Cunning-folk as abortionists in nineteenth-century England

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. Our latest post, which explores nineteenth-century abortion, is contributed by Professor Owen Davies. This is our last post of 2014, and we will be back on 12 January. Thank you to our contributors, members and readers who have made our first year so successful and enjoyable. 

Cunning-folk as abortionists in nineteenth-century England

Owen Davies

In 1978 one of the pioneers of historical research on abortion practices, Angus McLaren, observed, ‘the development of new methods of birth control and the controversy over their use at the turn of the [nineteenth] century took place in the presence of a reality not yet fully perceived by historians – a widespread tradition of abortion based on folk remedies.’[1] The point still holds today. There is a general awareness of the role of folk remedies and practitioners in abortion and birth control, but very little detailed study. The sources are a problem, with the topic avoided or underrepresented in the volumes of material collected by antiquarians and folklorists.[2] We have very little autobiographical material. Poor working class women did not write in diaries about their birth control strategies. The voices that clamour in the sources are those that condemned the illegal practice.

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