‘To make a cock ale’: Lady Ranelagh’s recipe for a frankly bizarre drink….

I am (once again) working my way through some more of the Wellcome Library’s fabulous digitised collection of eighteenth-century domestic medicine and receipt books.  Last time I did this, I felt compelled to bake some Jumbles (see my previous blog post on the subject).  Today, I have been drawn to this recipe for ‘Cock Ale’, initially for the purposes of a juvenile snigger but upon reading the recipe I feel vaguely ill.  What do you think? Is this a taste thing? A nutrition thing? Has anyone ever heard of it before?!  NB I will not be trying this one at home!

‘Brew ten gallons of Ale of what Strength you please, and when you have bund [?] it, take 3 cocks or more, parboiled, beaten and shred small, bones and all together, a quantity of Mace and Lemmon peel shred with it, put this minced stuff into a bag, and put it into the Vessel at the Bunghole, with a clean pebble stone in the bag to make it sink in the Vessel, and so let it work, after a week draw it into Bottles & within a week more it will be fitt to drink.’


The impact of ‘unnatural and unreasonable desires’ during pregnancy

I was recently having a chat with my favourite (only) sister @fivefingerfrank about the pressure on modern mothers to be perfect.  Any feelings of failure that we have as parents are exacerbated by a quick look on social media where we feel compelled to construct an idealised version of our family life, full of happy pictures and status updates that skim over the reality of staring down the gaping mouth of a screaming toddler after only 3 hours sleep and having run out of coffee.

As parents (and particularly mothers) we are regularly judged upon the decisions that we make in raising our children from the moment that we become pregnant – breast or bottle? Flu vaccination? Alcohol? And in what quantity?  Our everyday interactions with our unborn children are judged by friends, family and strangers alike, often based upon rapidly changing medical ‘facts’ on the correct course of action.  I am guilty of it myself.

Title page from Jane Sharp's 'Art of Midwifry Improv'd'
Title page from Jane Sharp’s ‘Art of Midwifry Improv’d’

Despite it being sufficiently ahistorical to upset my supervisors, I feel compelled to draw a comparison with early modern pregnancy and motherhood.  Up until the eighteenth-century even the medical establishment believed that the pregnant body was permeable – what were usually the boundaries of the body had been breached by the infant growing inside and this changed notions of internal and external.  It was therefore common sense that the thoughts, sensations and experiences of the mother could actually transfer themselves physically to the unborn child.  Here is an extract from a book by Jane Sharp, first published in 1675 but reprinted several times.  This edition was printed in 1725.

But before I come to her time of delivery, I shall speak a word of one frequent cause of Women’s Miscarriage, and that is their longings, and sometimes of their unnatural and unreasonable desires after they have conceived with Child…..sometimes you have Ladies at Court and Citizens Wives, and Country Women too will long to eat Sand and Dirt; but their Children seldom live long that are begun thus.[1]

The idea that the cravings of the mother would leave a mark on the child appears quite common and there are many records of individuals with food shaped birthmarks (red birthmarks are still referred to as ‘strawberry’ marks) where the mother had over-indulged in the object of her craving.

Sharp goes on to note:

There is another cause not far unlike to Women’s Longings, and that is suddain fears, for many a Woman brings forth a Child with a Hair Lip, being suddenly frighted when she conceived by the starting of a Hare, or by longing after a piece of Hare.[2]

At first glance, these ideas seem antiquated and vaguely ridiculous, yet they are perpetuated in a different guise today.  Instructions on the taking of folic acid, alcohol, cold and flu medication whilst pregnant abound. The extent to which we exercise, our weight, and our age is assessed in relation of the risk they pose to the unborn child. These directions are validated by their basis in scientific and medical fact yet so were Jane Sharp’s statements when they were published.  Occasionally, early modern practices are validated by modern science.  It has been suggested, for example that the early modern practice of giving birth in a darkened room may have reduced the chances of maternal haemorrhage in the dangerous hours following delivery.[3]  Some practices are enjoying a renaissance such as swaddling.  Whilst decried in the Ladies Magazine as ‘the barbarous custom of swathing children like living mummies’ in 1785 it is now possible to buy swaddling bands (minus the pins and swaddling boards!) in Next.  It is a reminder that science and medicine is as much a product of modern culture as literature, or history.   The ‘facts’ stated in Jane Sharp’s book are no different to the 1970s assertion that formula milk was better for an infant than breast, or the 1980s practice of supplying new mothers with a glass of stout to restore their strength and rebuild their iron reserves.

