What Were Early Modern Beds Like?

Fairy tales don’t have to make sense to be meaningful. They follow their own logic and readers – or, traditionally, listeners – get so enraptured in the story that no one really questions their elements, be they fairy godmothers, magic roses, or talking frogs. Yet there is one story that always left me puzzled when I was growing up: The Princess and the Pea.

Was a ‘real princess’ really incapable of sleeping because of a hard pea underneath all the fluffy layers? What did that tell people about wealth, femininity, and being a ‘true’ princess, deserving of marrying the prince, instead of an ambitious commoner (not to say a potential con artist…)? What was the lesson people were being taught? These are all valid questions that folklorists, historians, and literary scholars have written about. But for me, the main one has always been where the idea of piling mattress on top of mattress came from. Did no one find that sleeping arrangement weird? Let’s swap Copenhagen for London. Let me take you to a couple of centuries back, before Andersen wrote this tale, and tell you about early modern beds, from their practical aspects to their symbolic meanings.

The Princess and the Pea

Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) first heard the tale of the princess and the pea as a child. It was probably a Swedish folktale, which he later wrote down and published in 1835. The story sets out with an anxious prince who needs to marry. But, alongside his mother, the queen, the prince worries about the many young women who could pretend to be of noble blood in the hope of marrying him. He needs to find a ‘real’ princess. One stormy night, they find a woman by the castle gate, soaked by the rain. She tells them she is a princess and asks for shelter in the castle.

The suspicious mother decides to test her refinement and delicacy by placing a hard pea underneath a pile of twenty fluffy mattresses. In the morning, the girl tells the queen and the prince how she couldn’t sleep, since there was something hard underneath the mattresses, which injured her body. This persuades mother and son of her royal blood: only a ‘true’ princess could be so delicate as to be bothered by the hidden pea. The couple marries and the pea is eventually displayed for all to see in a museum – a testament to the young woman’s noble blood and the royals’ ingenuity. 

Regardless of how you read the story – as a satire of nobility, as a reminder not to judge a book by its cover, as a tale of absurdity – it is telling that it was a bed that was chosen to showcase the difference between a pretender and someone who had grown up used to luxury and comfort.

The Hierarchy of Early Modern Beds

Let’s take Elizabethan England as an example. Beds could be extremely expensive; indeed, they were the items most often mentioned in wills and inventories of the period, besides money and landholdings. However, the way people slept varied greatly, depending on social status and wealth. At the very bottom (literally), there were those who just lay on the floor wherever they could. A little bit more comfort would involve piles of straw to soften the earthen floor (unfortunately, mice were eager to join in, which made this set-up less than ideal).

The next, literal, step-up would be sleeping on a sack of straw, possibly on a raised platform off the floor. This not only helped ward off vermin but was particularly useful in the draughty rooms of the time. Wooden box beds and rush mats were an improvement, as were rope-strung truckle beds. They were easy to produce and created a net with some bounce to it over which the mattress would go. These beds could be easily moved out of the way, underneath larger beds, which made it perfect for children or servants. Softer mattresses could be made of hay, flock, or wool. These were much more comfortable than straw, but harder to maintain well, which was why these mattresses were usually piled on top of a straw mattress, which would buffer the friction against the ropes.

Within these mattresses, people often added aromatic herbs, such as lavender. Just like today, it was believed that lavender would facilitate sleep. Wormwood and lady’s bedstraw, on the other hand, would help with any insects that tried disturbing your night’s sleep. But what should go on top of all of this? Well, bolsters, pillows, and blankets, along with linen pillowcases and sheets, would be very comfortable options. However, these were out of reach for most people. A prosperous couple might have pillowcases and sheets in their marital bed, but their children probably wouldn’t, nor any servants who might work in the house.

The next step up would include a feather bed (‘bed’ in this period often meant mattress). These were the most comfortable, not only the softest but also the warmest beds you could sleep in. The more feathers, and the smaller they were, the better. The down from eider ducks (‘eiderdown’) was widely believed to be the best option, which was reflected in its price. Once more, these feather beds were piled over a flock or hay mattress, which would be over a straw mattress. Significantly, all of these beds/mattresses could have been used as a cover or duvet on top of the person sleeping; if you had several ‘beds’ you could just sleep in between them. So, the more layers you had, the more comfortable you would be – and the tale of the Princess and the Pea is already sounding less strange!

