‘The Maternal Body in the Early Modern Age’

What to Expect When You’re Expecting: The Early Modern Edition

In a world without prenatal screening and where popular reports credited women as giving birth to cats, toads, demons and even two-headed monsters, how was the maternal body conceived of in early modern England? In this lecture we will consider the medical and social perceptions of the maternal body in the period c. 1540 – 1660. This opening date coincides with the publication of the translated The Birth of Mankinde. This was the first accessible text produced in the English language to provide information on topics such as reproduction, birth, fertility and pregnancy. We will delve into beliefs such as breast milk being the mother’s whitened blood, the deadly power of the maternal imagination, the widely known disease referred to as ‘the suffocation of the mother’ and the importance of childbirth rituals. We will then move on to discuss early modern ideas surrounding maternity outside of Europe. From the sensational to the mundane, accounts of maternity from the early modern period suggest that to be a mother was to wield undeniable, potentially dangerous and uncontrollable power.

H, J.C., ‘A Woman Breastfeeding Her Child’. Line Engraving by MD after J.Ch.,  [16–]. Wellcome Collection. Source: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/u4c3wwpe 


Olivia Langford is a final-year PhD Shakespeare Studies student at The Shakespeare Institute, The University of Birmingham, funded by AHRC Midlands4Cities. Her thesis is entitled ‘The Raven Doth Not Hatch a Lark’: The Alien and Maternal Bodies of William Shakespeare’s Non-English Mothers’, considering early modern non-English motherhood and the representation of these mothers in Shakespeare’s plays. She has researched and has an interest in a variety of topics including gender, medicine, monstrosity and women’s history. Follow Olivia on X @EMWombStuff.

Curated & Hosted by

Marguerite Johnson is a cultural historian of the ancient Mediterranean, specialising in sexuality and gender, particularly in the poetry of Sappho, Catullus, and Ovid, as well as magical traditions in Greece, Rome, and the Near East. She also researches Classical Reception Studies, with a regular focus on Australia. In addition to ancient world studies, Marguerite is interested in sexual histories in modernity as well as magic in the west more broadly, especially the practices and art of Australian witch, Rosaleen Norton. She is Honorary Professor of Classics and Ancient History at The University of Queensland, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

don’t worry if you miss it – we will send you a recording valid for two weeks the next day

Sep 9th 2024 8:00 pm - 09:30 pm

£6 - £10 & By Donation

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