Not Only Now: Recovering the History of Pregnancy Loss in the Sixteenth Century

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A silence often surrounds the topic of pregnancy loss.

The reasons for it are many. People do not know what to say. People do not know how common pregnancy losses are; do not want to think about pregnancy loss; do not realise that a pregnancy has been lost. In the many accounts and articles I have been reading this week – which is Pregnancy Loss Awareness Week – one theme predominates. The emotions surrounding the loss of a wanted baby are not better for being kept under wraps. It is, as Katy Lindemann writes in the Guardian, arguably cruel that women are still expected not to talk about losses that occur within the first trimester, the twelve weeks during which it is most common to lose a pregnancy.

Not everyone, of course, wants to talk, but one of the persistent fears I hear in accounts of pregnancy loss is the fear that, without talking, there is so little to keep a baby lost during pregnancy present in memories. It is especially hard to bridge the unimaginable gap between an expectant mother’s intimate knowledge of her baby’s movements and growth, and the relative unknowability of that unborn baby – even in our age of sonograph technology – to everyone else. There are painfully few ways to mark the existence of these babies. There may be no birth certificate; there may be no legal record of life at all, even in the cases where a baby is born below the point of survivable prematurity and yet lives for several hours. Such rituals as there are, are few and tentative, often not quite adapted for purpose. One of the things that is taken away from parents suffering pregnancy loss is a sense of their baby’s place and presence in the world.

The project I am currently working on is an attempt to recover an unspoken history of pregnancy loss in the long past. For many years, the dominant historical view of medieval parenting was that, at a time when small children died often and all too easily, parents could not spare the emotional pain to grieve for them. The view comes from a book published by Philippe Ariès in 1960. Ariès argued that childhood is a modern construct, and that parents of the past did not become emotionally attached to their small children and infants. For decades now, scholars have been aware that Ariès misunderstood or misinterpreted many of the sources he was using to draw his conclusions. However, his idea caught popular imagination, and it’s still something you hear quoted as fact.

We might imagine that in an age when such a high value was placed upon women as mothers, grief for a lost baby would be a gendered emotion; that fathers would not or did not grieve for babies they barely knew. We might imagine pregnancy loss, in particular, to be a secret, even shameful or covert feminine experience. Before I began this study, I expected to find accounts of men blaming, or even mistreating, their wives for ‘failing’ to bear living children; I suspected that emotions of grief or sorrow would be largely confined to the same hushed domestic sphere as the birthing chamber itself. And, even while I did not subscribe to Ariès’ rather callous assumption that a family experiencing multiple losses would somehow ‘get used to it,’ I presumed – as many people still do today, of contemporary losses – that the birth of other children might lessen the pain of a pregnancy loss.

Yet, the evidence shows it was not so. A will from 1534, written by one Robert Duckett of Sibton in Suffolk, describes the testator’s intentions for the money he wished to donate to his parish church of St Peter. The will is piercingly immediate in its emotional intimacy and affection for family. It describes plans for a new side-chapel in the parish church, where saintly figures evoking the Holy Family of Christ would be juxtaposed with a memorial to Duckett’s own family. The will lists the images to be included, beginning with the Virgin Mary and her mother St Anne. This is quite a conventional pairing, testifying to the increasing popularity of St Anne in later medieval England. Yet, though Anne is often portrayed as an affectionate grandmother to Christ and a loving, careful mother to her daughter Mary, she is also associated with the pain of infertility. In medieval accounts, Anne was understood to be an older mother when she miraculously became pregnant with Mary; she had believed herself to be unable to bear children.

This emphasis on a longing for children is magnified in the other images Duckett wanted to have made. The same stained glass window that was to memorialise his family was also to feature an image of the Holy Trinity, with St Elizabeth on one side and St Joachim on the other. The older cousin of the Virgin Mary, St Elizabeth commonly features in medieval images of the Visitation, the scene in which the two cousins joyously greet each other, the one pregnant with the infant Christ and the other with St John the Baptist. Yet this, too, is not only a scene celebrating fertility and new family life. Like the Virgin’s mother St Anne, Elizabeth was long past the age of childbearing when she became pregnant with the future John the Baptist; like Anne, she believed herself to be unable to conceive a child.