A Luxurious Bed

So, what would the ‘ideal’ Elizabethan bed be like? Well, the pile of mattresses (rush mat, straw sack with herbs, flock bed and ideally two feather beds, with the best one on top) would go inside a wooden bed frame and over the tightly-strung ropes – which is where some people believe that the expression ‘sleep tight’ comes from, as it was important for the ropes to be pulled tight with a wooden peg for the bed to be comfortable and not sagging in the middle. (That’s probably not true, though.) Four-poster beds were highly prized, especially with a headboard and wooden ceilings, or at least a thick fabric top. Around the bed, heavy curtains and maybe decorative silks would be hung, making the bed a room within a room. 

Remember, most houses didn’t have corridors, so people often had to pass through other rooms to access their own. Curtains around the bed afforded a couple privacy, but they also made sleeping cosy and warm. On top of the five layers of beds, there would be sheets of linen, pillows and bolsters of feathers, plus blankets and a coverlet, lined with furs and embroidered with precious materials. Although few people could sleep in a bed like this in the early 16th century (it could cost more than a small farm!), by the end of the century that was more likely, with a gradual increase in those who could afford it. (You can read about earlier, medieval beds here.)

Of course, for these beds to be truly luxurious, it was crucial to air the mattresses, brush the wool curtains, and most importantly, wash the linen. Early modern hygiene prioritised cleaning all fabrics that would touch the body, as excrements such as sweat would leave the skin pores and get trapped in the fabric. Moreover, washing sheets helped to prevent the spread of bed bugs, which shouldn’t be underestimated in this period. Still, as the century progressed, the sleeping standards of many improved, especially for craftsmen, yeomen and members of the lower gentry. Chimneys proliferated, as did glazed windows. Bedsteads became more common, as did woollen and feather beds. (You can read more about sleeping habits here.)

Beds as Symbols

Travellers such as William Harrison (1534-1593), wrote of the cleanliness of the English inns where they stayed, and especially the beds, with linen sheets ‘wherein no man hath lodged since they came from the laundress’. With the increase in travel at the time, some inns even used their beds as a way to attract visitors. The Great Bed of Ware became a tourist attraction, as it could fit more than ten people. Travellers could find it in the Hertfordshire town, where people would stop on their way from London to Cambridge. Most Elizabethan beds were 6 ft x 7ft in size; the Great Bed of Ware was 10.7 ft x 12 ft (!!!), and it was even mentioned by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night (1601) when Sir Toby Belch described a sheet of paper as “… big enough for the Bed of Ware!”. (By the way, you can still see this bed at the V&A, which I highly recommend you do!)

Naturally, beds such as these were extremely uncommon. But, as more and more people could afford to sleep in a comfortable bed, composed of several mattresses on top of each other, not only in England but in continental Europe too, those of noble birth could make their own beds even more luxurious, to signify their wealth and superior social class. This brings me back to The Princess and the Pea, written down centuries later. Perhaps the tale – and Andersen himself – was mocking the aristocracy and its need to be literally above the common folk, sleeping piled high over feather mattresses. In any case, it is clear that beds could be weaponised in the discourse about purity and refinement, and where people belonged: if you couldn’t feel a hard pea through the mattresses, maybe you shouldn’t aspire to marry a prince at all.


William Harrison, Description Of Elizabethan England (1577).

John Taylor, In the Praise of Cleane Linnen. With the commendable use of the laundresse (London, 1624).

Thomas Tusser, A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie (London, 1557).

Further Reading:

Ruth Goodman, How to be a Tudor: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Everyday Life (London, 2015).

Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England (London, 2012).

Lawrence Wright, Warm and Snug: The History of the Bed (Stroud, 2004).

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What Made a 17th-Century Midwife Good at Her Job?

