Maria Beatrice Di Brizio

Histoire du concept de couvade: Edward B. Tylor et l’ethnologie victorienne

Histoire des sciences humaines (series)

L’Harmattan, 2021

636 pages

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this essay was published in French in the European Journal of Social Sciences (see Rosa, 2022). This translation is the author’s own.

In his classic study on Victorian Anthropology (1987), George W. Stocking, Jr. used the expression “a precipice in time,” referring to the nineteenth-century archaeological discovery of the antiquity of humankind to the detriment of biblical chronology. Mutatis mutandis, Maria Beatrice Di Brizio plunges the founding ancestor of anthropology, Edward B. Tylor (1832–1917), into a surprising precipice in time. The result of in-depth investigations conducted for over twenty years, her massive monograph, Histoire du concept de couvade, digs deep into the past in search of the antecedents to Tylor’s inaugural volume, Researches into the Early History of Mankind (1865). Beyond the exploration of Victorian anthropology, Di Brizio’s intellectual archaeology exhumes a vast literature from the eighteenth, seventeenth, and sixteenth centuries—with some sources dating back to the Middle Ages and Greco-Roman antiquity. Less known and less studied than his magnum opus Primitive Culture (1871), Tylor’s earlier volume is now brought to life as a fundamental text in the history of anthropology, or, more generally, in the history of the social sciences and the humanities.

Inspired by the microhistory of Carlo Ginzburg (Il Formaggio e i vermi, 1976; English translation, The Cheese and the Worms, 1980), Di Brizio focuses on selected minutiae to reach a wider picture, made of both ruptures and continuities in Tylorian anthropology. Her gaze falls upon a particular chapter in Researches into the Early History of Mankind—chapter 10, titled “Some Remarkable Customs”—and a particular section in it dedicated to the “couvade,” a term Tylor picked from French to designate certain behaviors imposed on the father before or after childbirth, varying from bed rest to food restrictions, etc. These had been observed mostly in South America, with a few cases in Southern Europe and Asia, plus one occurrence in North America and another in Africa. Di Brizio deplores the fact that, unlike other concepts forged by British evolutionary anthropologists—e.g., totemism and exogamy by John Ferguson MacLennan (1827–1881), or animism and survival by E. B. Tylor himself—the concept of couvade has been mostly neglected by specialists of Victorian anthropology. As for the twentieth century anthropologists who took an interest in the phenomena in question—for example, Edmund Leach (1910–1989) and Dan Sperber (b. 1942)—they built upon or deconstructed the concept of couvade without contextualizing its historical emergence. A staunch opponent of presentism in the historiography of the anthropological sciences, Di Brizio acknowledges that historicism is a methodological “ideal” (27), hardly a timeless or neutral stand.[1]This, and all subsequent English quotations from Di Brizio, are the author’s translations. However, as she adds in the “Introduction,” it should always guide the investigation, not least as it helps avoid persisting prejudices about nineteenth-century evolutionary anthropology being a speculative pseudoscience with no empirical foundations.

Since her study aims at a reconstruction of previous scholarly traditions that influenced Tylor’s approach, Di Brizio leaves aside his later writings on couvade, including Primitive Culture. The strictness of her approach is evident in the following justification: “[…] it will not be our task to explore its [the concept of couvade‘s] evolution in the whole of Tylorian textual production, a subject of the highest interest but which might easily be the subject of a second volume” (16). Part I of Di Brizio’s study is mostly a detailed analysis of Tylor’s exposition of and reflections upon the subject. Tylor’s chapter titled “Some Remarkable Customs” was far from being a miscellaneous compilation of odds and ends, as Di Brizio unveils his theoretical reasons for including the couvade phenomena in it. These were customs that might have “historical value”—or “ethnological value,” a synonymous expression—due to their unintelligible raison d’être. Remarkable customs were not easily explainable as inventions resulting from the laws of the human mind under prehistoric ignorance. Consequently, it was more unlikely that they occurred in far apart locations independently. By referring to their “historical value,” Tylor was admitting that they might instead be clues to diffusion processes, whether by cultural borrowing or migrations. More than Primitive Culture, Tylor’s Researches into the Early History of Mankind reveals an anthropologist tormented by the hypothesis that geographically distanced oddities may have been transmitted in a remote past.