The husbands of these two seemingly infertile women, Anne and Elizabeth, were also venerated as saints. Zachariah, like his wife Elizabeth, appears in Luke’s gospel: it is he who first speaks the Benedictus, the canticle of thanksgiving that plays a prominent role in medieval liturgy. Before this sacred song, he features in a dramatic episode of doubt transformed, as an angel appears to tell him his wife will bear a son. An early echo of doubting Thomas, Zachariah refuses to believe in what must come to pass, insisting (with a remarkable lack of sympathy for his elderly wife) that Elizabeth’s childbearing years are long over, and she cannot be pregnant. Struck dumb as punishment for his lack of belief, he spends the later months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy in silence, only regaining his power to speak when he sees, acknowledges, and names his son. By contrast, medieval tradition gives Anne’s husband Joachim a far less significant, dramatic and prominent role. One of three successive husbands of Anne, he dies during the Virgin’s childhood. He makes no powerful, canonical, liturgical speech. His only role is to be a man longing for a child. Yet, whereas Zachariah speaks harshly of his wife’s age, Joachim offers only kindness to Anne, sharing in her pain. It is not Zachariah the priest and prophet whom Robert Duckett wanted to see pictured alongside St Elizabeth in his memorial window, but the sympathetic Joachim. His incongruous pairing of these saints suggests an emotional and religious connection to the nexus of ideas about longing and childlessness, which they represent.

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Despite what we might expect from this unusual combination of images, Duckett and his wife were not unable to have children. Their family was large, even by medieval standards, but it was also marked by a loss that takes a prominent place in the will’s description of the memorial that is to be included in the stained glass window:

I will some token shall be made whereby the souls of me and my wife may be the better remembered and prayed for, with all our children 6 sons and 8 daughters. Whereof one son to lie along [to be depicted lying horizontally] for he was quick in his mother(s) womb, and all her time, yet dead born’.

These instructions have a practical role: specifying exactly how the window should look. Yet, there is a poignant gap between the detail Duckett offers and the inarticulacy of the medium through which he seeks to have his son commemorated. The medieval stained glass has not survived (indeed, as Judith Middleton-Stewart notes in her discussion of Duckett’s will, the rapid onset of the Reformation in England may mean it was never even made). But we can easily imagine by looking at other medieval examples: a line of children standing by their parents, probably distinguished from one another only by gender, represented not naturalistically but symbolically. The posture Duckett specifies for the image of his stillborn son is, therefore, only the barest indication of that son’s death: it can do nothing to convey the intimate particularity of this experience of loss.  As if straining to bridge the cruelly small distance between foetal liveliness and stillbirth, Duckett emphasises the former, giving details that could not possibly have been represented within the medium of a stained glass memorial. As if pleading for his son (a child who died unbaptised in utero would have been considered ineligible for salvation and for burial in consecrated ground), he stresses the liveliness of the baby throughout his gestation.

As the number of their children demonstrates, Robert and his wife must have been well aware of the normal processes of pregnancy. They were obviously fertile. The insistent detail of Duckett’s account recalls the ways in which modern survivors of pregnancy loss run over and over the facts of their experience, almost obsessively recalling what happened and what went wrong. The wording of this bequest breaks away from the standard, formal language of wills, to express centuries-old bewilderment and grief. How is it that a baby who seemed so lively in the womb, so full of movement all through the pregnancy, could be born dead?

In envisaging his chapel and its family memorial, Duckett could draw on little recognisable convention for mourning a stillbirth. As today, the subject is often shrouded in silence; the usual rituals are conspicuous in their absence. Instead, his will draws together a combination of saints associated with the emotions surrounding a rather different kind of longing for a child, and in their midst, he remembers his stillborn son.

Notes:

We still don’t have a good medical understanding of why some babies are stillborn. The medical advances that have made huge differences to other areas of pregnancy loss (such as prematurity) simply haven’t happened here. The charity Tommy’s notes that around 60% of stillbirths are unexplained. In the UK, the rate of stillbirth is around 1 in 200 or 225 pregnancies; it is, disturbingly, much worse for women of colour than for white women, a pattern replicated elsewhere in the world.

The images in this post are all from the church of Sibton St Peter, where Robert Duckett hoped to memorialise his family. The first image comes from a memorial to Edmund Chapman and Mary Barker, who lost a son and a daughter, both in early infancy. The second shows the children of Edmund and Maryon Chapman. I am grateful to Simon Knott (to whom the copyright belongs), for these images and for his excellent descriptions of St Sibton on the Suffolk Churches site.

Duckett’s will is discussed and quoted in Judith Middleton-Stewart, Inward Purity and Outward Splendour: Death and Remembrance in the Deanery of Dunwich, Suffolk, 1370-1547 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2001).

4 thoughts on “Not Only Now: Recovering the History of Pregnancy Loss in the Sixteenth Century

  1. What a remarkable post. So thoughtful, so moving, and so important. Thank you. Will this research result in a book or journal article?

    • Thank you! And yes, it will, though it may take a little while. I have funding to write a book from the Irish Research Council.

  2. Oh, the injustice of it all, then and now. It is all bound up in politics and patriarchal control. I am infuriated by the misogyny of so-called pro-lifers, who are not remotely interested in babies but see them instead as a punishment, and simultaneously blame women unable to conceive or carry a pregnancy to term as almost equally deficient. It makes my blood boil!

  3. PS: My comment was sparked by my modern-day feminist fury, but I don’t doubt those attitudes have prevailed for centuries.

    Women are *always* to blame.

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