Percivall Willughby (1596–1685) despised the midwives of his time. In his 1670s book, Observations in Midwifery, he intended to ‘inform the ignorant common midwives’, whose brutal methods were responsible for so many deaths – according to him. Although his book wasn’t published until almost two centuries later, Willughby was writing in a period in which male practitioners were gradually taking over the role of midwives in Britain (or at least trying to). Many of his contemporaries wrote similar accounts, no doubt motivated by asserting their claim on the medical marketplace, although Willughby’s writing is particularly striking. According to him,

‘midwives will pull, stretch, or hale their [the mothers’] bodies, or use any violence to enforce the womb, in hopes of a speedier delivery. Such strugglings and doings make a difficult, painful, and long labour.’

But was any of that true? What made a 17th-century midwife good at her job? And can we trust men like Willughby?

Challenging Bias in 17th-Century Midwifery

Well, until fairly recently, most people did believe these accounts by male midwives. Traditional midwives were depicted as stereotypically ignorant, poor, superstitious, and unskilled. Perhaps the main reason for that is that the first historians of midwifery in Britain were physicians – not trained historians – who tended to take male medical practitioners of the past, such as WiIllughby, at their word. This, of course, also reflected the biases of these 19th-century writers, who struggled to see women (whether in the present or the past) as skilled and capable at what they considered ‘male activities’.

Fortunately, social historians have spent decades deconstructing this stereotype thanks to a wealth of primary sources, including records kept by the midwives themselves, their clients, and the licensing authorities. So, what made a 17th-century midwife good at her job?

Ethical Standards for 17th-Century Midwives

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to look at how midwives were licensed, which was the responsibility of the Church of England. Midwives swore oaths, which often included:

  • Making their services available to both rich and poor women (whom they often attended for free)
  • Reporting information on the father of the baby and suspected bastardy
  • Not engaging in witchcraft
  • Baptising infants who probably wouldn’t survive
  • Notifying the ecclesiastical authorities of any baptisms performed
  • Not ‘switching’ babies
  • Not procuring abortions
  • Maintaining patient confidentiality
  • Not using instruments or mutilating babies in the womb
  • Making sure that stillborn babies were buried properly
  • Cooperating with other midwives and instructing their deputies (apprentices)
  • Reporting midwives who didn’t conform to these guidelines

As you can see, these injunctions have much to do with professional ethics, both from a medical and religious perspective, but they also highlight the importance of helping fellow midwives, of cooperating in difficult deliveries as well as instructing the new generations of midwives. Midwives should be of ‘good character’ and practising Christians, active in their communities and parishes. Still, you might be thinking that none of these criteria seems to take skill into consideration.

The Path to Becoming a 17th-Century Midwife

In 17th-century Britain, most midwives practised for long periods before obtaining their licenses. They usually started as a deputy to an older, more senior midwife, in order to gain experience. They attended deliveries and helped their mentors for years before working on their own, with these informal apprenticeships lasting from four to ten years. So, when midwives applied for their licenses, it wasn’t unusual for them to have decades of experience, especially since the licensing process was so expensive, and so they might need time to save for their application fees.. Besides gaining experience through practice, midwives were usually married women or widows, often with children themselves, which only added to their empirical, ‘bodily’ knowledge about childbirth and female health. (Read about the all-female early modern world of childbirth here.)

What is perhaps most telling about these midwives and their careers was the way their clients spoke about them. You see, besides being a ‘good Christian’, swearing to their oath, and undergoing informal apprenticeships, midwives were expected at their licensing to give evidence of their skill, which normally involved their clients testifying in their favour. Many women would come forth and praise their midwives to the licensing authorities, sometimes dozens of them, describing how many times they had been delivered and how capable the midwife was. Of course, the higher these clients were on the social scale – say, a gentlewoman – the more these testimonies would weigh in the midwife’s favour. They might include passages like these:

‘…she [the midwife] is not only helpful to the rich and those that can pay her but also to the poor’.
‘…she had the blessing to be a means for the safe delivery of others whose names are here subscribed and many others…’
‘[she has] good skill, experience and success in midwifery and has safely delivered several women in childbed with good success…’

Community Esteem and Expertise of 17th-Century Midwives

So, what made a 17th-century midwife ‘good’ was a mix of their good character, skill, piety, ethics, and involvement in their communities. Although the licensing system wasn’t perfect, it ensured standards of good conduct and practice as well as ascertained practical skills through clients’ testimonies and legitimised deputy midwives’ apprenticeships. Midwives were commonly well-known and respected in their communities, by people of all social groups. Besides their clients’ accounts of their skill, midwives were often called to testify as ‘experts’ in early modern courts, such as in the case of women ‘pleading the belly’ (declaring they were pregnant to avoid execution). (You can read more about the ‘Jury of Matrons’ here.) But midwives would also testify in bastardy cases or when someone was accused of rape, which indicates how they were perceived by their communities as medical ‘experts’.

