Fertile ground for research

The preservation of children should become the care of men of sense, because this business has been too long fatally left to the management of women.
— Dr William Cadogan (1748)

Angus McLaren’s Reproductive Rituals is an intriguing work that takes issue with the notion that in early modern England, fertility was largely uncontrolled and random, and uses a wide variety of sources, including medical papers, legal writings, advertisements, ballads and private letters, to investigate what people thought they knew about fertility and reproduction, and how they attempted, with various degrees of success, to control conception and childbearing.

McLaren starts by examining the shift in perception of the female sex and female sexuality from the 17th century onwards, where from being considered essentially the same as men (although a slightly inferior model), women gradually came to be viewed as a thing apart. Likewise, opinions on female sexual desire underwent significant renovation: from being considered natural and healthy and, indeed, necessary for conception in the 17th century, the notion of the “good”, sexless woman began to take hold, until by the middle of the 19th century it could be declared by a medical “expert” that, As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband, but only to please him.

The early chapters of this book consider the various ways, medical, magical and otherwise, that people in England attempted to prevent, or control the timing of, conception. It looks at early forms of contraception, from extended lactation, to certain diets, to primitive spermicidals, to biblically-condemned coitus interruptus, to the first rubber condoms (for the wealthy only). Of course, when all this failed, drastic measures were sometimes resorted to. The bulk of McLaren’s study examines the use of abortion as a means of birth control, and the laws that were finally introduced against it – which did not occur until the early 19th century. Fascinatingly, next to nothing of what we might assume to be the motivation for the introduction of the anti-abortion laws was in fact the case. We see that the laws were more interested in punishing abortionists than those who used their services, but that their main purpose was to punish sexual misconduct by unmarried women. Married women who resorted to abortion (or even to infanticide) were likely to be left unmolested.

The introduction of the laws, however, and the specific shape they took, turns out to be the result of the medical profession’s attempt to establish itself as a serious entity in the eyes of the law, which in turn was a result of the turf-war going on between male doctors and their professional rivals – namely, midwives, apothecaries, and anyone else who interested themselves in the business of reproduction – like mothers. How annoyed the doctors were at not being able to remove women from the process altogether can be judged from the quote up above.

In their efforts to seize control, the doctors of the time went about fighting for laws that, rather than making abortion illegal, made it so only if not performed by a doctor. Similarly, they fought to remove from the statutes the idea that life began with “quickening”, that is, foetal movement, which made abortion a crime only if performed after that. Quickening was subsequently replaced with a ruling that life began with conception – not because the doctors believed it, not out of any concern for the sanctity of life, but because only the mother could know for sure whether quickening had happened – and that legally, the courts were forced to take her word rather than a doctor’s.

(The medical profession’s campaign to establish itself as the ruling voice in matters of reproduction was, from its own point of view, finally a great success – although one with consequences that Angus McLaren strangely doesn’t mention, namely that the push for women to give birth in hospital, under medical supervision, rather than at home with a midwife and/or female relatives in attendance, led to a significant increase in the mortality rates amongst both babies and new mothers, since the standard of hygeine in hospitals at the time was much lower than that in the average home. I’m reminded of the scene in the 1935 film The Story Of Louis Pasteur in which Pasteur has to argue and plead with the doctors about to deliver his daughter’s baby, to get them to wash their hands first.)

However, despite the seeming triumph of the doctors during the 19th century in their efforts to marginalise women as much as possible in the business of breeding, out in the real world we find that the responsibility for conception, and contraception, was still pretty much where it it always had been (where it always has been?) – or at least so we judge from this 1848 letter from a husband to his wife, upon receiving one from her informing him of her unwanted pregnancy:

“…My dearest love, This last misfortune is indeed grievous & puts all others in the shade. What can you have been doing to account for so juvenile a proceeding…?”


“To read” additions:
Reproductive Rituals also discusses the early infanticide laws, under which the courts did not have to prove that the accused killed her baby: the burden of proof was on the woman – inevitably, the unmarried woman – who would be condemned to death if unable to prove that her baby was stillborn, or died of natural causes. A better understanding of these laws and their historical context makes me want to re-read Adam Bede, and gives me a good excuse to belatedly tackle The Heart Of Midlothian.

5 Responses to “Fertile ground for research”

  1. …takes issue with the notion that in early modern England, fertility was largely uncontrolled and random…

    I’ve heard scholarly arguments that fertility had to be regulated, through infanticide if nothing else worked, all the way back to prehistoric cavedwelling times. Because even tools as crude as sharpened sticks gave early mankind such an edge that it became really easy to outbreed the food supply.

  2. McLaren cites several works that start from an assumption that no-one understood conception and that therefore they didn’t try to control it; and that the mortality rate meant that there was no point in trying to control it. He starts off with population studies that make pretty much the same point you do, and goes to on to show that, absolutely people tried to control their reproduction, even if it didn’t always work. And it was often about spacing children out rather than stopping them altogether – or in the case of farming communities, timing things so that the woman was free to work during the harvest.

    Coincidentally, I’m reading something now that deals with uncontrolled reproduction in the absence of any particular cause of mortality. 🙂

  3. I’ve come across the cited theory of no mental connection between intercourse and pregnancy, but usually from people trying to make a political point; I’m not aware of any actual evidence for it. Given how early selective breeding of farm animals started, it seems fairly implausible to me…

  4. Oh, no, they understood that pregnancy was the result of sex – but they didn’t understand how conception happened, and particularly they didn’t understand the female cycle. They figured that there were times that conception was more likely to happen, but couldn’t quite work out when or why. It was generally believed that conception was most likely to occur immediately after menstruation and decreasingly so until the next period, which I guess was at least half-right as a method of contraception.


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