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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: November 2018

44 - Concluding Reflections

from Epilogue


Once inscribed in cuneiform script on a clay tablet from Babylonia, the idea that the time of birth shapes a person's life sells horoscopes today, though readers’ expectations have been transformed. The arrivals of the monster of Cracow and of ‘test-tube babies’ all made international news, but in vastly different ways. And when a woman records her periods on a digital calendar, she does something like the Elizabethan mathematician who noted his wife's bleeding in a diary, yet revolutions in knowledge, technology and gender relations separate their actions. Long views reveal continuities we miss by focusing on a mere century or two, but the very similarities direct attention to the specifics of change.

This book has appraised established findings, revised received views, placed specialist insights in a wider frame and opened up new topics to produce a sustained longterm history of generation and reproduction. Different dimensions of these rich phenomena have shifted on multiple timescales and interacted in complicated ways. The pace and sometimes the direction of innovation have varied geographically even within our chosen regions, primarily the Mediterranean, western Europe, North America and their empires. Yet we can recognize broad outlines of endurance and alteration and identify a few concerted transformations.

These reflections proceed by way of three broad themes. First, we consider the different functions of the defining frameworks, reviewing the genesis and career of the old ‘generation’ – the active making of humans and beasts, plants and even minerals – and of the modern ‘reproduction’ – the more abstract process of perpetuating living organisms – and exploring how the stakes changed while the questions stayed much the same. Next we place the eighteenth-century emergence of population as an object of knowledge in relation to a longer history of multitudes and states. Then we reconstruct ideals and realities of control in the history of contraception and abortion, pregnancy and childbirth, asking what happened as coping with uncertainty gave way to managing risk. We end by pondering some challenges and opportunities of long views.

Generation and Reproduction

Whether ‘generation’ or ‘reproduction’, the frameworks defined the range and significance of debate in every period. It is thus important not just to engage with the notion that there was a shift ‘from generation to reproduction’ since the mid-eighteenth century, but also to examine the longer life of generation.