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Welcome to Episode 203 of That Shakespeare Life

In Shakespeare’s Pericles, the character Thasia gives birth on a ship at sea and, dying in childbirth, is thrown overboard in her coffin by Pericles. There’s a great deal to unpack in the story about this moment, but seeing it happen in the play lead me to wonder: Were women really traveling on board ships in the 16th century (sailing and exploration being typically a male profession, and even when the Pilgrims sailed to the New World, the Mayflower was unique in allowing both women and children aboard.) To help us understand what the place of women on ships was in the 16th C, whether there were any standards of care offered, and how births like Thasia’s might have been handled off stage and in the real 16th century world in which Shakespeare was living is our guest, Kasia Burzyńska.

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About Kasia

Katarzyna Burzyńska, PhD is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of English, AMU in Poznań, Poland.
Her research interests include pregnancy and embodiment in English early modern drama, (eco)feminist
and vegan studies. She is a lead investigator in an ongoing research project “Sir, she came in great with
child, and longing”: phenomenology of pregnancy in English early modern drama”
funded by the
National Science Centre in Poland. Her monograph titled Pregnant Bodies from Shakespeare to Ford is
forthcoming in the Routledge Studies in Literature and Health Humanities series. She is vegan and a
passionate advocate for animal liberation.

Contact Kasia at these links:
Twitter: @dr_burzynska

In this episode, I will be asking Kasia Burzyńska about:

  • Why were 16th century pregnant women getting on board ships in the first place?
  • Would the pregnant woman have taken any childbirth preparation items or prenatal care items with her when she boarded the ship? (were there anesthetics or medications she needed?)
  • Where onboard a ship would a childbirth take place? 

Akhimie, Patricia, and Bernadette Andrea, eds. 2019. Travel and Travail: Early Modern Women,
English Drama, and the Wider World. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Caffrey, Kate. 2014. The Mayflower. Rowman & Littlefield.

Chambers, Anne. 2018. Grace O’Malley: The Biography of Ireland’s Pirate Queen 1530-1603. Gill

Kaufmann, Miranda. 2018. Black Tudors: The Untold Story. London: Oneworld Publications.

Luttfring, Sara D. 2019. Bodies, Speech, and Reproductive Knowledge in Early Modern England.
London: Routledge.

Stark, Suzanne J. 2017. Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail. Annapolis (Md.):
Naval Institute Press.

Wertz, Richard W., and Dorothy C. Wertz. 1989. Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America. New
Haven: Yale University Press.

What's Inside:

  • Quotes from Shakespeare's plays about pregnancy
  • Woodcuts of pregnant women from 1549
  • History on Sir Francis Drake and The Golden Hind
  • 1538 Woodcut of a pregnant woman
  • Portrait of Sir Francis Drake & Christopher Hatton
  • Links to more information on Maria, the woman who was pregnant on Drake's ship
  • Links to our episode on The Mayflower

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Most true, if ever truth were pregnant by circumstance…

Third Gentleman, A Winter's Tale, V.2
Three pregnant women, from Lichtenberger, Practica, circa 1549 | Wellcome Library | Source

Pregnant Women Travelling

It was highly uncommon for pregnant women to travel at all, let alone by ship. As Kasia explains,

It was considered to be crossing the traditional lines of gender roles [for women] to travel on board ships. To travel while pregnant was also considered transgressive and irresponsible. Women were discouraged from travelling and this opinion explains relatively few records of women travelling. [Because it did not happen with regularity]. 

However, of the stories we do have, some women travelled while they were pregnant and early modern drama does give us examples –Thasia is the most famous fictional pregnant women. Helena in Alls Well that Ends Well, she’s already pregnant when she travels all over France to find Bertram. [In another early modern play, a woman] leaves her home in Mantua to find a man who got her pregnant. These fictional examples see women who have to find and discipline unruly husbands/partners.

