[Originally posted here, February 2005.]
A couple of blog posts about monstrous births in the early modern period over the last few days: Natalie at Philobiblon discussing Agnes Bowker (supposedly delivered of a cat-like creature in 1568), and Ephelia on Mary Toft (who was reported to have given birth to a large number of rabbits in 1726). Mary Toft’s case is the better-known, to us at first an amusing tale of a trickster; when we learn that she had genuinely suffered a miscarriage, perhaps a little less so. But there’s a wider cultural context to both cases.
Such stories were commonly reported in print: Cressy’s essay on Agnes Bowker refers to many of them, and there is a further chapter on monstrous births in his book.* He suggests that contemporaries explained them in a range of possible ways: freaks of nature or manifestations of divine power; judgements or punishments against individuals or communities; portents of coming catastrophes, or even of the end of the world. Or they could simply be treated as freak-show entertainment.
Very often, the cases are associated with the widespread belief that what the experiences of a pregnant mother – beautiful or shocking, but most often the latter – could physically imprint themselves on her unborn child. In the case of Mary Toft, it was reported that she
hath made oath, That two months ago, being working in a field with other women, they put up a rabbit; who running from them, they pursued it, but to no purpose: This created in her such a longing to it, that she (being with child) was taken ill, and miscarried; and, from that time, she hath not been able to avoid thinking of rabbits.
(Agnes Bowker, on the other hand, claimed to have had sex with a human lover and with the Devil in the shape of (at various times) a man, a greyhound and a cat. As Natalie says, she was very likely trying to cover up an abortion or infanticide.)
Herman Roodenburg’s detailed study of the phenomenon of the ‘maternal imagination’ in Holland** notes that pregnant women were warned to be particularly careful with animals (strange and frightening or maimed animals seem to have been particularly dangerous); other cases were associated with the sight of human ‘freaks’ at fairs, or mutilated beggars, or black people, or lunatics, with paintings or statutes of grotesque subjects. (Conversely, pregnant women were advised to hang beautiful paintings on their walls in order to have beautiful babies.)
Equally, it was common to see these events as manifestations of divine power, even in providentialist terms, as punishments for a community’s sins, or warnings of greater punishments to come if the population did not repent and reform. In the case of Agnes Bowker in 1568, it was a matter of considerable concern to government ministers that her case could be used by Catholic propagandists to undermine the still rather shaky Protestant regime of Elizabeth I.
By the 1720s, Mary Toft could still convince doctors (to begin with), and the possibility was accepted. Even before doubts crept in, there was controversy, although in terms rather different to those used during the 16th century.
People, after all, differ much in their opinion about this matter, some looking upon them as great curiosities fit to be presented to the Royal Society, &c. others are angry at the account, and say, that if it be fact, a veil should be drawn over it, as an imperfection in humane nature.
And within a few weeks, there were severe doubts about the truth of the story, Mary confessed, and a fraud prosecution was initiated (although she was released later without being tried). Even so, she still had her believers, at least among those who still saw such births in political and providential terms; and such beliefs did not really die out until at least the 19th century.
[links have not been recently checked]
Monsters and prodigies (no longer available: Wayback)
Monstrous children in English Renaissance broadside ballads
Mary Toft and the rabbit babies
A cabinet of curiosities: Mary Toft
The rabbit woman (contemporary newspaper reports: the Mary Toft-related quotes above are taken from this page)
A wondrous tale: Agnes Bowker (extracts from the primary sources)
Early modern pregnancy and childbirth bibliography
* David Cressy, Agnes Bowker’s cat: travesties and transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 2000).
** Herman W Roodenburg, ‘The maternal imagination: the fears of pregnant women in seventeenth-century Holland’, Journal of Social History, ?, 1988.