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Beds as Emotional Spaces

In my last blog post, I looked at beds as physical spaces – spaces to be dressed, and protected.  Today I would like to delve into the idea of beds as emotional spaces.  If (as I suggested in my last post) beds were the stages upon which the dramas of family life were played out then they were also containers for the emotions that these dramas created.  Many of these emotions were intensely conflicting.  As a married couple, for example, much of your love and intimacy would be contained within the bed curtains.  This would be where you prayed together, where you talked through the business of the day, and of course, where you had sex.  Yet, the bed could also be the location for arguments, marital violence and rape.  The popular contemporary term ‘curtain lecture’ suggests that the bed was associated as much with marital discord as it was with marital bliss.

The childbed was no less emotionally conflicting than the marriage bed.  It was the place in which you held your child for the first time, the place that you nursed your infant, the place where you might watch your child sleep, where they would open their eyes for the first time to see your face.  It would be a mistake to assume that mothers in history did not experience these events as emotionally as we do now.  Yet, even the positive emotions of motherhood must have been tempered by the memories of other emotional events that had taken place within the curtains of that bed.  The relatively high likelihood that the infant gripping your finger for the first time would not survive to see its first birthday can only have heightened the complicated emotions that were experienced within the childbed.

Of course, the childbed itself could be viewed with fear and trepidation as well as anticipation.  As much as pregnant women and their families looked forward to the arrival of their ‘little stranger’ many also wrote wills as their delivery time approached in case they ‘were call’d away in giving birth to another’.[1]  The vast majority of women would have known at least one close friend or family member who had died in childbed.  The autobiography of Yorkshire gentlewoman Alice Thornton really brings home the complexity of interweaving emotions in the early modern birth process.[2]  Alice wrote in great detail about the birth of her fifth child, Robert, in 1662.  Robert was her third son, her first son had been born breech (feet first) and had died within half an hour of being delivered.  Her second, William, survived only two weeks before succumbing to smallpox.  Of her other four pregnancies (one of which had ended in miscarriage) only two of Alice’s babies were still alive when she went into labour with Robert.  Already, then, Alice’s childbed must have been the container for a maelstrom of conflicting emotions.

Sometime after the delivery Alice began to haemorrhage violently.  Her autobiography records that there were ‘such excessive floods all that night, that it was terrible to behold to those about me.’  Alice was so ill that she was ‘without hopes of life; spirits, soule and strength seemed all gone from me.’  So certain were they that she was going die, Alice’s ‘deare husband, and children, and friends had taken theire last farewell.’  Alice’s childbed, where she had recently brought a new life into the world, was about to become her deathbed.  Nor was this an unusual situation.  Alice was, in fact, saved by a powder that she had prepared herself and had used on other women in the same situation as she now found herself in.

The bed contained all of these emotions.  It was already a symbolic object – the bedstead, the mattress and the bed dressings signified adulthood, household, and family.  Yet, as family members were conceived, born, nursed through illness or died within its curtains the bed acquired layer upon layer of emotional significance.  The memories of saying goodbye to a parent within its curtains, as Alice Thornton’s children had, the memories of nursing a child better from smallpox, of losing another child, of a marital consummation, or a marriage-changing row – these memories and their associated emotions were contained within the bed curtains.  And these are just the exceptional memories.  The bed also had potential to be the site of much more everyday memories and emotions – of warmth and comfort, of worry and bone-aching weariness.  The bed was not just the largest and most expensive piece of furniture that most people owned, it was the emotional heart of the household.

Recommended Reading

Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (London: Yale University Press, 2016) particularly chapter four ‘Sleeping at Home’

[1] Will of Rebekah Bateman, dated 8 April 1787 (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University).

[2] The Autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton of East Newton, Co.York (Elibron Classics, 2005).


Locating Birth within the Household

I’m back!  Turns out the final stages of a PhD are really hard work and take up all of your time.  Who knew?!

Anyway, today’s blog is about the location of childbirth in the household.  Throughout the eighteenth century, most women laboured and gave birth at home.  Lying-in hospitals did make an appearance in the second half of the century (1749 in London, 1790 in Manchester) but these were slow to move northwards, and generally had rigorous entry requirements.  Lying-in hospitals therefore catered to a very small number of lying-in women.  For most families it was necessary to carve a birth space from the domestic space that they had available.

