Bodies of evidence

“From the wombe comes convulsions, epilepsies, apoplexies, palseyes, hecticke fevers, dropsies, malignant ulcers, and to bee short, there is no disease so ill but may proceed from the evill quality of it.”
—John Sadler (1636)

Women’s bodies are the stuff of history, declares Mary Elizabeth Fissell at the outset of Vernacular Bodies: The Politics Of Reproduction In Early Modern England, her study of the way in which English popular culture, or rather, the vernacular (Fissell prefers the somewhat different connotations of this term), imagined and reimagined the female body, female sexuality, pregancy and childbirth during the political, religious and social upheaval of the Reformation, the Civil War and the Interregnum, the Restoration and the Exclusion Crisis. Fissell sees the female body being used throughout these troubled times as a metaphor for the reshaping of society and its norms, as with increased access to cheap printing came an increased tendency – mostly, though not exclusively, male – to dissect, re-evaluate and reassemble the female form and function via the written word.

Fissell’s work covers a lot of fascinating ground. Her take on the Reformation is particularly interesting, for doing what too many such studies fail to do, namely, to consider the sweeping actions of the monarchy from the point of view of those on the receiving end. For centuries, pregnant women had been encouraged to identify with the Virgin Mary, to view the mysteries of pregnancy and childbirth as a recapitulation in miniature of the miracle of the birth of Christ, to understand their labour pains as linking them directly to Mary’s sufferings, not during the birth, but during the crucifixion.

With the Reformation, all that stopped. Identification, the use of holy relics as supports and even prayer was outlawed; and instead of choosing to identify with Mary, women were ordered to identify with Eve – and to view childbirth not as something sanctified by God, but as a personal punishment from God. The single prayer issued by the new church to be used by women in labour amounted to “I’m a sinner and I deserve this”. Welcome to Protestantism, ladies. The enforcement of these dictums was taken very seriously indeed, with church representatives even  interrogating midwives to discover who women prayed to while giving birth. (Fancy being held accountable for anything you said during labour! I bet the mortality rate went up during this time, too…)

English society prior to the mid-17th century was based upon a series of strict recapitulations – the king as father of the nation, representing God; the husband/father as head of the family, representing the king – but with the execution of Charles I, everything changed. In the face of such an unprecedented act of revolt, it is little wonder that women began to rebel against their “kings”, and the assumption of submission and obedience. During this period, women became visible in English society as never before, preaching, protesting and publishing. The men who had committed the ultimate act of social rebellion had, however, no intention of putting up with being rebelled against. Something resembling a gender war broke out, one inevitably couched in terms of sexual abuse and accusation, where civil disobedience on the part of a woman was declared a clear sign of sexual licentiousness. This was the era, too, of the Adultery Act, wherein adultery ceased to be “a sin” and became instead “a crime” – and a capital crime, at that. Reading the Act, we find adultery defined as, Sexual intercourse between a married woman and a man not her husband. Conversely, a married man who had intercourse with a woman not his wife was guilty only of “fornication” – three months in jail, rather than death.

By examining the medical texts of the time, Fissell is able to demonstrate just how bizarre and extreme the need to control women, and women’s sexuality, became. Although the processes of conception and pregnancy were not understood, earlier texts envisaged the womb as the site of miracles, a warm, gentle environment that first gladly welcomed the man’s seed and then used it to shape and nurture new life. Across the 17th century this view changed, with the womb recast as the site of evil and sickness; something with a mind of its own, quite capable of attacking and even killing the body that contained it if it so desired.

Then we have the midwifery texts, from which we discover that the male impulse to remove women from the process of childbearing as much as possible, as discussed in Angus McLaren’s Reproductive Rituals, was alive and well during this much earlier period. Nicholas Culpeper’s hugely influential A Directory For Midwives began the trend. In spite of its title, the book was all about denigrating midwives, privileging the male written word over the female spoken word. It begins by describing the reproductive physiology of both sexes, but in male terms: the male is declared “the norm”; the female is described only as far as it is different (i.e. inferior). Culpeper insists that women cannot really know or understand their own bodies: if childbirth is to be successful, it must therefore have male guidance. However, Culpeper’s condescending attitude to women pales besides that found in the extraordinary The Compleat Midwifes Practice, written by a team of four doctors, which reconfigures pregnancy and childbirth as a partnership between the father and the foetus, and barely mentions the mother at all – and then in no positive terms. The womb is here nothing more than a passive receptacle for the active male seed; while childbirth is envisaged as a process determined entirely by the foetus, which itself tears open the membranes and fights desperately to free itself from the female “container” that can no longer sustain it.

Over a century later, England was in the grip of another reproductive crisis. We are so accustomed these days to the cultural construct of the sexless Victorian woman that it always comes as a bit of a shock to be reminded that in earlier times, women were held to be the lusty ones, their desires so strong as to be essentially uncontrollable. The second half of the 17th century was awash with dirty jokes and dirtier ballads about insatiable women and pathetic, cuckolded men – men who could never be sure that “their” children were really theirs. In the final section of her book, Mary Fissell ties this obsession with sexual incontinence and paternity to England’s own paternity crisis. The Restoration had not brought to the country the hoped-for stability. While littering England with his bastards, Charles II failed to produced a legitimate heir. Next in line was his brother, James, a situation that carried the threat of a Catholic monarchy. Having just recovered from one civil war, England shuddered at the prospect of another. Agitation began for the exclusion of James from the succession, possibly in favour of the Duke of Monmouth, whom some believed (or chose to believe) to be Charles’s legitimate son. However, James did succeed his brother; but when, after many years of reproductive failure, his wife gave birth to a baby boy, a Catholic heir, England exploded in conspiracy theories.

This was, as we touched upon with respect to Kate Loveman’s Reading Fictions, the time of the “sham prince”. Three theories were prevalent:

  1. That Mary had never been pregnant, and that another woman’s baby had been smuggled into the fake birthing-chamber in a warming-pan, and was being passed off as the Prince of Wales
  2. That Mary had given birth, but the child was stillborn; then as above
  3. That Mary had given birth, but James wasn’t the father – the most popular suspect being the papal nuncio, the unfortunately named Father d’Adda (and you’d better believe the wags had a field-day with that one)

How far anyone actually believed the rumours is moot, but in any event, they served their purpose of undermining the already shaky monarchy: James and Mary were eventually forced into exile, with the throne of England offered to the safely Protestant William of Orange and his wife, James’s daughter, Mary.

The sexually uncontrollable and deceitful woman had, by this time, become a standard metaphor for social upheaval, as Fissell shows; but surely no one woman was ever so branded in this respect as Mary of Modena, nor suffered so much personal humiliation. Every detail of the pregnancy and the birth became fodder for the pamphlet-writers and the balladeers; bloody bedsheets and lactation were topics of coffee-house gossip. In the pursuit of political and religious ends, what had once been a private act of mystery and wonder, a miracle even, had been transformed into something crude, ugly, and very, very public.

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