By Rebecca Smith
It is well known that Louis XIV played a major role in the life and career of Molière - in good and bad ways. The king’s support and sponsorship propelled Molière’s work and livelihood but it also restrained his creativity and freedom to create.
Surprising is how, even to this day, we live with influences handed down from Louis. These include our tastes in fashion and its seasonality, and even our eating habits (the tradition of salt and pepper on the table and dessert as an end to the meal is described in an earlier blog here on this site). Even Louisiana is a hand-me-down from the French king.
But can Louis’s XIV's long reach really extend to our handling of . . . childbirth?
The last thing one expects in reading about the disturbing “My Birth” painting by Frida Kahlo is the accompanying paragraph, “Initially it was deemed indecent for a male doctor to be present with a woman lying on her back, her knees bent. This changed in the seventeenth century when Louis XIV of France started a trend by having his mistresses use a new birthing bed during delivery. The king apparently found viewing a woman with her legs splayed open while giving birth lying down sexually titillating. He requested his mistresses give birth this way while he looked from behind a screen.”
“Louis XIV became a peeping Tom, turning the natural process of birth into something salacious.” In “My Birth” Frida “places viewers in the position of Louis XIV.” www.fridakahlo.org/my-birth.jsp#prettyPhoto[image1]/0/
Research seems to back this up. In ancient Egypt, women squatted to give birth. In engravings, Cleopatra gave birth kneeling. In Greece of long ago, a birthing stool was used. Throughout history women almost always gave birth upright – gravity advanced the baby’s movement. Plus these methods were thought to provide to the women the greatest pain relief in this most agonizing process. Studies done as late as 2012 revealed that squatting and kneeling widen the birth canal rendering the whole experience shorter and more comfortable. Walking and being upright in the first stage of labor shortens the length of time in labor and reduces the risk of an epidural or ceasarian. Until the 1600s “upright” was standard practice worldwide.
The one argument for a supine birth is that it offers more space for examination and medical interference, if needed. Episiotomies and other required procedures are facilitated.
Those reasons seem not to have been Louis’s motivation.
Louis fathered six children with his first wife, Marie-Therese, seven more with his mistress, the Marquise de Montespan, four with another mistress and, undoubtedly many more, and he supposedly was determined to watch all the births.
“According to some scholars and Lauren Dundes’ research paper for the American Journal of Public Health” entitled ‘The Evolution of Maternal Birthing Position’, King Louis XIV reportedly had a strange fixation and enjoyed watching women give birth but couldn’t under normal circumstance for a chair (birthing stool) obscured his view. Clearly frustrated, in a pursuit of greater happiness and ultimate satisfaction, he promoted a new method. Lying down, legs up and spread as wings of an eagle so he could closely inspect what was going on in detail.”
And we describe Frida’s paintings as disturbing?
She at least is reflecting on her own body and her life. The power of the “My Birth” painting shocks in its gruesomeness but also in its gutpunching interpretation of her personal struggles and, possibly, her inability to have a child herself. It was for those reasons Madonna purchased the painting and hung it in her entry hall daring guests to confront it.
The thrill for Louis XIV, on the other hand, was voyeuristic and, we can imagine, euphoric at the results of his divine sperm. He was, after all, the Sun King, directly chosen by God and without equal. Each birth, regardless of the mother’s certain torment, provided him with a sense of sordid excitement and corroboration of his own majesty.
Frida in America by Celia Stahr
Discover our newsletters, journals, essays, and criticisms on anything having to do with Molière and France.