A designated birth space was a crucial element of a woman’s preparations for birth as her delivery date drew near.  Birth in the eighteenth century was a lengthy process of labouring, delivery and lying-in and all but the very poorest women observed each stage of this process.  During labour and delivery, access to the birth space was restricted to the labouring woman, her midwife, her mother, and her birth attendants.  The birth space therefore had to be contained, it needed a fireplace from which to heat the room and make caudle, and it needed a bed in which the new mother could lie-in after the birth for a period of around four weeks.

In elite and middling houses, the acquisition of birth space was reasonably easy.  Very wealthy women could have a suite of chambers that incorporated a birth room, a nursery and, sometimes, chambers to accommodate the midwife and the nurse.  These individuals might take up residence in their rooms some time before the anticipated date of delivery.  When Frances Irwin of Temple Newsam in Leeds gave birth to her second daughter in 1762, for example, she was delivered by her nurse.  Frances wrote to her friend, Susan Stewart, that her daughter was ‘in such a Hurry that the performer [the midwife] could not arrive time enough.’  Being already resident in the household when Frances began to labour, Nurse Tyson was able to ‘act the part of Sage Femme with the utmost skill and propriety’ until the midwife arrived.

Temple Newsam, Leeds Temple Newsam House, Leeds

Women of middling status might not be able to requisition a suite of chambers in which to give birth, but they generally had their own sleeping chamber that fulfilled the requirements of a birth space.  Reasonably prosperous urban families lived in a townhouse-style terrace – several stories high and accommodating two or three rooms on each floor – in which the creation of birth space was not hugely disruptive.

Georgian Townhouses Bath

Creative thinking was required, however to create a birth space in smaller properties.  In more modest middling homes, domestic space was arranged around the family business.  This could mean that space within the property was shared with journeymen, apprentices as well as domestic servants.  Space in these households was more flexible – temporary beds turned shops into sleeping spaces for example on a regular basis.   In these houses, the main room of the house might be acquired for the purposes of giving birth, but only during the labour and delivery of the infant.  Once the child had been born, and both mother and child washed, bound and placed into bed, the room would resume its usual domestic function.

Slum dwelling Manchester Early 19thC slum dwelling in Manchester

The diary of Edmund Harrold, a Manchester wigmaker and bookseller, describes this type of temporary birth space during the delivery of his fourth daughter (and seventh child), Sarah, in 1712.  The exact location of Harrold’s property during the period he kept his diary is not known, but it was somewhere in central Manchester.  The accommodation was small, consisting of a shop and at least one chamber.  Harrold lived there with his wife, also Sarah, and at least some of his six children as well as occasionally taking in lodgers.  On the 22 November 1712, Harrold noted that Sarah had ‘made al her Mark’ in the house.  This meant that she had rearranged the domestic space in order to create a space in which she could give birth.  The following morning she was delivered of their daughter.  Sadly, Sarah did not survive her lying-in period.  Her recovery initially looked promising, but she quickly worsened and died less than four weeks after giving birth.  Her decline was recorded in great detail by Harrold who, it appears, spent much of his time in the birth room with her.  It can be inferred from Harrold’s diary entries that Sarah Harrold’s birthroom had resumed many of its domestic functions once the child had been delivered.

The bed was therefore central to ensuring that women of lower social status observed their lying-in.  For women like Sarah Harrold, the bed was a place in which they could rest and recuperate from their travails whilst also enabling family life and business to continue with minimal disruptions.  The bed itself could be contained by the bed curtains creating a small but sufficient birth space, and was generally situated in the main family living area so was close to the fire.  What is more, all but the very poorest households had a bedstead making it an accessible birth space to all social levels.  The childbed therefore framed most women’s experiences of childbirth and, as such, will be the topic of my next blog post – watch this space!


Further reading

Susan Broomhall, ‘Imagined Domesticities in Early Modern Dutch Dollshouses’, Parergon 24:2 (2007), 47-67.

Dan Cruickshank and Peter Wyld, Georgian Townhouses and their Details (London: Butterworth, 1990).

Rosemary Sweet, The English Town, 1680-1840: Government, Society and Culture (London: Longman, 1999).