I suppose at least now, while we are being judged by others for the decisions we are making about our pregnant bodies, we can think murderous thoughts without the fear that they will be writ large on the bodies of our unborn infants!

[1] Jane Sharp, The compleat midwife’s companion; or, the art of midwifery improv’d, (London, 1725), p.113.

[2] Ibid, p.114.

[3] Adrian Wilson, The Making of Man-Midwifery, (London, 1991), p.93.

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(http://www.ryburn3step.org.uk/cms/?page_id=152).  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”: Part II

A while ago, I blogged ‘I grew weary of my Toil’ Part I, an account of William Hey’s brutal attempts to extract a dead infant from the body of its mother. You may recall that Hey barely mentioned his patients, except to say that the mother

‘recovered pretty well, only had sore Breasts thro’ improper Application.’

In this post, I’d like to try and put Hey’s account into context. Brief internet searches have identified only one Joseph Fowler of Pudsey during this period. He is listed in the register of baptisms as a clothier, and father of Jonathan whom he had baptised in 1747. Now, this may not be the Joseph Fowler referred to by William Hey, but it is equally conceivable that he could be. Whilst I’m making blanket assumptions, I have decided that Mr Fowler was a mid-level clothier, perhaps living in a few rooms over his workshop.

19thC. Pudsey High Street Map of Pudsey

In Hey’s account, he noted

‘I was sent to for to deliver the Wife of Josp. Fowler of Pudsey of a second Child, the former being born the day before.’

Mrs Fowler was clearly experiencing her first birth, and was in the process of delivering twins. This process must have started at least twenty-four hours previously when she felt her first labour pains. In all likelihood, she would have had women around her who had given birth and so would have recognised the signs.[1] Once labour had begun, she would have ‘made al her mak.’[2] This would involve arranging the living space to accommodate a birth, making up the bed, protecting the mattress, and sometimes arranging a straw pallet bed near the fire for the messy bit. It would also involve summoning some women to attend to her during her labour – between two and four appears to be quite usual. Caudle – a mixture of alcohol, oatmeal, egg and spices – would be boiled up over the fire ready to provide energy to the labouring mother and refreshment to her attendants. Childbed linen – either made by Mrs Fowler or borrowed from her friends and family – would be fetched from the drawers or chests in which they had been stored.

Whilst all this was going on, Mrs Fowler would have progressed through the latent stages of labour, as her cervix gradually dilated to somewhere between six and eight centimetres. She would have been experiencing contractions of between 40 and 60 seconds every three to four minutes. Once the cervix has dilated by eight centimetres, the mother becomes ‘transitional’ which means that the pressure of the baby on her cervix caused it to fully open to ten centimetres. At this stage, Mrs Fowler would have been experiencing very strong contractions, 60 to 90 seconds long, every two to three minutes. Hopefully, after less than an hour of these, her first child would have been born. She would then have had a brief period of respite (no more than a few minutes according to ‘Netmums’) before starting the transitional phase again to deliver baby number two.

Unfortunately for Mrs Fowler, baby number two became stuck with its arm through the cervix. Hey noted that the waters of this infant had broken three hours prior to his arrival. She may therefore have been experiencing strong and intense contractions for a minimum of around four hours before Hey arrived to relieve her[3]. She would not have had any pain relief. During this time, she would have experienced intensely painful internal inspections from her midwife to check on the progression of this second labour. It is pretty reasonable to assume that she was weak and exhausted.

In this context, the brutality of Hey’s actions upon reaching Mrs Fowler becomes more understandable. After spending so long in the birth canal, the infant was probably dead – Hey’s mission was to save the mother and to do so quickly before she, too, died. For him, the priority lay in extracting the infant as quickly as possible and, to that end, he showed a considerable about of skill and persistence. Forceps would not have worked in this situation, and, had his manual extraction not worked he would have had to dismember the infant in the womb with the attendant risks of accidentally damaging her internal organs.

