‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!’ A [Very] Brief History of the Caesarean Section


One of the earliest engravings depicting a cesarean section from Seutonis’s The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (1506).

It has long been believed that the term, ‘caesarean section’, derives from the name of the Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar, who was allegedly cut from his mother’s womb in the year 100 BC. Although convenient, this explanation is as fanciful as the story it purports, for Caesar’s mother, Aurelia, lived long after the birth of her son and this operation would have only been performed on dead or dying women.

If the term did not derive from Julius Caesar, then where did it come from?

While it is true that Roman Law (lex caesaria, or, ‘Law of the Caesars’) mandated that babies be surgically removed from the womb of a dead or dying woman, it is more likely that this term originated from the Latin verb, ‘caedare‘, meaning ‘to cut’. Attempts to separate the baby from the mother were sometimes done in order to save the infant’s life, but in many ancient cultures, it was often performed so that the infant might be buried separately from the mother as religious edicts demanded.

The first written record of a mother and baby surviving a cesarean section comes from Switzerland and dates from around 1500. Jakob Nufer, a pig gelder, reportedly cut his own child from his wife’s womb wielding the (unsanitized!) instruments he used to castrate his pigs. Despite what we can only assume was a horrific and bloody event, his wife allegedly went on to give birth to five more children during her lifetime, including a set of twins. The baby–who was delivered by Nufer’s heroic, if not slightly disturbing, actions–reportedly lived to the age of 77. [1]

During the early modern period, giving birth was hardly a private affair. Besides the midwife, a pregnant woman often received aid and comfort in her ‘lying-in chamber’ by female friends, relatives and neighbours. These women were known as the ‘gossips’, for they spread the word to all the women in the community when another went into labour. The ‘gossips’ supported the mother-to-be during this time by praying with her, preparing special foods, and helping the midwife with any other menial tasks that needed to be done.

Eventually, the midwife was replaced with the man-midwife, the precursor to the modern-day obstetrician. This was due in part to the invention of the birthing forceps, a subject to which I will return in future entries.

The caesarean section’s erroneous link to the Roman dictator persists today. Evidence for this can be found in languages from all over the world. The literal translation of the German, Danish, Dutch and Hungarian terms for this procedure (‘kaiserschnitt’, ‘kejsersnit’, ‘keizersnede’, and ‘csaszarmetszes’) mean ‘Emperor’s cut’. Both the South Slavic term, ‘carski rez’, and the Western Slavic word, ‘cesarskie ciecie’, translate as ‘tzar cut’; while Japanese, Korean and Arabic terms all refer to Caesar and/or the ’emperor’s incision’.

But you, dear reader, now know the truth.

 

1. John Henry, ‘Doctors and Healers: Popular Culture and the Medical Profession’, in Stephen Pumphrey, Paolo L. Rossi, and Maurice Slawinski, Science, Culture, and Popular Belief in Renaissance Europe (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1991), p. 197. This story was reported 82 years after it supposedly occurred, and so historians have rightly treated it with scepticism.

6 comments on “‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!’ A [Very] Brief History of the Caesarean Section

  1. dat says:

    Mother/children non buried at the same place possibly meant exogamy in Indo-Iranians cultures.

  2. Heya! My name is Elvin and I just wanted to say
    your blog site rocks! It really is surprising because I use to have
    a website that practically had an identical web address:
    https://thechirurgeonsapprentice.com/2010/11/26/friends-romans-countrymen-lend-me-your-ears-a-very-brief-history-of-the-cesarean-section/ mine was only a few letters different.
    Nonetheless, I’m a big fan of your weblog and if you ever want a guest post please email me personally at: dennisness@gmail.com. I love writing!

  3. Maelduin says:

    If the pig-gelder’s wife survived to give birth to several more children, could the same not be true of Caesar’s mother?

  4. Pranab says:

    Thanks for this post, You have cleared a major misconception Medical School had impregnated me with. WOW! Write more indeed… I would love to read about the invention of the Obstetric Forceps. Having seen and used them myself, and heard the stories of horrific results in the past that led to the banning of use of high-forceps, my morbidly inclined mind is dying to read of the possibly horrific stories associated with its invention and initial application.

  5. Carolyn says:

    Write more, Lindsey!!! Write more!!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s