Transition Day; Or The Emotions of Parenting

Today is a big day in our household – it’s Transition Day.  For those not in the know, it is the day when school children test out next year’s teachers and classrooms.  In our house, it is also the day that my baby goes to school for the first time.  I know that those of you without children will be rolling your eyes at me, as I would have done seven years ago, but it’s a big thing.  Even though I’ve done it once before with my older child, even though she already spends three days a week at pre-school, even though she skipped into the classroom with barely a backwards glance towards me, I felt a bit funny as I walked home.  The closest word I can think of to describe it is ‘bittersweet’ but that doesn’t really capture the mixed emotions that I am currently experiencing.  I am happy – that my daughter wasn’t upset, that she’s excited to learn new stuff, that between us we have managed to get her to school age despite her frankly suicidal tendencies on climbing frames.  But I am also sad and quite painfully so, that she needs me just a little bit less.

Why do I feel the need to share this with you?  Well, I’m currently thrashing my way through the historiography of the history of emotions.  It makes me overthink just about everything .  When the swimming teacher suggested to my eldest that she should launch herself into the deep end of the swimming pool without flotation devices (that was Wednesday’s emotional crisis) were my emotions culturally constructed?  Or were they universalist?  Would a parent in the depths of the Amazon jungle have felt the same panic and fear about the very real possibility of their precious first born sinking like a stone to the bottom of a pool as I did?  Would they have experienced a different emotion?  What might it have been?  If they did feel panic and fear, would they experience it in the same way that I did?  Would their tummy flip and their heart beat faster?  Or would their bodies react differently.

Irwin family

The same question must be asked of my eighteenth-century parents.  Did they feel sad and happy at the same time when their children went off to school, or to foster parents, or to get married?  Did they cry? Did they feel a little bit distracted and hollow afterwards?  Did they go home and inflict their emotions on everyone else through their blog?  Probably not, but they did write to their friends about it.  My historical crush (don’t laugh – we all have one) Frances Irwin wrote a little of her intense parental emotions to her friend Susan Stewart when her daughters (pictured above) were toddlers:

‘I hate and abominate the thoughts of stirring & cannot bear to think of untwisting the two little Tendrils which twine round my neck as well as my heart.’[1]

In using the words ‘twist’, ‘tendrils’ and ‘twine’ Frances conjures an image of a clinging interdependence – two people that are so close that they are difficult to untangle.  Nor does she want to be untangled – she ‘hates and abominates’ the thought of being separated from her daughter.  I recognise that feeling.  In another of her letters, Frances wrote to Susan:

‘I must pity the Duchess of Argyle for loving so delightful an animal as a Daughter & daresay her wing will feel very cold and uncomfortable without her, the eldest Daughter too! What man in the World can deserve ones eldest Daughter?[2]

Again, there is a dread of separation.  In the tone of this paragraph I can hear Frances’ empathy.  She who can’t bear to disentangle herself from her daughter’s arms knows that she will eventually be in the same situation as the Duchess of Argyle.  I recognise that feeling too and here’s the thing that is concerning as I try to analyse the emotions in these letters.  Am I imposing my own feelings upon Frances?  Am I confusing my own emotions as my daughters grow up with hers?  Does the affinity that I feel with Frances make be a better historian, or a worse one?  When I blogged about William Hey’s casebooks, my own emotions made me a bad historian.  I judged him for his actions based upon my own feelings and experiences.  When I went back to him a couple of weeks later, I tried to be more objective and understand his actions from a broader perspective (see my second blog post on the subject).  Is parental love a universalist emotion?  Do we all and have we always experienced these intense emotions as part of being a parent?  Or do we feel them because we are expected to?  Perhaps some of the answer lies in the way that people that do not express this intense parental love are treated.  These days, it is medicalised – considered a clear sign of depression –  but the eighteenth century understood emotionally cold parenting in a number of different ways.  Cruelty was a possibility, as was poor psychological health, some actively disliked their offspring, whilst others imitated the parenting techniques of their own parents.  Something  to think about as I revisit my infanticide cases in the coming months – watch this space!

[1] PRO 30/29/4/2/23

[2] PRO 30/29/4/2/44

The Ideal Woman (eighteenth-century style)…

This month, I have been mainly thinking about breastfeeding. Not for fun, you understand, but for a chapter I’m working on.  This is an interesting topic for me to study, because I have experienced it in all its gloriousness and goriness. It adds a new dimension to some of my women’s letters because, occasionally, their descriptions of breastfeeding make my own body ache in recognition and sympathy.  I also recognise some of the pressures that are placed upon newly delivered women, and the sensation that your body no longer belongs to you.

