sa grossesse, de preparer tout ce qui pouvoit servir à sa couche : comme drappeux, langes, berceau, et autres choses necessaires, estimant de rendre son fruict le terme escheu. Des ce temps-là le ventre luy est demeuré en un mesme estat, gros et enflé. Nature depuis par plusieurs et diverses fois a fait son effort de descharger ce fais : tellement que durants les vingt huit ans par dix ou douze fois, estant aux ondées, trenchées et peines de travail, elle a mandé la sage-femme, en vain toutefois, adherant l'enfant trop fermement à la matrice, de laquelle il ne pouvoit estre abstraict par aucun effort de nature, ou ayde externe. L'on ne peut imaginer moins encore dire, que cest enfant ait esté produit en un aage sterile, incapable selon le cours de nature de generation, veu la privation du sang menstrual ; joinct que par les propres et inseparables remarques de grossesse, il appert qu'elle avoit ses flancz chargez de cest enfant vingt-huit ans a, du moins Maistre Claude Le Noir appellé de ceste femme pour recognoistre l'estre de sa disposition l'a maniée par plusieurs fois depuis dix ans et Maistre Jean Cothias depuis huit ans en ça, qui sont tesmoings oculaires. [...]


De Sens ce 18. May 1582.