What was it like for people in the past before home pregnancy testing was available? Dr Isabel Davis, senior lecturer in medieval and Renaissance literature at Birkbeck, University of London, looks at the history of conception during the 18th and 19th centuries through two very interesting case studies – a pad for simulating pregnancy and an ‘Experimental Conception Hospital’ aimed at demystifying female reproduction.
Hope and fear place us in history. Hope hurries us forward, to the future; fear forces us to step back, towards the past. Our Being Human event [a UK-wide humanities festival led by the University of London’s School of Advanced Study], ‘Conceiving histories’, connected the past to the present and future, thinking about the un-pregnant body and the problems of diagnosing early pregnancy.
The event showcased two case studies from a larger project which together responded to the festival’s themes of hope and fear. For hope we looked at a bizarre fashion, which was current for just one or two years in 1792–3, for wearing a pad which simulated pregnancy. We looked at some of the humorous but also rather cynical takes on the Pad, as it was known, in literature and art in its own time. But we also thought about the prospect of breaking down the exclusivity of maternity-wear today.
To feign pregnancy today is an unwritten offence, which is rigorously tried in the court of the internet. Celebrities who have done it or thought to have done it are ruthlessly trolled. Why is pregnancy such a respected and privatising category? What does it matter if the un-pregnant wear the new maternity fashions and live for a time as if they were expecting? Could it ever look good? Looking back at the 18th-century Pad can help us to answer some of these questions, even if it won’t quite make us rush out to buy a pregnancy suit to wear in public.
Our case study for fear is a darker inquiry. This looks at an idea for an Experimental Conception Hospital developed in response to an early 19th-century peerage dispute. It is thought up as a way of determining the length of gestation and pinpointing the moment of conception, problems which were at the heart of the dispute.
In the Experimental Conception Hospital, built on monastic principles, 100 women would be incarcerated and ‘experimented’ on by male doctors who, by keeping really good records of their visits to have sex with these prisoners, would be able to resolve the mysteries of the female reproductive body. It is suggested only as an idea; the hospital was never meant to be built or put into practice but it is interesting, nonetheless. In particular, although it was written at a time of hyper-modernity, when science and technology were making great scientific strides, it looks back to the medieval past, finding in the space of the medieval monastery a place to unravel biological conundrums which eluded the best scientific minds of the age.
We also live in a time of huge technological achievement. In terms of reproduction, we can only marvel at the possibilities opened up by assisted reproductive technologies. But there are also limits to that technology. And, beyond those limits, people are left waiting and wondering whether or not they might be parents. Those waits don’t feel very modern; they feel, instead, perplexingly ancient. What if there was a technology which could work in the wait? A test that you could do immediately upon conception, a screen where you could watch it take place, a gadget that could see into our futures? Would we want it? At what cost would it come?
We presented these case studies through historical talks but also discussed new contemporary artwork which has been made as a direct response to them. Our concerns are to think about the ambiguities around the un- or the just pregnant body in the past, but also about what this historical reflection could do for us in the present. Along the way we touched on some complex issues around sexuality, pregnancy and science and looked at some powerful new artwork.
This is an ongoing project at Birkbeck, University of London being run in partnership with the Wellcome Trust, Fertility Network UK and Birth Rites Collection.
Conceiving histories was one of around 300 events in the UK-wide Being Human festival of the humanities. Led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the British Academy, the festival’s ‘hope and fear’ theme for 2016 stimulated a rich variety of events.