In today’s blog post, I’m going to pick up an idea of Aminatta Forna’s about the ‘primitive woman’.[1]  The ‘primitive woman’ is often offered to modern women as an idealised image of birth and motherhood.  She is bandied around by friends, relations and, occasionally, medical professionals.  You may recognise her.  She is the ahistorical figure that gave birth in a field then carried on working.  She slung her child on her back, went about her usual duties, and breastfed on demand.  Within the realms of my knowledge (western, medieval onwards) she didn’t exist.  As I will (hopefully) argue in my thesis, the lengthy process of confinement, delivery and lying-in was pretty much a constant throughout history and across social class.  The invocation of the ‘primitive woman’ is used to tell modern women that delivery and motherhood is not difficult.  The inference is that we should not make a fuss, we should just get on with things.

Whilst ‘primitive woman’ is a relatively new phenomenon, I have been spending a lot of time with her eighteenth-century equivalent – ‘simple country woman’.   Here’s an extract from William Moss’s 1781 book on midwifery.

The benefits attending a simplicity of diet are very fully displayed in country women, who enjoy good health themselves, and have the comfort and satisfaction of dispensing that invaluable blessing to their offspring; – the best gift that can be bestowed by a parent! – and which parents of this class are indebted to for this simplicity, which their stations and situations impose upon them; aided by exercise and pure air, to be immediately spoken of.[2]

James Gillray, The Fashionable Mamma
James Gillray, The Fashionable Mamma

The distinction is even more explicit in James Gillray’s The Fashionable Mother. Look in the background.  Can you see ‘simple country woman’?  She is plump, and her breasts are exposed as she gazes adoringly at her babe.  The contrast between her and the woman in the foreground are clear, as is the message.  The ‘simple country woman’ sacrifices herself to her maternal role and, as a result, finds the whole mothering lark a piece of cake.  Her curvaceous figure lends itself to childbearing, making her deliveries quick and easy.  Her diet makes her milk flow easily.  Here is William Cadogan’s pronouncements on ‘simple country woman’.

‘In the lower class of Mankind, especially in the country, disease and mortality are not so frequent, either among the adult or their children. Health and posterity are the portion of the poor, I mean the laborious. ‘The Mother who has only a few rags to cover her child loosely, and little more than her own breast to feed it, sees it healthy and strong, and very soon able to shift for itself; while the puny insect, the heir and hope of a rich family, lies languishing under a load of finery that overpowers his limbs, abhorring and rejecting the dainties he is crammed with, till he dies a victim to the mistaken care and tenderness of his fond Mother.[3]

Really?! Now contrast this with David Davies’ description of ‘simple country woman’ in 1796.

In visiting the labouring families in my parish as my duty led me, I could not but observe with concern their mean and distressed condition. I found them in general but indifferently fed; badly clothed; some children without shoes and stockings; very few put to school; and most families in debt to little shopkeepers. In short, there was scarcely any appearance of comfort about their dwellings, except that the children looked tolerably healthy….[4]

‘Simple country woman’ was not a common figure in eighteenth-century England, yet she was commonly invoked by (sorry to get all gendered about this) mainly male writers.  She was young, curvaceous, innocent, yet also sexually active.  Paintings of her usually have something of the voyeur about them.  She represented an increasingly dominating ideal of passive eighteenth-century femininity which led, inexorably, to the Victorian ‘Angel of the Hearth’.

[1] Aminatta Forna, Mother of all Myths: How Society Moulds and Constrains Mothers, (London, Harper Collins: 1999).

[2] William Moss, An essay on the management and nursing of children in the earlier periods of infancy: and on the treatment and rule of conduct requisite for the mother during pregnancy, and in lying-in., (London: 1781), p.281.

[3] William Cadogan, An essay upon nursing and the management of children, from their birth to three years of age, By W Cadogan, Fellow of the College of Physicians, late Physician to the Foundling Hospital, 10th Ed. (1772).

[4] David Davies, The case of labourers in husbandry stated and considered, in three parts. Part I. A view of their distressed condition. Part II. The principal causes of their growing distress and number, and of the consequent increase of the poor-rate. Part III. Means of relief proposed. With an appendix; containing a collection of accounts, shewing the earnings and expences of labouring families, in different parts of the kingdom. By David Davies, rector of Barkham, Berks. (P Byrne, Dublin, 1796)

The creation of knowledge; or, the ramblings of a mad woman…

I realise that this is a bad way to introduce this post but I’m struggling to write today.  I have various jobs to do including article re-writes, minor edits to a chapter for my panel review meeting and the rapid yet high-quality expansion of my most recently started chapter – all before the children come out of school at 3.30pm.  Unfortunately, I have spent much of the day re-reading my primary sources and deciding NOT to add a paragraph to the ‘nearly finished chapter’.  The very kind @tomod14 has suggested via Twitter that the process of ‘not adding’ is just as important as ‘adding’ but I’m afraid that this will not cut the mustard with my (rather formidable) panel of supervisors next week.  You have, therefore, become the unwitting victims of my attempts to get the brain juices flowing.