Moreover, as midwives started to publish midwifery manuals, in no small measure to assert their authority over the world of pregnancy and childbirth, which they perceived as increasingly threatened by male practitioners, some midwives became widely known. That’s the case of Jane Sharp (1641-1671), the best-selling yet mysterious English author, and Louise Bourgeois or Boursier (1563-1636), the French royal midwife. In their writings, we get a glimpse of an early modern midwife’s life; they were aware of their responsibilities and committed to caring for women as part of a sisterhood.

Resisting the Narrative: Reevaluating the Skills of 17th-Century Midwives

Despite what man-midwives like Percival Willughby wrote, 17th-century midwives were generally very skilled and experienced, as hundreds of testimonies, letters, and journals tell us (including some accounts by physicians themselves!). Most of them followed an informal apprenticeship and this all-female network allowed them to cooperate and learn from each other. It wasn’t rare for a midwife to call a colleague to help in a complicated delivery; this wasn’t seen as a failure, but rather how a midwife should proceed. Midwives weren’t poor, ignorant, and dangerous practitioners. Rather, they were known for their patience, skill, kindness, and, crucially, for their knowledge, which derived from practical experience.

Yet it is telling that this negative stereotype of midwives as ignorant and unskilled persisted. With the medicalisation of childbirth and the rise of male midwives and their tools, such as forceps, traditional midwives were gradually replaced, and male practitioners eager to cement their new role were quick to decry them. As for Victorian physicians interested in the history of medicine, they believed their predecessors’ accounts and didn’t question how capable midwives actually were and whether man-midwives might have had an economic interest in degrading them.

As a historian, it is difficult to ignore the mounting evidence of 17th-century midwives’ skill and professionalism. Personally, having met midwives and been safely delivered by one myself, it seems hard to believe their depiction of midwives as violent and brutal. Lastly – and ironically-, it is likely that much of Willughby’s knowledge about childbirth (as well as many other man-midwives’) came directly from the midwives they so disparaged in their writings, who often instructed them, such as Willughby’s own daughter. But that’s a matter for another day.


Louise Bourgeois,  Observations diverses (Paris: 1609).

Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book (London: 1671).

Percival Willughby, Observations in Midwifery (Warwick: 1863).

Further Reading:

David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: 1997).

Doreen Evenden, The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London (Cambridge: 2000)

David Harley, ‘Ignorant Midwives – a persistent stereotype’, The Society for the History of Medicine Bulletin 28 (1981), pp. 6-9.

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Little Red Riding Hood and the Invisibility of Older Women

Content Warning: Discussion of Cannibalism, Sexual Assault, Violence.

How old was Little Red Riding Hood? In the earliest, 16th-century versions of the tale, she was around the age of puberty. Other details you might not know include the wolf making the girl eat her grandmother’s flesh (including her sexual organs and breasts) and drinking the old woman’s blood from a bowl before attempting to ravish the girl. But, using her guile, Little Red Riding Hood escapes, with the help of washerwomen who were working on the nearby river. This was a story about a young girl who was not ready to be initiated into the adult world of sex, represented by the wolf (and the blood), who was saved by her own resourcefulness and by a network of older women. To survive the lustful wolf, a combination of youthful wit and the wisdom of age was needed.

You might be wondering where was the woodcutter who saved Little Red Riding Hood (and, in some versions, the grandmother too). Well, he wouldn’t show up until later, effectively replacing the feminine wisdom gained through experience represented by the washerwomen with the image of a ‘good’ and brave man, in contrast to the wicked and savage wolf.

