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“Pregnant” is a word Shakespeare uses in his plays, but it always appears in connection with ideas, grief, or even trauma, but never as a word to describe a woman that is carrying an unborn baby. This divergence between Shakespeare’s language and how we are accustomed to using the word “pregnant” today is just one way Shakespeare’s plays help shed light on the surprising world of pregnancy and childbirth for Shakespeare’s lifetime. During the 16-17th century, there were many unusual beliefs about how a woman could become pregnant, the right way to prepare for giving birth, and details on the process of labor. Here today to help us explore the history of pregnancy, childbirth, and midwives from Shakespeare’s lifetime are our guests, Michelle Ephraim and Caroline Bicks.  

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Michelle Ephraim is Professor of English at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she teaches courses on Shakespeare and creative writing. Her memoir, GREEN WORLD: A Tragicomic Memoir of Love and Shakespeare, received the 2023 Juniper Prize from The University of Massachusetts Press and will be published by them in 2024. Professor Ephraim’s work, including the book Reading the Jewish Woman on the Elizabethan Stage, focuses on adultery, religious conversion, and other controversial matters. Her personal essays and humor pieces have appeared in venues such as Tikkun, Take, Lilith, The Morning News, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Cleaver, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Washington Post, and The Moth Radio Hour. She is the co-author (with Caroline Bicks) of Shakespeare, Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Dramas and the co-host of the Everyday Shakespeare Podcast. She lives in Boston with her husband and four children. Visit www.michelleephraim.com for more on her publications and appearances. 

 
Caroline Bicks is the Stephen E. King Chair in Literature at the University of Maine and is also on the faculty of the Bread Loaf School of English. She specializes in Shakespeare, gender, and the history of science, and is the author of the books Cognition and Girlhood in Shakespeare’s World and Midwiving Subjects in Shakespeare’s England. Her creative non-fiction has been featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” in the “Modern Love” column of the New York Times, and in the show “Afterbirth: Stories You Won’t Read in a Parenting Magazine.” She is the co-author (with Michelle Ephraim) of Shakespeare, Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Dramas and the co-host of the Everyday Shakespeare Podcast. For more on her work, visit www.carolinebicks.com 
﷟HYPERLINK “http://www.carolinebicks.com/” 

I’ll be asking Michelle Ephraim and Caroline Bicks about:

  •  Would people have talked about a woman being “pregnant” as a term to describe human gestation in the 16-17th century? If that wasn’t a common term, what were some of the other ways people indicated that a woman was with child? 
  • Was there prenatal care for a pregnant woman in the 16-17th century? Were they assigned anything similar to a prenatal vitamin, or encouraged to avoid certain foods, for example?  
  • In an essay on Hermione in Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale, Michelle writes about a belief at this time concerning twins, in which it was thought a woman could be pregnant by two different men at the same time. Michelle, was this belief backed by the scientific community of the period, or what evidence was this belief based upon? 
  • …and more!

Caroline Bicks, Midwiving Subjects in Shakespeare’s England (Ashgate, 2003; Routledge, 2017)

David Cressy, Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual. Religion and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford University Press, 1997)

Women as Mothers in Pre-Industrial England, ed. Valerie Fildes (Routledge, 1990)

 Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book (published 1671). There were many earlier books in this genre, but this is the first one written by an Englishwoman. There aren’t any new affordable editions of this text (Amazon lists one called the Compleat Midwife’s Companion and says it’s by Jane Sharp, but this is a heavily edited 18th-century version of Sharp’s work that does not faithfully reproduce the original! Get this one edited by Elaine Hobby, which has a great introduction and notes, and can be purchased used for under $50.

The Birth of Mankynde: otherwise named the womans bookThis was originally a German book by Eucharius Rosslin that was later translated into English — first by Richard Jonas in 1540, and then corrected and amended by the physician Thomas Raynalde in 1545. Raynalde’s edition is the one that then went on to be republished over ten times over the next 100 years.

Important source for information shared today about that 1% mortality rate for expectant mothers:

In our conversation, our guests referenced that less than 1% of women died in Childbirth during Shakespeare’s lifetime (16-17th century). In order to clarify this statistic, I asked Michelle and Caroline to provide their source material (I anticipated you might have questions). Here’s their reply:

[from Caroline Bicks] I’m quoting here from historian David Cressy’s important book, Birth, Marriage and Death. This should clarify the statistic I gave during the interview, but please make sure to put quotation marks around this and cite the source if you decide to include it (note that Cressy is citing another author in parts of this quote):

“In an important essay titled ‘Did the Mothers Really Die? Three Centuries of Maternal Mortality in “The World We Have Lost“,’ Roger Schofield calculates that 9.3 per 1,000 or just under one per cent of mothers died in childbed in Elizabethan England. The rate deteriorated in the seventeenth century, as demographic conditions generally worsened to a peak of 15.7 per 1,000 in the reign of Charles II. Conditions were always worse in London—sometimes twice the national rate—with maternal mortality as high as 23.5 per 1,000 in Aldgate parish in the 1590s. But London is a special case, in this as in so many other things. Contrary to popular myth, women were not in  ‘a state of virtually perpetual pregnancy’ in the early modern period. On average they could expect six or seven pregnancies (not all successful), and therefore, according to Schofield, ‘a woman . . . would have run a six to seven percent risk of dying in childbed at some time in her procreative career…the risk she ran of dying in childbed was no greater than the risk she ran every year of dying from infectious disease and a whole variety of other causes’. (David Cressy. Birth, Marriage and Death, pp.30-31).

Note that the link to Roger Schofield’s work was added by me, Cassidy Cash, to help you locate that secondary source if you need it for your research or just want to explore further.

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Here’s what’s inside this week:

  • 1671 diagram of unborn fetuses
  • The Complete Midwife’s Manual from the 17th century
  • Quotes from Shakespeare on Pregnancy
  • Portrait of one of the famous midwives from Shakespeare’s lifetime
  • 17th century diagram of a woman with fetus in utero
  • 1604 Book of Common Prayer detailing rules for midwives
  • 16th century images of pregnant women
  • 16th century images of women who have just given birth
  • 18th century image of forceps
  • Diagram of the Chamberlain Forceps
  • 17th century portrait of Peter Chamberlain
  • 1513 woodcut illustration of a woman giving birth
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16th Century Pregnancy Tests

Did Anne Hathaway know she was pregnant when she got married? Did William know it, too? And if they did know, what did they use to find out? Explore answers to all of these questions and look into the scientific world of Elizabethan prenatal medicine, including the range of 16th century pregnancy tests available to Tudor women (and how accurate they are!) with our guest, Alicia Andrzejewski.

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!