It is relevant, however, to the topic of today’s blog post because I want to talk about the ‘creation of knowledge’.  I have entirely stolen this idea from an edited collection of articles that I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) last week: Ways of Making and Knowing: The Material Culture of Empirical Knowledge.[1] The collection covers a wide variety of subjects including dyeing, plant cultivation and transportation, and cabinetmaking in the early modern period.  It considers the links between artisanal knowledge and intellectual knowledge and, particularly, the way in which engagement with the material world created ‘tacit’ knowledge. I realised that this idea could be neatly applied to my own favourite subject: childbirth.

Knowledge of childbirth and midwifery before the early decades of the eighteenth century was almost entirely artisanal.  It was created through touch, manipulation, apprenticeship and personal experience.  To a certain extent, it still is as midwives must spend much of their degree course ‘on placement’ with experienced professionals.  In the early modern period, a great deal of importance was also placed upon a personal bodily experience of pregnancy and birth.  All of the birth attendants would have been mothers themselves.  They would therefore all recognise the first pangs of labour, would have opinions of the length of labour, the level of manipulation that was necessary, the shape of the stomach during each contraction. They would probably recognise the primal change of a woman in the transitional stage of labour and would understand the stinging pain of the final stages delivery.  Their knowledge was created by their own bodily experiences and those of their friends and neighbours whose births they may also have witnessed.

In all likelihood, the attending midwife would also have this type of bodily knowledge.  It was extremely rare for a midwife to be childless, the exceptions to this rule being the daughters of midwives that had been attending births with their mothers for many years.  She would also have the ‘tacit’ knowledge mentioned by Smith, Meyers and Cook in their introduction to their volume: that is knowledge through experimentation.  The successful navigation of a difficult situation created knowledge for the next time.  To a certain extent, this is why we see the rise of ‘case study’ medicine during the eighteenth century, as an acknowledgement of the value of tacit knowledge.

It would be easy to conclude here that these types of knowledge were gendered –  that male midwives arrived with their anatomically correct drawings, their assertions of superior scientific knowledge and set about appropriating female bodies upon which to apply their knowledge – but that would not be right.  For a start, male practitioners had tacit knowledge through their surgical involvement in difficult births – their longstanding role in childbirth was the (gory) extraction of infants, usually that had died in the womb or as a result of their intervention.  Once male practitioners became more widespread however, they acknowledged their difficulties of obtaining access to female bodies upon which to practice their intellectual knowledge, gained in lecture theatres and anatomy schools.  They knew the importance of tacit knowledge through practical application.

Perhaps the point of gendered difference here is the way in which these three types of knowledge were used and created in others.  For women, knowledge was created through bodily experience and ‘hands-on’ proficiency.  It was then shared with other women, by direct instruction, or through observation and might be altered or adapted as the situation or the experience of others demanded.  For men, knowledge was created intellectually as well as tacitly.  It originated (to some extent) in the brain before being practically tested.  It was often delivered to others from a position of authority and therefore became less malleable to individual situations.  Despite differing approaches to the creation and sharing of knowledge, however, both male and female practitioners remained dependent upon bodily experience as the test of their skill.  The value of their knowledge (and therefore their ability to find rich and generous patrons) was deeply rooted in the survival (or not) of their clients.

[1] Edited by Pamela H Smith, Amy Meyers and Harold Cook, University of Michigan Press, Michigan, 2014.

Solve the mystery of the Lady Abbess!

Meet ‘The Lady Abbess’.

DSC04507 DSC04506 DSC04505 DSC04504

As far as I can tell, she has hung near the Chapel at Bramall Hall since the late nineteenth century at the very least, and probably much longer. It has been assumed that she is a member of the Davenport family, as all of the portraits that hang in the house are of family members.   I need your help to find out a bit more about her.

As many of you know, it is impossible that she could have been an English Abbess in 1616 as cloistered communities had been abolished as a result of the Reformation.  I have to assume that, in order to pursue her religious vocation, she must have travelled to the continent – probably either France or Spain though this is pure supposition.