It is a difficult balance to strike as an historian. Compassion and empathy with the people that we study makes us better scholars. It helps us in our mission to understand the past and to interpret the actions of those we study. Yet we also need to maintain a professional distance from our subjects and to consider our own emotional and environmental drivers when we are writing. When I wrote my first blog post, I had spent several evenings reading Hey’s notebooks – his vivid descriptions of using the hook to extract a dead child – while my own children were tucked up asleep in the next room. I found myself physically aching after a couple of hours transcribing his notes from what I considered the barbaric brutality of his methods and the horror of his reports. With a little bit of distance, however, I can see that Hey did save lives – lives which might otherwise have faded away from exhaustion and septicaemia while friends, mothers and husbands watched.

[1] Eighteenth-century letters show a concern to make sure that heavily pregnant women were constantly accompanied in case of sudden labour and to help them recognise the early stages of a birth.

[2] This is taken from the diary of Edmund Harrold, an eighteenth-century wigmaker, as he described the birth of his daughter, Sarah.

[3] From a modern perspective, the transitional phase lasts between 15 minutes and one hour. Any longer would probably result in an emergency caesarean being performed.

“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 (a.bamji@leeds.ac.uk) and Laura King (l.king@leeds.ac.uk).

Jumbles: experimenting with eighteenth-century recipes

I have been working my way through the fascinating collection of digitised receipt books at the Wellcome Library. As keeper, feeder and walker of two children, a shift-working husband and a dog, archive days are pretty hard to come by and I therefore feel utterly justified in doing a little victory dance when such rich and personal sources are made available to me through the magic of the internet. There is, however, a downside. I am an information magpie – I am easily distracted by sparkly little nuggets of information that are utterly unrelated to my thesis. These trinkets are distracting enough when I am holed up in archives, often with shaky internet access due to the ailing capabilities of my well used netbook. When I am at home, however, they have the capacity to subsume an entire afternoon that had been allocated for ‘proper’ work.  So it was with the ‘Jumbles’!

I was electronically leafing through Elizabeth Sleigh and Felicia Whitfield’s collection of medical receipts (Wellcome reference MS.751) dated 1647-1722 when I came across a note at the bottom of one of the pages.


“Take a pound of fine flower & rub it into 3oz of fresh butter very well, then put in one pound of sugar, beat 3 eggs, strew in half an oz of Coriander seed, then put in your eggs & a little rose water, no more than will make it pretty stiff paste, then butter the paper & make your jumbles of what fashion you please.”

Why this caught my eye I do not know, but catch my eye it did. After a bit of research on the internet, I found that Jumbles are essentially a type of hard biscuit. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they were boiled before being baked to make them shiny. These Jumbles were often knotted to produce pretzel type biscuits.

Jumbles 1 Jumbles 2

By the eighteenth century, however, they were usually just baked in a hot oven until they were hard. Dr Annie Gray (food historian and generous tweeter) noted that the ingredients in ‘my’ recipe were very similar to one held in the Essex archives (http://www.essexrecordofficeblog.co.uk/mrs-abigail-abdy-her-booke/) though the method was different. All early recipes for Jumbles that I have since come across involve some form of spice or seed such as caraway or coriander. These ingredients also had medicinal uses, specifically in the treatment of wind or cholic. This overlap between food and medicine is a common one and raises all sorts of interesting questions about where one stops and the other begins. Hopefully, I’ll be able to talk about this in a bit more detail in a later blog post.  From the end of the eighteenth century onwards, recipes were less likely to include spices and eventually evolved into sweet biscuits (Queen Victoria was rumoured to enjoy lemony Jumbles).

Anyway, back to my procrastination. Off I went to purchase the necessary ingredients. I used plain flour and (in a half-hearted attempt to be authentic) the least refined sugar that I had in the cupboard. I also bashed up the coriander seeds as I didn’t really fancy encountering one whole once baked. The result was a dark brown sticky gloop. I think I probably added slightly too much rose water (though I was very careful). I decided to bake them anyway. Because the mixture was quite wet, I baked them for about 45 minutes in a medium oven (180 degrees). The result was a decidedly odd, but not unpleasant, biscuit that resembled amaretti in texture but tasted of roses. The coriander gave it a slightly spicy kick. Tests (not on animals but on fellow PhDers) concluded that the flavour was unusual but strangely moreish.

Further tweet exchanges with Dr Gray suggested that a fully authentic experience would require the Jumbles to be dipped in gin or madeira to soften them. As a natural side-effect of my PhD I have drunk the house dry of alcohol so this remains untested…as yet.