Couvade was a case in point, but one that should be treated most cautiously because its purpose was, in part, explainable by the functioning of primitive psychology. On the one hand, the belief in a mystical bond between the father and the baby was understandable according to the prehistoric confusion between subjective and objective connections, so that couvade customs were probably a magical means to protect the child—as suggested by some South American ethnographic accounts. Albeit a “malade imaginaire” according to civilized criteria, the father subjected to couvade rules was not necessarily a victim of mere folly. On the other hand, however, diminishing the bond with the mother went against obvious sensorial experience, which Tylor tended to place at the roots of primitive belief. Because of the tension between these two facets of the same institution, Tylor discarded, or at least did not favor the hypothesis of intercontinental diffusion, while retaining the possibility of historical connections in circumscribed areas, particularly in South America. As for Europe, Tylor admitted that the intermittent presence of couvade phenomena could be explained by their disappearance in many regions. If that was the case, such sporadic distribution would be “the effect of obliteration processes comparable to geological erosion phenomena” (89), all the more so because couvade phenomena in European soil had become a mere survival or, as he wrote in 1865, a superstition. Tylor concluded that there was certainly diffusion between the Basque Country and Corsica, in line with the thesis that these were pre-Indo-European populations that had been pushed into bordering areas by the invaders, but he abstained from deciding on all other cases.

According to Di Brizio, Tylor’s reflections are inseparable from his handling of ethnographic sources. In a chapter titled “Les Fondements du comparatisme ethnologique,” she recalls that Tylor was attentive to scientific criteria of selecting, comparing, and classifying reliable data from a plethora of sources belonging to disparate genres and times. He had to deal with the fact that it was not always clear whether ethnographers had been eyewitnesses of couvade practices or whether they reported oral descriptions provided by informants they encountered in the field. “The in-depth analysis of the information retained by Tylor shows, therefore, both the effort to privilege observational data and the obstacles faced by ethnological comparativism in the 1860s, linked to the nature of the descriptions of cultural otherness available at that time,” Di Brizio concludes (129). Considering that some of the ethnographic accounts also mentioned the maternal role in couvade customs, and that Tylor relegated these “inconvenient” passages to a footnote, perhaps his methods were not “as conceptually neutral as his empiricist epistemology would have it” (132). However, Di Brizio refutes the old critique—by Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), for example (Benedict 1932, 1)—that Tylor made use of uncritically controlled and arbitrarily decontextualized data. The strangeness of his procedures from today’s point of view “turns out to be less the symptom of a lack of rigor than the effect of contextual, epistemological, and methodological constraints” of the Victorian era. In all, Tylor’s Researches into the Early History of Mankind was “a crucial stage in the emergence of scientific naturalism” (133).

Part II is more predictable in the sense that like others (e.g., Sera-Shriar 2013), Di Brizio reconstructs in detail the context of British ethnological sciences in the period 1810–1865. In a sense, this is a book within a book. With brio, she focuses particularly on the well-known confrontation between polygenist and monogenist scholars, as on the debate opposing biblical degenerationists to proponents of evolutionary and other naturalistic perspectives on the issue of the origin and development of civilization. The most revealing passages deal with continuities between “Prichardian ethnology”—to use the expression coined by Stocking in reference to the major influence of James Cowles Prichard (1786–1848) in pre-Darwinian Britain—and Researches into the Early History of Mankind. This may be related to one of Di Brizio’s conclusions, which consists of refuting Stocking’s understanding of the Darwinian revolution as pivotal to Tylorian anthropology.