The family retained a strong association with the Catholic faith following the reformation.  William Davenport IV was mentioned in the 1580 State Papers for ‘popery’ and in 1584, his widow Margaret was investigated for recusancy.[1]  One of William and Margaret’s sons went on to become a Catholic Priest.[2]  Indeed, the date of the painting suggests that the Lady Abbess could also have been a child of William and Margaret if she was a member of the immediate family.

Despite their confessional tendencies, the Davenport family at this time were immensely rich and powerful.  William and Margaret’s eldest son (also William) was knighted by James I in the first few weeks of his reign and served as the High Sheriff of Cheshire.  Along with his wife, Dorothy, they threw great parties at Bramall Hall to entertain their similarly rich and powerful friends.

I did wonder if the Lady Abbess might, in fact, be a Vowess.  Those of you that went to the Social History Society Conference in Portsmouth this year may have heard Laura Wood speak about these wealthy women who managed to both avoid marriage and retain their family lands by taking on a liminal social role. They would take vows of chastity and could live in cloisters, but they did not give up their worldly possessions to the Church, essentially protecting the family lands. Unfortunately, Laura thinks that my Lady Abbess is too late to be a vowess, as the last vow she has researched took place in 1536.

So, I am stumped.  And annoyed.  I want to know who she is!  Can you help?  Have you seen or heard of anything similar? Does the symbol in the top right of the painting look familiar?  Do you recognise her habit?  Any and all suggestions are welcome (full credit will, of course, be given!).

[1] Reginald Dean, The Davenport Heraldic Tapestry at Bramall Hall, (1955).

[2] Barbara Dean, The Story of an Elizabethan Manor House, (Stockport: 1999).

Bramall Hall: “one of the treasures of England”

Having finally confessed to both of my supervisors, I feel able to blog about my new summer job – Researcher in Residence at Bramall Hall in Stockport.  My role (along with my friend and excellent researcher @BPWilcock) is to delve into the archives to find documentation and material objects that will help to tell the story of this fabulous building as they complete a huge refurbishment and restoration funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  I am only just starting out on this project having been at the excellent-as-ever Social History Society Conference in Portsmouth but I have already taken a fancy to seventeenth-century mistress of the house Dorothy Davenport.  You will no doubt get slight sick of reading my blog posts on this subject, but here are a few photographs taken last week, to whet your appetite.

Front Facade of the House DSC03795

Pretty impressive eh?!

DSC03796 DSC03798 View of the Chapel Bear with Ragged Staff

These four photos are details of the main hall.  The bottom left is a view into the Chapel – I’m saving this for a later blog post because it is quite incredible.

The Upper Banqueting Hall DSC03830

The Upper Banqueting Hall is another room that I’m saving for a blog post all of it’s own.  It has the most fabulous wall paintings: of musicians, and monsters, and angels.  Words started to fail me at this point of our private tour of the house last week.  Below are some pictures of Mary Neville’s bedroom.  She took over the house in the late nineteenth century with her husband Charles and essentially saved the place from collapsing in on itself.  Luckily, they were very aware of the importance of preservation and kept detailed records of their alterations and additions to the hall.

DSC03848Mary Neville's Bedroom

I suppose I’d best get started! Watch this space!

Pinching babies to make them cry (yes really)….

Happy new year and thanks for reading the first ‘History Fox’ blog of 2015!  Over Christmas and New Year I have been thinking a lot about culturally embedded rituals and behaviours. This is partly because I have an extended family full of folk musicians which means I spend time at events such as this(  Modern Christmases are full of these quirks and trends that have the potential to vanish into obscurity.  Christmas jumpers spring to mind.  They didn’t exist when I was young (well, not in an ironic way), yet they are an indispensable part of our children’s understanding of Christmas.  Schools and workplaces hold ‘Christmas jumper days’ and I can only imagine the photographic archives of the future, filled with families in front of the tree on Christmas day displaying their deliberately terrible jumpers.  It is impossible to say if the Christmas jumper is going to be a longstanding custom, or whether it will vanish in a few years as another trend takes over.  I wonder how the historians of the future will access it though.  Even in the age of information, the evidence of this tradition will be mainly confined to store catalogues and personal photos.  It is unlikely that anyone will take the time to document the tradition, so how will it travel into the future?


