Drumming wombs & fanny farts: Listening to the widow’s belly in seventeenth-century Ireland.

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This month Clodagh Tait shares a quirky story about mistaken pregnancy and fanny farts (queefs!) in c17th Ireland.

Mary Gage, an Englishwoman who arrived in Ireland with her brother at around the time of the Ulster Plantation, had several misfortunes in the years prior to 1620. Her husband, John Rowley of Castleroe, near Coleraine, Co Derry, died in 1618, and she had lost one of her four children in infancy.[1] In early 1620 she remarried, to Sir George Trevelyan, a former soldier from a Somerset gentry family who had been in Ireland about twenty years. George became ill that July, and on 13 September he died at Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim. Five days later George’s uncle and patron, Sir Arthur Chichester, Lord Deputy of Ireland, wrote to John Trevelyan about his brother’s edifying death. ‘He died a good Christian and in perfect memory to his last gasp, for which God be praised!’ This, Chichester continued, with ‘his lady’s being with child…is all the comfort he hath left behind him’.

Chichester was somewhat put out. Not expecting the marriage to be so short-lived, he had guaranteed Mary’s jointure (the arrangement for her maintenance during widowhood), pledging £40 per annum over and above the £100 income expected from Wexford lands he had granted to George. Furthermore, he had promised lump sums totalling over £500 to augment the dowries of Mary’s two daughters. Eight months later, Chichester broached the matter again with John, setting out a complicated solution that reduced his financial exposure, but which meant that the Wexford lands would not revert to George’s family on the widow’s death or remarriage, as would have been customary, but at the end of a long lease. This solution probably had become possible because the expected heir had not materialised: ‘whereas it was thought he left his lady with child, it proves a timpeny of which she still labours.’ Mary had not been pregnant at all.[2]


Anne Hale, Mrs Hoskins, 1629. WikiCommons.

In early modern medical texts, tympany was described as form of swelling of the abdomen caused by ‘wind’ rather than fluid – the latter was known as dropsy – and was understood as potentially fatal. The word timpani is still used for the kettledrums in a orchestra, and drum-like nature – and sound ­­– of the ailment was stressed.[3] Barrough’s The Methode of Phisicke described how ‘the belly is puffed uppe and stretches out: and being stricken, it maketh a noyse like a tabour or tinbrell, but other parts of the body wax leane.’[4] Earlier writers mostly located the cause of tympany in the bowels, but increasingly there was recognition that gynaecological conditions might cause similar symptoms. In 1668, ‘Dr Fienns’ attributed Tympany or ‘inflation of the womb’ to wind that ‘gets by invisible passages into the cavity of them, or after Child-birth by the Oriface of the womb, or after bathing or fomenting; or it breeds there from some other cause, and there is straitned, and so it stretcheth the womb’. He continued, ‘sometimes a noise is heard all over the body, there is belching, and swelling of the Loyns, and pain the the Reins [kidneys] and Hips, and when the belly is smitten with the fingers, there is a sound like a drum, and the wind breaks forth at the mouth of the womb’.[5] Nicholas Culpepper, writing ‘Of Windiness of the Womb’, was sceptical of Fienns’ fanny farts: ‘sometimes they say, women feel wind coming out at their Privities (if you will believe them)’.[6] Doubt hung around other reports of tympany too. The idea of ‘midwife’s tympany’, a diagnosis that could be ‘cured’ by a visit to the midwife occasioned particular hilarity.[7]


A physician examining the urine of a pregnant girl, C18th. Wellcome Collection. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/wvxta3rh

Christof Wirsung argued that tympany could be a result of an ‘unnaturall mass’ in the uterus resulting from a ‘Mola’ (molar pregnancy where a non-viable egg is ‘fertilised’ and implants in the womb, though this was not understood in the seventeenth century, Wirsung believing that those ‘which have no company with a man’ might also suffer from it). The permanent damage and subsequent tumours that can be caused by molar pregnancy are also noted in his text.[8] Jane Sharp distinguished between a ‘windy Mole’ that ‘will swell the belly like a Bladder, and it will sound like a Drum’, and a ‘watry Mole’, causing ‘a fluctuation of water from one side to another’. The condition could be extraordinarily painful, but she claimed that ‘many aged women live many years with a Mole in their body’.[9]

The historian of pregnancy can feel some camaraderie with the early modern physician listening to the sound of a swollen belly but unable to see inside it. Reading Chichester’s scant references to Mary, I can’t help imagining the eyes on the widow’s belly, firstly calculating who was inside, and then dismissing its discomfort. I wonder about Mary, a woman who had already experienced at least four pregnancies. What illness had afflicted her? Did she really believe that she was pregnant for ten or so months? Could she possibly have used the outward signs of a pregnancy that wasn’t in order to strengthen her hand during the fraught financial negotiations with the Lord Deputy? When Chichester attributed the mistake to tympany, did his or John Trevelyan’s mind run to representations of tympany as questionable and duplicitous? Notably he implied in his last letter on the subject of Mary that the belly itself was real rather than tactical. This was an ailment ‘of which she still labours’, a formulation which of itself speaks volumes about experiences of illness in the past.

Whatever form of tympany had caused her mistaken pregnancy, and whatever her ailment’s physical effects, Mary Gage prospered subsequently. At some point she remarried but she had no further children. She became a baroness when her husband, Robert MacLellan, was made Baron Kirkcudbright in 1633. She died in 1639, by then a widow for the third time.[10]



Clodagh Tait lectures in History at Mary Immaculate College. She is the author of Death, Burial and Commemoration in Ireland, 1550-1650, and co-editor of Age of Atrocity, and Religion and Politics in Urban Ireland, and has published articles on a variety of early modern topics including women, maternity, infant care, death, belief and violence. She wrote the chapter on ‘Society 1550-1700’ in the Cambridge History of Ireland, volume 2. Her current projects include a history of Irish cursing and ill-wishing between 1550 and 1950. A study of the supernatural labours of Irish mothers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will be published as part of a Past and Present Supplement volume in November.


[1] NLI GO Ms f111, http://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000529247#page/37/mode/1up

[2] W.C.Trevelyan and C.E. Trevelyan, Trevelyan Papers, Part III (London, 1872), pp.158-62, 187-8, 299.https://archive.org/details/trevelyanpapers03trevgoog/page/n226/mode/2up

[3] See J.G. Harris, ‘All Swell that End Swell: Dropsy, Phantom Pregnancy, and the Sound of Deconception in All’s Well That Ends Well’, Renaissance Drama 35 (2006), 169-89.

[4] P. Barrough, The Methode of Physicke (London, 1583), p.125.

[5] Dr Fienns, A New and Needful treatise of Spirits and Wind Offending Mans Body (London, 1668), pp.45-8, 107-9.

[6] N. Culpeper, A Directory for Midwives (London, 1656), p.87.

[7] U.A. Potter, The Unruly Womb in Early Modern English Drama (Kalamazoo, 2019), pp.53-4.

[8] C. Wirsung, The General Practise of Physicke (London, 1605), p.500.

[9] J. Sharp, The Midwives Book, or, The Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered (London, 1671), pp.106-16.

[10] NLI GO Ms f111.



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