Maternal Impressions

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, PoP network member Sarah Fox shares her insights on the debates (both historical and contemporary) on maternal impressions.

On the 14th September 2020, the Daily Mail reported upon a pilot study being undertaken at the University of Heidelberg.  The headline read: ‘Anxious mums can pass on their stress to their babies – leaving them with an ‘emotional imprint’ that can scar them for life, scientists warn.’  The article reported that children of mothers suffering from anxiety or depression experienced raised heart rates during a stress test called ‘still face test’. “We found that if a mother was anxious or depressed, their baby had a more sensitive physiological response to stress during the test than did the babies of healthy mothers” researcher Fabio Blanco-Dormond is reported to have said.  An article on raised the stakes still further reporting that the infant’s significantly (8 bpm) increased heart rate “could develop into emotional stress in later years.” The findings are reported as being at the cutting edge of scientific research. “To our knowledge this is one of the first times this physical effect has been seen in three-months old infants” according to the Daily Mail’s report.  Yet the idea that a mother’s thoughts and feelings can impact both physically and emotionally on their unborn child has very long and complex roots.

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Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine

Picture1It was common knowledge in early modern England that sexual desire was malleable, and could be increased or decreased by a range of foods – including artichokes, oysters and parsnips. This book argues that these aphrodisiacs were used not simply for sexual pleasure, but, more importantly, to enhance fertility and reproductive success; and that at that time sexual desire and pleasure were felt to be far more intimately connected to conception and fertility than is the case today. It draws on a range of sources to show how, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, aphrodisiacs were recommended for the treatment of infertility, and how men and women utilised them to regulate their fertility. Via themes such as gender, witchcraft and domestic medical practice, it shows that aphrodisiacs were more than just sexual curiosities – they were medicines which operated in a number of different ways unfamiliar now, and their use illuminates popular understandings of sex and reproduction in this period

You can purchase the book here


Female Barrenness, Bodily Access and Aromatic Treatments in Seventeenth-Century England (2014) (Open Access)

Historical Research

Published August 2014 (Open Access)

Jennifer Evans, ‘Female Barrenness, Bodily Access and Aromatic Treatments in Seventeenth-Century England’, Historical Research, vol. 87, no. 237 (2014), pp 423-43.

Across the seventeenth century medical self-help manuals noted that aromatic substances were a suitable remedy for female barrenness. It has often been suggested that in the early modern period physicians did not touch their patients but instead relied upon patient narrative to diagnose and treat the sick body. This article problematizes this issue by investigating the multi-sensory approach to treating infertility, a disorder invested with concerns of gendered bodily access. It will be demonstrated that the recommendation of aromatic treatments for infertility allowed male physicians a means to negotiate the complex gender boundaries that restricted their access to women’s bodies.

This article is available to read in full via open access.

Coerced medical examinations, suspected infanticide, and the response of the women’s movement in Britain, 1871-1881 (2013)

Women's History Review

Click for link to journal website

Published 2013

Daniel J.R. Grey, ‘“What woman is safe…?”:  Coerced medical examinations, suspected infanticide, and the response of the women’s movement in Britain, 1871-1881’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 22, No. 3 (2013): 403-421.

Few scholars have investigated infanticide in modern Britain. Still less work has explored the connection between feminist analyses of this issue during the 1870s—a time when child homicide was perceived as endemic—and its relationship to other, more well-known campaigns by the women’s movement that also focused on the double standard of sexual morality as embodied by law. This article re-evaluates the response to judicial treatment of infanticide issued by the feminist-led Committee for Amending the Law in Points Wherein it is Injurious to Women (CALPIW) and the Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights (VADPR). It argues that until a VADPR-sponsored civil damages case was defeated at the Court of Appeal in 1881, the feminist critique held the possibility of radically reshaping women’s medico-legal treatment in England and Wales. Its ultimate failure, moreover, explains the surprising absence of infanticide as a specific campaign issue for the British women’s movement from the 1880s until shortly before the First World War.

Pain and the Cultural Script of Infanticide in England Wales, 1860-1960 (2014)

Click to view on Amazon

Click to view on Amazon

Published July 2014

About the Chapter:

Daniel J.R. Grey, ‘”The Agony of Despair”: Pain and the Cultural Script of Infanticide in England and Wales, 1860-1960’, in Rob Boddice (ed.), Pain and Emotion in Modern History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 204-19.

This chapter explores how and why the closely entwined experiences of pain, shame and fear became — and remained — key elements of the construction of infanticide in England and Wales for at least a century.

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