‘Imperfect’ Conception in Early Modern Europe

Nicholas Culpeper, A Directory for Midwives, 1716, courtesy of Eighteenth Century Collections.

Author: Vita Banducci

Sub-editor: Elina Pugacheva

CW: Pregnancy, childbirth, miscarriage, misogyny, blood 

Reproduction in early modern Europe (a period roughly dated to from the late 15th to late 18th centuries) was inherently bound to the gender binary. The gender binary refers to a system of classifying biologically sexed bodies as either masculine or feminine and prescribing particular characteristics, behaviours and responsibilities to each. Since women’s primary role was childbearing, the politics of reproduction were inseparable from the binary, especially regarding fertility and fidelity. Midwifery treatises, in drawing upon humoral medicine, framed sexual difference and reproduction on the basis of and in order to maintain the binary, describing women as men’s inferior opposite. Imperfect conceptions such as ‘moles’ and ‘monsters’ represented violations of the gender binary within reproduction. Within these texts, accounts of imperfect conception can thus be seen as warnings against women’s supposedly errant sexuality or overactive imagination and prescriptions for appropriate behaviour in adherence to the binary. 

The gender binary was a rigid and pervasive feature in early modern Europe. ‘Gender’ refers to a set of characteristics and behaviours which are socially inscribed onto a biologically sexed body. It differs to biological sex itself, which is a categorisation of bodies based on chromosomes or other genetic components. The gender binary is the classification of people into one of two genders and the expectation that they adhere to the masculine or feminine norms which characterise that identity, such as clothing, habits and levels of access or privilege. 

The binary served to maintain the authority of men within the patriarchal societies of early modern Europe, including authority over reproduction. Within Christian dogma, Genesis dictated that Eve was formed for, out of and after Adam, thereby marking men and women as distinct categories in which women were innately inferior. Although religious movements of the 16th century Reformation (16th century) had shifted some ideas around sexuality, namely by rejecting celibacy, it maintained that the only legitimate sex was within heterosexual marriage for reproductive purposes and that women’s ultimate purpose was childbearing. Since wealth and property were inherited through the male line, a wife’s fidelity and fertility were essential for maintaining social and economic order. While there were many overt means of ensuring that the patriarch held the ultimate authority in the family, such as a series of laws referred to as the Family State Contract, the gender binary was also maintained through controlling and instructing reproduction.

Contemporary accounts of sexual difference highlight the gender binary’s influence over reproduction. The one-sex model, which prevailed before the eighteenth century, held that a woman’s vagina was an inferior, inverted version of the male penis and a passive receptacle for male pleasure. Anatomical description in midwifery treatises describe the vagina as a ‘sheath,’ defining female genitalia by its oppositeness to the typically masculine objects of swords and daggers.  Anatomy thus maintained the binary’s notion of male as inherently more active and female as the inferior opposite. 

Humoral theory, the predominant medical theory of the time, accounted for sexual difference on a spectrum, but nonetheless also upheld and enforced the gender binary. Although humoral theory mainly explained illnesses and temperaments, the balance of the four humours (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm) also defined sexual difference. Humoral theory described females as cool and moist, in contrast to hot and dry males. Imbalances in the humours could not only influence someone’s health but theoretically masculinise women, feminise men or, in some accounts, allow a woman to physically transform into a man. As men were deemed the superior form, however, such a transformation could not occur in the reverse. Humours could also account for fertility, which had the power to determine a woman’s status and security. A cold and dry womb meant infertility, one of the few grounds for annulment of marriage. Alternatively, a hot and moist womb was the most fertile, but this heat was thought to lead women into ‘great Lust and Frenzy’ and encourage ‘lechery’ as determined by English physician Nicholas Culpeper in his 1716 guide A Directory for Midwives.  Fertility was thus equated with excessive sexual appetite and a temptation for infidelity, with all its associated threats of personal, political and economic instability. Humoral theory thus held considerable influence over women’s lives, bodies and sexuality.

