«Si mater in partu moritur, incidatur»: The postmortem caesarean section

«Si mater in partu moritur, incidatur»: The postmortem caesarean section
Left: 1401-1500. The Birth of Julius Caesar. Faits des Romains, Paul Orose. BnF, fr. 64 (1401-1500), f. 234r © Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. Right: 1364-1365. The Birth of Julius Caesar. Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César; Faits des Romains. Wauchier de Denain. BnF, fr. 246 (XIV sec.), f. 158r © Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

«Si mater in partu moritur, incidatur»: The postmortem caesarean section

IV The passage into the world


«[…] [E]staba ya el cirujano la casa, aguardando que la mujer espirase para abrirla al punto y socorrer la criatura a tiempo que pudiese recibir el agua del santo bautismo». In the Vida, hechos y doctrina del venerable hermano Alonso Rodríguez, it is explained how the Spanish Jesuit Alonso Rodríguez (†1617) took great pity on a dying woman in labour. What is important to stress is the action of the surgeon, who was waiting to seize the moment when the woman died to open her womb to extract the baby so that it could be baptised and have its soul saved.

Various parts of Justinian’s Corpus Iuris Civilis (6th century) contain references to the surgical removal of a foetus from a dead mother’s womb, with implications regarding the transmission of inheritance, although no medical literature of the time ever mentions a concrete case.

The incision began to be practised in the Middle Ages for theological reasons due to the prohibition of burying in consecrated ground, the body of a dead woman with a still pagan foetus inside her. Later, theologians became interested only in the salvation of the foetus’ soul.

The opening of the dead woman’s womb was also performed in relation to the civil law: Indeed, if the foetus showed even the slightest sign of life upon extraction from the womb, the dead mother’s property would be inherited by the husband without being returned to the woman’s family of origin. 

Several myths flourished about the incision of the dead mother’s womb, the most important of which was that of the birth of Julius Caesar. A misinterpretation of a passage in Pliny’s Naturalis Historia led to consider Julius Caesar as the first person to be born in that way. Based on this legend, the surgeon François Rousset, who first wrote in 1581 on the incision of a woman’s womb while she was still alive, called the new operation incisionne Caesarienne (caesarean section). [Alessandra Foscati]