Contextualising Fairy Tales: Little Red Riding Hood in Historical Context

It is often said that fairy tales used to be much ‘darker’ stories and that they have been diluted throughout the centuries – just think of Disney’s saccharine versions of many famous tales. I think that’s too simplistic. But the changes fairy tales go through do tell us a lot about the context in which the stories are being told. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ versions – and even tracing the ‘original’ story can be a fraught task. Fairy tales often seem to exist in a world of their own: they belong to no one and to everyone, their centuries-long history creating a kaleidoscopic story in which multiple versions coexist, often contradicting themselves, and they can always be reinvented. Being atemporal is one of the many charms of these kinds of tales.

Yet stories are always created (and re-created) in a specific context; they reflect culture and are firmly grounded in a specific time and place. Fairy tales give us clues about what a society values, fears, prioritises, or considers taboo. Little Red Riding Hood was a 16th-century tale from the French countryside. It was a world in which older women were believed to possess ‘secret’ knowledge about the human body: they knew about the mysteries of childbirth and reproduction. They had ‘womb knowledge’: knowledge about the uterus, sure, but also knowledge gained through their bodily experience and sexuality, such as having children themselves. By the 18th century, the world of childbirth was rapidly changing: man-midwives (accoucheurs), surgeons, and physicians were gradually replacing traditional midwives and matrons in the birth room. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Little Red Riding Hood’s story changed: she was rescued by a strong and skilled man, instead of the washerwomen.

You might be thinking that this is a stretch – and I won’t make a case for the woodcutter’s axe being a stand-in for the man-midwife’s forceps, I promise. Still, childbirth was becoming increasingly medicalised (we could even say ‘masculinised’) in this period, and it is possible that changes in popular fairy tales reflected that change. In any case, the colour red in the story is often associated with menstruation and sex – most famously, by psychoanalysts such as Bruno Bettleheim. Although I should probably mention that there was no red cape in the earliest versions. But there was the bowl full of grandmother’s blood from which the girl drank – perhaps symbolically assimilating her adult womanhood through blood, whether from menstruation, loss of virginity, or childbirth. In this version, initiation into the adult world is connected to fertility and reproduction. Reading fairy tales as though they exist outside a specific cultural context is a pet peeve of many historians – myself included. But let’s come back to the older women.

When I started researching 16th and 17th-century recipe books – which included everything from making strawberry preserves, removing bodily hair, writing in invisible ink, and provoking an abortion – I was surprised at how many menstruation recipes I found. Much of women’s health (not to mention fertility) was connected to having regular periods, and both the quantity and quality of the blood were important factors. But, if menstruation was so central, how come I couldn’t find any recipes about menopause? Of course, the word menopause itself didn’t exist yet (it was usually just called the ‘cessation of the terms’ or the ‘end of the flowers’), but maybe I could find recipes about how to treat its symptoms…? But no, remedies to treat these women were nowhere to be found.

Menopause and Transformation: Shifting Roles of Older Women

Many older women report feeling invisible as they age – ‘Invisible Women Syndrome’ is real – and menopause is still under-discussed. In the early modern period, it was usually believed that menopause made the female body closer to the male; according to the humoral theory, the body became drier with age, which explained why there was no excessive blood to purge. Medical writers believed the womb literally shrivelled, becoming unfit for procreation. The Hippocratic theory of the seven-ages-of-man, according to which the body underwent changes every seven years, meant that menopause should be expected at around 49 years old – although writers reported it earlier or much later than that.

With age – and menopause – came facial hair, the loss of teeth, and osteoporosis, which could affect someone’s posture. It is not a coincidence that all of these characteristics were associated with witches, too. There is much overlap between gender and age where witchcraft is concerned. (You can read more about witches and old age here.) Older women could be despised, but they could also be feared. Free from the concern of accidental pregnancy, post-menopausal women’s sexuality and agency could develop beyond what society considered acceptable. Importantly, they could subvert patriarchal values, which they could transmit to young women, and stand in the way of men.

A Deeper Look at Little Red Riding Hood’s Symbolism

Let’s go back to Little Red Riding Hood. In the earliest versions of the story, attitudes about the body, sex, and age can be found everywhere. When the wolf meets the girl, he asks her which path she will take to visit her grandmother: the ‘pins’ path or the ‘needles’ one? Modern readers might imagine these words to describe different kinds of trees in both paths – maybe conifers? But there’s more to it than that. In 16th-century France, pins and needles symbolised different ages for girls. Pins are easier and younger girls would learn to use them first. Plus, they have no opening. Using needles requires time and skill – and needles are made to be penetrated by thread, in a not-very-subtle domestic metaphor for marital sex. If this sounds like a stretch, stick with me. Young girls received pins from admirers and brides received needles to celebrate their entry into adult womanhood. This means that French listeners would probably understand that this is a story about sex. 

