Of cats, rabbits and monstrous births

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.

Monstrous births
Monsters and prodigies (no longer available: Wayback)
Monstrous children in English Renaissance broadside ballads (Wayback)
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.



Blogging serendipity

Natalie at Philobiblon yesterday posted a little nugget she’d come across in her reading:

the case of Mary Lady Broughton, “widow” and “Keeper of the Gatehouse Prison” (in Westminster). On 29 August 1670 she was accused of “wittingly and wilfully” suffering Thomas Ridley, who was in her custody on the charge of stealing a silver cup worth 25 shillings, to escape.

(I could just note that being accused of ‘negligently’ allowing prisoners to escape, with fines if convicted, was an occupational hazard of being a gaoler – or a constable – in the seventeenth century. But I digress.)

Anyway, as I commented to Natalie, I wondered if her ‘Mary Lady Broughton’ might just be related to the ‘Dame Mary Broughton’ of Marchwiail in Denbighshire, who was accused, with her two sons, of assault in Denbighshire in 1683. Natalie, unfortunately had only the bare details of the case and didn’t know anything more about Mary Broughton, the keeper of the Gatehouse Prison (ie, at the Tower of London)* – this was just an incidental snippet she came across while researching her main interest: “the Gatehouse in an earlier period, from 1633 when Lady Eleanor Davies was imprisoned there, but I know the jailer then was one Aquila Weekes”.

But (says I, getting very excited, but remember I am a history nerd) – one of Dame Mary’s sons was called Aquila Wykes/Wickes!

And a little genealogical googling revealed quite quickly that the Gatehouse gaolkeeper of 1633 was Mary Broughton’s (nee Knightley) first husband and she did indeed take over running the prison after his death – and (ah, how romantic) her second husband Sir Edward Broughton was one of her Royalist prisoners just before the Restoration.

But a bit more to come. The Aquila Weekes who was running the Gatehouse in the 1630s wasn’t the first man of that name to have the job – his father Aquila Weekes/Wykes senior had done it before him, and was the gaoler there when Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned just before his execution… So we have a family ‘dynasty’ running this prison for a large part of the seventeenth century (obscured by Mary’s remarriage and change of name). She died during the 1690s; I don’t know at what point she gave up the post or whom it was passed on to after that. Maybe Google would come up with more if I dig a bit further (in the Journal of the House of Lords in 1675 the keeper of the Gatehouse prison was required to take a prisoner into ‘his’ custody, but that might be just convention…).

I think that I’ve come across references to the post of gaoler being handed down in families before; and I’ve certainly found a widow taking over from her deceased husband (but only temporarily rather than the decades Mary must have been in charge at the Gatehouse). But I can’t think right now of scholarly work – books, or even substantial chunks of books, or articles – specifically on early modern gaolers. Anybody know of anything?

And I would probably never have known about this set of connections to the Dame Mary Broughton I came across in the Denbighshire court records if it hadn’t been for Natalie blogging about this tiny piece of information that had caught her eye…

*Correction: My London geography is useless, but that’s no excuse for getting these prisons mixed up. The Tower of London page came up when I googled the Gatehouse, and Raleigh was on the list, so… The Gatehouse was a small prison in Westminster – as I’d already noted, in fact. D’oh.