Postmortem Cesarean Operations and the Spread of Fetal Baptism in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires

Collaborative Group

Professor Martha Few, Dr. Zeb J. Tortorici, Professor Adam Warren




In 1751, a friar named Francisco Emmanuele Cangiamila published “Embryologia sacra” (Sacred Embryology), a medical-theological treatise on the duty of priests and laypeople to receive instruction in the cesarean operation and perform it on women who died while pregnant. The procedure, he argued, was a crucial and necessary means to save the life of the fetus and cleanse it of original sin through baptism. Forty-eight years later an unidentified indigenous barber-surgeon in a Guatemalan mission performed a cesarean operation––one of many at this time––on a deceased Maya woman to remove a fetus, which the supervising priest then baptized. In 1862, cesarean operation manuals became available in the Cebuano and Tagalog languages, in addition to Spanish, in the colonial Philippines. In this project, historians Martha Few, Zeb Tortorici, and Adam Warren trace the global networks of Spain’s and Portugal’s empires during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that allowed for the rise and spread of the postmortem cesarean operation as a medico-religious practice from Europe to the Americas and Asia. Furthermore, it interrogates how different kinds of historical actors perceived and gave meaning to the operation and to baptism as they received and implemented instruction in distinct colonial settings. The project analyzes the way that manuals, legal mandates, and accounts of the performance of postmortem cesareans illuminate new ideas and assumptions about women and unborn fetuses as colonial subjects at the local level and across different imperial spaces. Drawing on Few’s expertise in ethnohistory and the history of medicine, Tortorici’s specializations in gender and sexuality and archival theory, and Warren’s background as a historian of colonial political culture and early modern medicine, their monograph argues that the postmortem cesarean operation constituted a contested tool of empire through which colonialism was enacted on the female body and the unborn fetus in its womb. Award period: January 1, 2018 through December 31, 2019