Midwifery treatises of the period implemented humoral theory into understanding and instructing conception. The invention of the printing press enabled the large-scale production of popular texts, allowing such books to become widely distributed and consumed.  As with conduct books, it is important to note that the content of midwifery treatises does not necessarily describe activities and behaviours as they were but provides an insight into how societal standards desired them to be. The treatises reveal how pervasive the gender binary was in understanding sex and reproduction. In his 1716 treatise Directory for Midwives, physician Nicholas Culpeper states that conception required a perfect mix of both male and female seed, which was then nourished by the mother’s blood.  Although Culpeper claims conception required the sexual pleasure of both partners, the account nonetheless describes sex in favour of male satisfaction: Men were the active penetrators, with the more active seed, while women were the passive receivers whose role was to nourish.

Due to the gender binary’s dependence on appropriate, intra-marital reproduction for social, economic and political stability, instances of imperfect or monstrous conception can be seen as violations of that binary. The most commonly described ‘imperfect’ conception was that of a ‘mole’, a phenomenon which would today be identified as a ‘molar pregnancy,’ a non-cancerous tumour growing within the uterus.  In her comprehensive guide, The compleat midwife’s companion, seventeenth century English midwife Jane Sharp describes a mole as ‘an ill-shaped lump of flesh’ in the womb, composed of blood and tissue and ‘fed by the Terms that flow to it.’ She attributes their formation to a weakness or defectiveness of the man’s seed, thereby being ‘overcome by the much quantity of the woman’s blood.’ While true conception required the perfect mingling of male and female seed, in this instance, the female’s contribution dominates the male’s. Sharp also attests that widows can conceive moles on their own, ‘by their own seed and blood that flows thither,’ negating the contributions of a man altogether. In both these instances, the binary of active man and passive woman is violated, thus creating a being that is imperfect and unfit to develop into a child. 

Multiple treatises attribute the main cause of imperfect conceptions to having sexual relations during a woman’s ‘courses.’ Humoral theory dictated that menstruation was a period of purification of a woman’s blood resulting from an imbalance in her humours, which was reinforced by Christian ideas of menstrual blood as unclean and impure. Nourishing a child on this corrupted blood was perceived as necessarily corrupting the child, too. This notion demonstrates the potential prescriptive function of midwifery treatises, as imperfect conceptions are used to explicitly condemn a particular sexual act.  

A more extreme violation of the gender binary within conception appears in the birth of so-called ‘monsters.’ Monster in this sense was used to describe any uncommon birth, ranging from conjoined twins, ‘Hermaphrodites’ (intersex children), and disabled children to mythical and impossible births. For instance, Culpeper references a story from Gasper Baubin, in which a woman ‘brought forth two serpents with her child’ after accidentally drinking snake spawn, and recounts other instances where human women have birthed worms, dogs and other animals. In The compleat midwives companion, Jane Sharp lists multiple causes for such births, from astrology to the judgements of God. However, Sharp concludes that it comes down to ‘the matter of the seed’: too much, too little or an ill-mix. Ultimately, such imbalances occur when, as with moles, women carnally know their husbands ‘when their terms are purging forth’, and the impure blood corrupts the conception.

However, these treatises also attribute monstrous births to women’s overactive imaginations.  Culpeper claims that pregnant women, by beholding images of monsters or men in ‘vizards,’ oval masks which covered all but the eyes, ‘have brought forth monsters with horns, and beaks, and cloven feet.’ Sharp likewise claims that ‘a strange imagination’ can alter a child’s appearance as much as the heavens can to ‘make plants and metals in the earth.’ Within these treatises, accounts of monstrous birth can be regarded as prescriptions for how women should act, warning against sexual irresponsibility and an unruly imagination.