Much of my thesis is spent trying to identify and examine the rarely documented customary practices of childbirth.[1]  Often, I find echoes of the traditional behaviours that I identify in modern practices.  Sometimes, they have been given different meanings, or the intentions that originally drove them have been forgotten by those that are not in the depths of a PhD but they remain in the folk memory as behaviours that must be fulfilled in order to ensure ‘luck’ or ‘prosperity’. One of the more surprising traditions was the pinching of babies at baptism to make them cry.


It was first recorded in Joseph Bingham’s Origines Ecclesiasticae or; the Antiquities of the Christian Church, published in the first quarter of the eighteenth century.  The aim of pinching the child was to ensure that it cried as it was being bathed in holy water as it was considered a good omen for the future.  Two potential explanations were offered for this: that it was the voice of the devil being driven from them, or that the sounds represented the pangs of a new birth into Christian society.  The former explanation retains elements of both Catholic and Puritan thought whereby exorcisms and charms were thought to be efficacious against malignant forces and where magic held a firm place in society.  The latter seems more forward looking, implying an awareness of the socio-religious changes that were taking place in England following the Act of Toleration in 1689.

A later compendium of traditional behaviours[2] suggested that the infant who did not cry at baptism was too good to live for long.  Whilst this initially seems to be a strange interpretation of the circumstances, many children who died in early infancy in this period pined away quietly.  Ralph Josselin’s account of the death of one of his children showed the sinister implications of the quiet infant:

‘The lord gave us time to bury it in our thoughts, wee lookt on it as a dying child, 3or 4 dayes: 3 it dyed quietly without schreekes, or sobs or sad groanes, it breathd out the soule with 9 gaspes and dyed.’[3]

So, where does this practice fit into my musings on folk memory? Well, I researched this particular custom as part of my MA thesis.  As submission approached, I asked my parents to proof-read my dissertation and it was returned to me by my dad with a note in the margin saying that my granddad (an Anglican vicar until the mid-1980s) was tipped to pinch babies as he baptised them to make them cry. It was considered lucky.  That he was asked to continue with the practice so long after it had been recorded as ‘endangered’ emphasises the tenacity of traditional behaviours and folk memory.  It also shows how difficult these behaviours are to access.  My granddad died many years ago and it is sheer coincidence that my dad remembered him talking about pinching babies.  Despite having come across the practice over five years ago, I have not read anything else about it in the intervening years.  Yet it was a custom so embedded in our culture that it was practiced for over three hundred years. It articulated fears of infant death and hopes of future prosperity and it gave parents a brief sense of agency over the prospects of their offspring.

From an academic perspective, the word ‘folk’ often has derogatory implications.  Folk beliefs and customs are associated with the uneducated, or the poor, yet for much of the past those people have made up the majority of those that lived the history that we write about.  It is important to try and write these culturally embedded practices into our research as it is through these that we gain a perspective on the hopes and fears of those that might otherwise be invisible to us.

[1] I have written before about the tradition of ‘going up in the world’ – ensuring that a newborn infant went up before it went down in order to symbolically secure it’s trajectory in life.

[2] William Henderson, Notes of the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, (London: Longmans, 1866).

[3] Alan Macfarlane, The Diary of Ralph Josselin, 1616-1683, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

“I grew weary of my toil”: the brutality of difficult births


Whilst on a research mission in Leeds over the summer, I stumbled across the case notes of William Hey. Hey was a surgeon in Leeds, and campaigned for the establishment of the Leeds General Infirmary in which he served as a surgeon from its temporary incarnation in 1767 until his retirement in 1812.[1] His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography emphasises his role as a surgeon-apothecary but says very little about his obstetric practice.

Portrait of William Hey        

The Blue Plaque that is displayed on William Hey's house in Leeds.
The Blue Plaque that is displayed on William Hey’s house in Leeds.


He clearly maintained a reasonably-sized obstetric practice evidenced by his ten notebooks of difficult deliveries, held at the Brotherton Library. Today, I’d like to blog about case five in his notebooks dated August 15th 1759. Hey was only 23 years old when he was called to attend this birth but he was already an experienced medic. He had recently returned from two years studying under William Bromfield at St Georges Hospital in London. Prior to that, he had spent seven years apprenticed to William Dawson (a surgeon-apothecary in Leeds) not to mention any informal training he may have received from his grandfather who shared this profession. He had a reputation of being a particularly determined and able student. Keep this experience and training in mind as you read the following extract from his case notes.