The volume’s pièce de résistance is Part III, titled “La ‘couvade’ dans l’histoire. Évolution sémantique et traditions interprétatives.” Di Brizio starts by demonstrating that, from the first appearance of the French word in print form in 1538, the concept of couvade followed two parallel paths: one in dictionaries and related literature where it did not have any comparative scope; and a second in a vast and varied scholarly tradition inaugurated in 1681 by Diego Andrés Rocha (1607–1688), professor of law at the university of Lima in Peru, who included the phenomena in question in his list of analogies proving that American Indians descended from the Spanish people—whose primordial ancestors spoke Basque, so he believed. From then on, Di Brizio offers the reader an astounding gallery of scholarly figures whose writings concern the history of the concept of couvade even if the exact word was not necessarily employed by all. Some of them are celebrities and others quite obscure, from Jacques de Grentemesnil (1587–1670) to Joseph-François Lafitau (1681–1746), from Johann Eberhard Fischer (1697–1771) to Gian Rinaldo Carli (1720–1795), from Cornelius de Pauw (1739–1799) to Bryan Edwards (1743–1800), from Conrad Malte-Brun (1755–1826) to Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), from Ferdinand Eckstein (1790–1861) to Charles-Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg (1814–1874), and from Theodor Waitz (1821–1864) to Adolf Bastian (1826–1905), among others.

Several perspectives were adopted concerning the ability of couvade phenomena to shed light on migrations and other historical connections between more or less distant peoples. If some authors were skeptical or denied any evidential value to these bizarre prohibitions and prescriptions, it is only because many others explored their potential in terms of historical considerations related to spatial distribution. Sometimes these customs could be explored to support circumscribed reconstructions—including the fascinating Basque enigma—and sometimes they could be seen as a means of demonstrating large-scale migrations or other processes of cultural diffusion between the Old and New Worlds, between Asia and Europe, or between Asia, Africa, and Europe. Even the origin of civilization was under debate in relation to couvade phenomena; and since not everyone agreed on their degree of strangeness, they were also evoked in discussions about the psychic unity of humankind or as expressions of archaic configurations of thought. One of the most interesting conclusions of Di Brizio’s erudite analysis refers to the way in which the various works from different times and places were imbricated in a complex web of intellectual quotation, refutation, and appreciation up to Tylor’s Researches into the Early History of Mankind. Tylor did not refer directly to all authorities, but there is no doubt that, indirectly, he was the legatee of a much broader genealogy. Needless to say, this comparativist literature intersected with Tylor’s ethnographic archive, and some observers also expounded genetic theories.

According to Di Brizio, this scholarly tradition was “well present in Tylor’s mind” (470). Preceded by a thorough survey of the available ethnographic data, the Tylorian interpretation was “a complex intellectual construction,” and more exactly “an exercise in theoretical syncretism,” Di Brizio concludes. Under the form of multiple hypotheses on couvade phenomena, Tylor combined approaches that had been anticipated by different scholars. “These different reading schemes, traditionally perceived as irreconcilable, evoke a plurality of sources of inspiration, defying any unilateral hypothesis on the theoretical matrices of Tylor’s ethnology” (479). This open-minded hybridism, or eclecticism, was not the only innovation brought forward by Researches into the Early History of Mankind, but Di Brizio underlines its import in demonstrating “the need to extend the contextualization of Tylor’s thought beyond the Victorian era and beyond British borders” (495). Her 636-page volume certainly has multiple hermeneutic layers and makes other equally important contributions to the historiography of anthropology. As an exercise—a vertiginous one—in reconstructing the context of anthropology’s disciplinary past beyond its conventional time and space boundaries, Histoire du concept de couvade is a landmark. And Maria Beatrice Di Brizio, whose erudition is comparable to nineteenth-century scholarship, now has a spot at the sides of John Burrow, Joan Leopold, George W. Stocking, Jr., and other great specialists of Edward B. Tylor and Victorian Anthropology with whom she dialogues.

Works Cited

Benedict, Ruth. “Configurations of Culture in North America.” American Anthropologist, New Series 34 (1): 1–27.

Rosa, Frederico Delgado. 2022. “Maria Beatrice DI BRIZIO, Histoire du concept de couvade. Edward B. Tylor et l’ethnologie victorienne.” Revue européenne des sciences sociales 60–2 (2): 245–49.

Sera-Shriar, Efram. 2013. The Making of British Anthropology, 1813–1871. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press


1 This, and all subsequent English quotations from Di Brizio, are the author’s translations.
Frederico Delgado Rosa: contributions / website / / Centre for Research in Anthropology (CRIA), Universidade NOVA de Lisboa