He knows himself my bed he hath defiled;
And at that time he got his wife with child

Diana, Alls Well That Ends Well (V.3)
Replica of the Elizabethan galleon, The Golden Hind, captained by Francis Drake in 16th Century, Southwark, London, UK | Photo by Jose L. Marin, Used under CC-ASA-3.0 License | Photo taken 4 April 2007 | Source

The Golden Hind

When it comes to identifying what it was like to give birth onboard a ship, especially on board a ship prior to modern medical advancements, we have to rely on the testimonies of individuals who lived the experience. One place we see a pregnancy at sea take place in the 16th century is onboard the ship named The Golden Hind, captained by Sir Francis Drake and under the patronage of Christopher Hatton.

Portrait of Sir Francis Drake, 1583, by Jodocus Hondius (1563–1612) | Public Domain | Source

Not surprisingly, 17th century ships were not equipped with a suitable place for childbirth. Nothing like what would happen on land. On land, there were specially designed, consecrated placed known as birthing chambers. Regular rooms converted into birthing chambers by hanging curtains and lighting it with candle light. Men were barred entrance, and on a ship these conditions are not possible…1596 [saw the] arrival of hammocks. Before that, they slept on mattresses that were often wet and nasty. The only person who had a bed and a private cabin was the captain himself. There was nowhere for a woman to have a baby in privacy. 

Sir Christopher Hatton, by unknown artist. | Public Domain | Source

Sir Francis Drake set out in 1577 to circumnavigate the globe, a feat for which he was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth I. One single entry in a log written by one of Captain Drake's men reveals the plight of one woman who ended up onboard the ship, named Maria.

I read about Maria's story in an article by Historia by Nikki Marmery. Marmery suggests this manuscript is “BL Harley 280 f. 38” but I was unable to track down that manuscript among the digitized archives at The British Library. The other Harley manuscripts that are available online at The British Library seem to be numbered MS280#

I found 2803 and 2804, for example), but was unable to find any just “MS280.” I was either entering the information wrong or there's a typo in Marmery's article, but if you want to try and chase that manuscript down you can do so at the links provided in this paragraph. You can also read about Maria more fully and see her image of the manuscript that describes Maria's plight in Marmery's article linked above.

Regardless about finding the digitized version of the manuscript, we can know that Maria was pregnant onboard the ship and deposited on an island to have her baby, suggesting a ship was either not equipped or simply not interested in handling the birth of a baby. Kasia suggests that it may have even been an issue of safety for Maria that she was dropped off on the island:

[When you see the replica] of the Golden Hind in London, you realize they were also very small. Speculation suggests it might have been better to leave pregnant Maria, this woman who travelled with them, to leave her on a desert island because it was safer than on a ship.

A pregnant woman in bed another figure stands by the bed explaining something to her. Pen drawing after a woodcut by J. Berntsz, 1538. | The original is in a book by J. Berntsz, Der vrouwen natuere ende complexie …, 1538 and is currently in the British Library | Public Domain | This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post (archive). | CC-Attribution 4.0 | Bibliographic Record | Source

It is true that Maria's story is one of the few we have of women who gave birth on board a ship, but she's far from the only woman.

The Mayflower

For example, we know there were 3 pregnant women onboard the Mayflower, the ship that landed in Plymouth in 1620. Kasia explains,

[The] Mayflower did transport women [and] passengers lived in the space that was between decks. Mayflower also took place inbetween decks. Height of 152 cm, very cramped, very small, and passengers did get very seasick in the cramped conditions. We can speculate where and how but we don’t have concrete evidence to tell us precisely what happened. 

The Tempest

The story of Maria on the Golden Hind seems to have been a story widely told once the ship returned to England. At least, there's some evidence in Shakespeare's play The Tempest that makes that suggestion.

In Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, an African woman named Sycorax, is abandoned by sailors on a deserted island while she is heavy with pregnancy. Shakespeare first performed this play (that we know of) at the Blackfriars in 1611, a full two decades after Drake and his shipmates returned from their journey, but the story of Sycorax and Maria bear so many direct similarities, it's plausible to think that character might be based on Maria's real story.

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