Case 5

Augst 15th 1759 I was sent for to deliver the Wife of Josp. Fowler of Pudsey of a second Child, the former being born the Day before. The Shoulder presented with the Arm in the Vagina. The Waters were almost entirely evacuated, tho’ the Membranes only broke abt 3 Hours before I got to her. After getting at ye Feet with Difficulty, I brought one of them down, fasten’d a Noose above ye Ankle, and endeavoured to push up the presenting Part at the same Time that I pulled by the Garter: but all my Efforts were in vain; for I could not move the presenting Part in the least. I tried so long to extract the Child in this Manner that I separated the inferior Epiphysis of ye Tibia & Fibula. I grew sick with my Toil, & was obliged to sit down & rest myself. After making another attempt with the like success I resolved to carry up my Hand again to the Fundus Uteri to seek the other Foot, which I effected with no small Difficulty; And no sooner had I laid hold of it, & attempted to bring it down, but the Child turned with all imaginable Ease, and was delivered speedily. The Child was dead, but ye Mother recovered pretty well, only had sore Breasts thro’ improper Application.

I warned you that this blog post was not for the squeamish! The first thing that hits me (quite literally) upon reading this passage is the sheer violence of the experience. Hey notes that he experienced difficulty ‘getting at ye Feet’. It is not surprising given the mechanics of this operation. When fully dilated, the cervix opens ten centimetres and, in this instance, the arm of the undelivered infant had come through the cervix and into the vaginal passage.

Anatomical drawing by William Smellie
Anatomical drawing by William Smellie

I can hardly bear to think whereabouts in the womb the feet were in relation to the cervical opening. Eventually, Hey got hold of one foot and fastened a noose of some description around it. He then pulled so hard on the attached cord that he separated the baby’s leg bones. He pulled so hard that he had to sit down and have a rest before repeating the process. When this didn’t work, he put his hand into the womb again to feel around for the other foot – but this time the cervix was not only blocked by an arm, it also had the leg upon which he had been tugging restricting his access. With ‘no small difficulty’ he got hold of the other foot, after which it was easy to heave the child out into the world. Unsurprisingly, the child was dead.

Yet Hey was well-educated and experienced. Nor was he old, or out of touch with obstetric developments. He was newly arrived from London where, I presume, he kept abreast of scientific developments in surgery and obstetrics. Whilst this delivery was certainly difficult, his matter-of-fact tone suggests that such brutality was not extraordinary. Indeed, many of his other cases record similar attempts to bring down feet, alongside accounts of painful ‘turns’ for breach babies and heaving on the umbilical cord in order to facilitate the delivery of the placenta.

In Hey’s account, Mrs Fowler is barely mentioned. He notes that she ‘recovered pretty well.’ I am a little suspicious of this statement. I find it hard to believe that she did not experience some tearing as a result of the violence of her delivery, and I also wonder about her continence and future childbearing capacity as a result of the impact of this delivery on her pelvic floor and womb. Her experience of this birth does not interest Hey – he is interested purely in the mechanics of her delivery. The result is a very clinical depiction of a difficult eighteenth-century birth. In my next blog post, I am going to try and build a picture of the scene in more detail looking at the lived experience of the participants. Watch this space!


[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, William Hey 1736-1819, Margaret DeLacy.

Conference: ‘Birth: Personal Stories to Population Policies’

University of Leeds, 18th and 19th September 2014

This two-day conference, organised by the School of History’s Health, Medicine and Society research group, brings together those interested in the history of birth, fertility, sexuality, demography and family life, from the medieval period to the present day, and in cultures across the world. The conference aims to situate birth in the contexts of family and society, evaluate the attitudes of individuals, groups and governments to birth, explore the impact of birth, and assess changes and continuities in the experience of birth.


The conference programme includes a public lecture by Professor Simon Szreter, a keynote lecture by Professor Kate Fisher, a roundtable on the politics of procreation, and a handling session with objects from Thackray Medical Museum.


There are limited places available for the conference.
The cost to attend the conference is £25 (full)/£15 (students, unwaged, 1 day attendance).

Free Public Lecture

At 5pm on Thursday 18th September, we will be hosting a free public lecture by Professor Simon Szreter (University of Cambridge), in association with the History & Policy Parenting Forum. The lecture is entitled ‘Births and the collective provision of welfare – the long view c.1550-2014’, and is followed by a reception. All are welcome, and no registration is necessary.

Further Information

For more information, please contact the conference organisers, Alex Bamji ( and Laura King (