However, Culpeper’s accounts of fantastical and physically impossible births clearly differ from the real biological possibility of having conjoined twins or hermaphroditic children. Hermaphrodites, in particular, pose an undeniable challenge to the gender binary in a way that fantastical monsters do not. By humoral theory, a child’s sex is determined by the heat of the mingled seeds, and whether the hotter male seed prevails over the cooler female. For someone with ambiguous genitalia, the outcome is less obvious.  Is a hermaphrodite both man and woman, or neither? If they should choose a single gender, how? How does one move through a world where behaviour, clothing and expression are categorised and constrained by gender identity when they do not conform to that identity? All of these questions remain incredibly relevant today, where gender norms are more openly critiqued and challenged, and highlight contemporary concerns about the place of gender non-conforming people within the restrictions of the binary. Instead, Culpeper chooses to account for impossible abnormalities such as cloven feet, while only briefly mentioning hermaphrodites or physically disabled children. He thus plays into the novelty of monstrosity and escapes addressing the real and perfectly natural phenomena which pose a genuine challenge to the binary. 

Understandings and explanations of reproduction in early modern Europe both reinforced and were products of the period’s pervasive gender binary, as encapsulated in midwifery treatises. Reinforced by contemporary medical accounts, the binary dictated that women were distinct from and inherently inferior to men, including in sexual difference. Since women’s defining role within the binary was reproduction, conception was an inherently political as well as personal matter. Instances of imperfect or monstrous conception can be seen as violations of that binary. Thus, by describing these phenomena and their causes, midwifery treatises of the period can be seen as prescribing appropriate sexual action and warning against what they perceived as women’s errant sexuality and imagination. 

Image credit

Nicholas Culpeper, A Directory for Midwives, 1716, courtesy of Eighteenth Century Collections.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Culpeper, Nicholas. A directory for midwives: or, a guide for women, in their conception, bearing and suckling their children. London: Black Swan in Paternoster-row, 1716. ProQuest Early English Books Online. https://go.gale.com/ps/retrieve.do?tabID=Monographs&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&searchResultsType=SingleTab&hitCount=1&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&currentPosition=1&docId=GALE%7CCW0107421031&docType=Monograph&sort=Pub+Date+Forward+Chron&contentSegment=ZCEY&prodId=ECCO&pageNum=1&contentSet=GALE%7CCW0107421031&searchId=R1&userGroupName=unimelb&inPS=true.  GALE: Eighteenth century collections online. 

McMath, James. The expert mid-wife a treatise of the diseases of women with child, and in child-bed: as also, of the best ways and means of help in natural and unnatural labours. With fit remedies for the various maladies of new born babes. A work more full than any yet extant: and most necessar [sic] for all bearing women, mid-wifes, and others that practise this art. Edinburgh: printed by George Mosman, 1694. ProQuest Early English Books Online. https://search.proquest.com/docview/2240853724/99828401?accountid=12372. ProQuest Early English Books Online. 

Sharp, Jane. The compleat midwife’s companion: or, the art of midwifery improv’d. Directing child-bearing women how to order themselves in their conception, breeding, bearing and nursing of children. In six books, … The fourth edition. London: Printed for John Marshall [sic], 1725. GALE: Eighteenth Century Collections Online. https://go.gale.com/ps/retrieve.do?tabID=Monographs&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&searchResultsType=SingleTab&hitCount=1&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&currentPosition=1&docId=GALE%7CCW0107173930&docType=Monograph&sort=Pub+Date+Forward+Chron&contentSegment=ZCEY&prodId=ECCO&pageNum=1&contentSet=GALE%7CCW0107173930&searchId=R1&userGroupName=unimelb&inPS=true.   

Secondary Sources

Chojnacka, Monica, and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks. Ages of woman, ages of man: sources in European social history, 1400-1750. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Fissell, Mary. “Gender and Generation: Representing Reproduction in Early Modern England.” In Sexualities in History: A Reader, edited by Kim M. Phillips and Barry Reay, 105-126. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2001. 

Gilbert, Ruth. Early Modern Hermaphrodites: Sex and Other Stories. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Gowing, Laura. Gender Relations in Early Modern England. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2012.

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