Bracelets, books and terracotta babies: my review of the Objects and Remembering Conference (Manchester, 2014)

Given how long it is since I updated this blog, it is fitting that the subject of this post is ‘remembering’ – specifically the ‘Objects and Remembering’ Conference that was held at the University of Manchester on the 20th June 2014. This was the first conference of my academic career that was not dominated by historians and it was a bit of a revelation to be honest. It really highlighted to me how insignificant my attempts at interdisciplinarity have been so far, and gave me some ideas of new ways to approach my sources.

Despite my (admittedly insufficient) research on the historiography of material culture, I was really struck by the extent to which objects can enhance our understanding of ‘traditional’ (by which I mean text-based) history. The range of objects that were discussed during this conference was quite phenomenal, yet all of them created a beguiling sense of intimacy between those in the room and their previous owners despite a distance of (in some cases) thousands of years.

Here’s a list of the papers:

Holding the Baby: embodied memory and the ambiguities of Roman votive objects
Emma-Jayne Graham (Open University)

Memorialising Destruction: empty space as a reminder of past events
Emilie Hayter (University of Manchester)

The Silbury Hill Bracelet: an early heirloom artefact? (or, ‘What’s a Bronze Age bracelet like you doing in a Roman context like this?’)
Nicola Hembrey (English Heritage)

Dolls and Ephemera: Memory and Imagination in the Objects of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House
Jenna Ashton (University of Manchester)

Public Images and Effigy: The Enduring Nature of the Human Effigy throughout European History
Natalie Armitage (University of Manchester)

Books, Libraries and the Material Memory of Twentieth-Century British Marxism
Cath Feely (University of Derby)

Sensory Conversation Partners: Objects to think, feel and remember with
Bruce Davenport (Newcastle University)

“A History of the World Imperfectly Kept”: earth science objects and remembering
Hannah-Lee Chalk (Manchester Museum)

Whitworth Park community dig: conducting and displaying
Melanie Giles (University of Manchester)

“Relics” and remembering the First World War: the memorial significance of objects in the Imperial War Museum, 1918-1939
Alys Cundy (Bristol University)

Out of the Ordinary: Exhibiting Objects of Migration
Susannah Eckersley (Newcastle University)

What was apparent in every single one of the papers was the importance of objects as a means of engaging the interest of non-academics (or even non-specialists in that field!). Jenna Ashton, Melanie Giles and Alys Cundy explicitly engaged with this in their papers and there followed some stimulating discussions about the use of facsimiles in heritage settings. Plastic dinosaur skeletons and incorrectly identified artillery have, in the right setting, the ability to stimulate emotional reactions amongst the general public as long as they are believed to be real. Nicola Hembrey and Susannah Eckersley’s papers showed that this tendency to invest value in objects beyond or above their financial worth is neither new nor a product of Western consumerism.

We are culturally conditioned to value objects for their history, be it a short personal one or a longer communal one. Objects can embody touch and ownership and, as such, can take on meanings far beyond their physical appearance. For me, in my research, this is most evident in the gifting and sharing of textiles between women through which quilts and linens come to represent lineage, community and status.

Priscilla Redding's Cot Quilt, V&A
Priscilla Redding’s Cot Quilt, V&A

For those of us that are looking to access moments of history through objects, they create a sense of intimacy through the projection of a shared experience. Nicola Hembrey, for example, spoke of being compelled to touch and wear the Silbury Hill bracelet and of feeling some connection to the person that had valued it enough to keep it before it was placed in the infill ditch from which it was excavated. Yet as an historian I feel that I should repress my own instinctive reactions to objects – partly to maintain a professional distance between myself and my subjects (something with which I often struggle as my long-suffering supervisors will no doubt agree!) but also to avoid making cultural assumptions about my subjects that are simply inaccurate. Imagine, then, how excited I was by Emma-Jayne Graham’s multi-sensory approach to lifesize terracotta babies!

terracotta baby  Terracotta baby 2

Emma-Jayne spoke of how, whilst studying these life-sized models of swaddled infants that had been dedicated at sanctuaries in central Italy during the Roman Republic, she realised that handling them closely replicated the care of a real infant due to similarities in size, weight and fragility. Her paper explored the way in which this replication may have been deliberate, heightening the emotions and impact of this act of ritual deposition. She speculated on other ways in which this multi-sensory assault may have been intensified (such as wrapping the infant’s swaddling bands around the votive to recreate smell and touch). During the ensuing discussion there was a particularly interesting divide in the room between parents and non-parents – with parents expressing an emotional reaction to both the images and the ideas in Emma-Jayne’s paper. This underlined her argument that these votives were designed to demand a strong emotive reaction. For me, it highlighted the fact that, whilst our cultural understanding of what we experience has changed, the sensations of touch, smell, sight and sound have not.

