Medical prophecy. ‘One should not disbelieve what women say about childbirth… For they cannot be persuaded by fact or by argument that they know anything better than what goes on in their own bodies’, wrote a contributor to the Hippocratic corpus, the classical Greek medical texts on which the Western medical tradition is founded. Medical men ascertaining pregnancy looked for signs such as swollen breasts, large belly, protruding belly button and missed period—but all were open to other explanations. While human gestation was expected to last around nine months, it could exceptionally take seven or eleven. Far from an assured diagnosis, doctors offered a prophecy at best. The flexible boundaries of pregnancy likely played an important social role. For example, they provided legal protection for a child born less than nine months after the wedding or more than nine months after the presumed father’s death.

Experiencing pregnancy

In Europe before 1800, the womb was still culturally protected and medical predictions of pregnancy depended crucially on the testimony of the woman concerned.

Distinguished by their periodic discharge of fluids, especially blood, women in their fertile years were perched between good growth and evil stagnation. An interruption of the monthly course was variously interpreted as a harbinger of pregnancy or a sign of ill health: a woman might be expecting a child or need to take herbs to restore the flow. Something she passed could be the returned period, an abortion or a false conception.

Pregnancy remained uncertain even when the bleeding failed to reappear and the abdomen started to enlarge. The earliest reliable sign was ‘quickening’, when a mother-to-be felt the child move in the womb—but in some cases pregnancy was revealed for certain only at birth. In difficult cases wealthy women consulted male practitioners. But birth was generally a domestic and female affair, supervised by midwives, and male surgeons were called in emergencies only.

A lying-in chamber, 1580


Instruction about pregnancy and childbirth, 1642