I really enjoy conferencing, especially when I am attending ones on subjects that I know little about. I always come away feeling energised and buzzing with new ideas. As I continue to thrash away at my chapter on the materiality of childbirth, I am going to resist the urge to dismiss my own emotional reaction to objects as unprofessional. I shall instead explore them within the context of the rest of my research and analyse them for what they can usefully add to my conclusions.

“I shall be very well, hold your tongue”: finding the voice of the mother in eighteenth-century childbirth.

I have infanticide on the brain at the moment, and not just because my own infants have discovered the joys of bickering. The more cases of infanticide I read as research for the article that I mentioned in my last post, the more hooked I become on them as a source of childbirth practices and procedures. Despite the problematic nature of these cases as sources, I consider them to be invaluable for my wider PhD particularly as they are one of the only documents through which the birth experience of poorer women can be accessed. Today’s post is going to look at the way a mother’s voice can be heard in an Old Bailey case from the middle of the eighteenth century.

The mother is surprisingly absent from accounts of childbirth, both in the eighteenth century and therefore in current scholarship. She is often depicted as a passive participant in the birth ceremony, one to whom birth is happening, who is being managed by more active participants such as the midwife, the birth attendants and even the infant itself.


(image: ND/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

Is it realistic to believe that birthing mothers in the eighteenth century had no voice? Did they relinquish control to their midwives and attendants at the beginning of their labour and remain passive and compliant until they had recovered from their birth? I don’t think so. I have already discussed (in my first blog post) the way in which Frances Irwin described her midwife as a ‘performer’ implying that her role was ceremonial as much as it was a necessity. Some of the mothers that I have encountered in my research had several children, and they were active gossips attending the births of other women in their families and communities. Some were perhaps more experienced than the midwives that attended them and this leads me to question whose voice was loudest in the making of decisions throughout the birth.

With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to James Field, a day labourer in the parish of Enfield in 1766. He was accused of infanticide after both his wife and his sixth child were discovered dead by the local midwife and her attendants whom he had summoned when he realised that his wife was seriously ill. Through James’ testimony, we get a strong impression of his wife’s character even at this moment of crisis. He says:

‘I was bad 3 weeks, and my wife was bad a fortnight, with the fever and ague; we nursed one another as well as we could; she was worse that day, being the Thursday, than any day; I had had a pair of shoes of a shoemaker, and a bottle of stuff, which he sells for a pain in the side; I took 30, 40, 45 drops at a time; he said it would do my wife good; it had done me good; I gave her a few drops of it in a little tea; she thought herself better, after that she thought herself worse; then she desired me to make her a little gin hot; I got some, and gave her a dram of cold gin; she was very bad; I said, shall I fetch anybody; no, she said, she was a stranger in the place: I asked her again; she would not have any body sent for; she grew worse and worse. In about an hour after she drank the gin she miscarried; I said, dear heart, what is the reason you did not tell me of all this; why did you not tell me you was in labour; said she, I shall be very well, hold your tongue, I am as well as if I had 20 women here, I have done all the work myself.’

Mrs Field is unequivocal in her wishes and her husband acquiesces to them. He only goes to get help when ‘she grew so ill that I could not understand what she said’. When he does eventually go to fetch the local midwife, Dame Duck, he is severely chastised for his lack of action. She asks him:

‘where have you been all day; he said, at home; I said, why did you not come to me sooner, and I would have fetched three or four, or half a dozen women; he said, she would not let him come for anybody.’

I get the impression that there would have been fireworks in the birthroom had Mrs Field and Mistress Duck had a difference of opinion in the way that the birth was managed. Tragically, Mrs Field and the infant were found dead upon the arrival of the midwife and her assistants but her case serves to remind us that the birthing mother was not necessarily a passive creature despite her depiction as such in much of the medical literature.