So, depending on which version readers had access to, the lesson was different. In later retellings (such as the French version by Charles Perrault or the German one by the brothers Grimm), the girl is taught the importance of obeying her elders and not straying from the (single) expected safe path, not trusting strangers, and learning to differentiate between men who are predators and those she can trust. In the earliest, peasant incarnation, however, the girl learns to trust herself and her guile. When she becomes frightened of the wolf, she tries to leave the bed and run away, but he won’t allow her. So, the girl tells him she needs to do pipi, to which the wolf replies that she can just urinate on the bed. Eventually, Little Red Riding Hood persuades the wolf to let her go outside to relieve herself with a rope tied around her leg so she can’t run away. Once she’s out of the cottage, she ties the rope to a tree and runs towards the river. On the bank across from her, there are washerwomen working. They throw a sheet to the girl and pull her across the river and to safety. When the wolf finds out he has been fooled, he too asks the washerwomen to bring him across the river the same way they did the girl. The women comply, only to let go when the wolf is in the water, causing him to drown.

In this tale, innocence gives place to wit, and instead of a solitary male rescuer, the girl is saved by a group of women – and by herself. She is taught the importance of (female) community. Like her grandmother, the older women who help Little Red Riding Hood might be past the point where they would attract male attention – which many would see as a blessing. But through their lived, bodily experience, they have amassed important knowledge, that can be useful for those younger than them. Just like the girl correctly intuited, they know the wolf is not to be trusted.

These different readings reflect distinct societies and cultures. France in the 16th century was not the same as Germany in the 19th. Not to mention regional variations and all the changes that happened when tales told by countryside peasants were adapted to suit the urban elite. Because fairy tales are by definition ever-changing and contradictory stories, their nature allows and welcomes these contrasting readings. If I had to choose, though, I’d stick to the version with the washerwomen – I just can’t resist a story of female community. Not to mention the cannibalism, and the strip tease that happens before the wolf attacks the girl. But I’ll write about that some other time.

Further Reading

Bruno Bettleheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Penguin, 1976).

Robert Darnton, ‘Peasants Tell Tales’, in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: 1984), pp. 9-72.

Mary Douglas, ‘Red Riding Hood: An Interpretation from Anthropology’, Folklore 106, 1995, pp. 1-7.

Julie-Marie Strange, ‘Fairy Tales of Fertility’, in The Routledge History of Sex and the Body: 1500 to the Present, edited by Sarah Toulalan and Kate Fisher (New York: 2016), pp. 296-309.

Yvonne Verdier, Façons de Dire: Façons de Faire: La Laveuse,
la Couturière, la Cuisinière
(Paris, 1979).

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How to Clean Your Body in the Renaissance

One of the silliest historical myths out there is that people in the past were somehow ‘dirty’ and had poor hygiene, especially compared to today’s standards. Of course, I’m generalising; each culture had different practices depending on time and place. But think of people living in the Italian Renaissance: how did they cleanse their bodies? Bodily hygiene was intimately connected to health and medicine – arguably even more so than to the world of beauty and cosmetics. So, what was Renaissance hygiene like?

What is Hygiene?

To start with, people understood the very idea of ‘hygiene’ differently. It meant removing the impurities that constantly came out of the body, rather than merely getting rid of the dirt deposited on the body surface: the focus was on what came from the inside, not just the outside, of the body. This means we must talk about ‘excrements’ – and I don’t just mean urine and faeces, but also bodily fluids and even ‘vapours’. In the Renaissance, it was believed that food was digested, ‘concocted’ in the stomach and transformed into blood and corporeal matter. The residues from that process were ‘excreted’ from the body through the ears, eyes, nose, mouth, scalp, and the pores of the skin. If these impurities remained in the body, they could create obstructions and trigger illness. Hygiene was then, closely linked to medicine: regular purging was a vital part of preventing ill health, but occasional, medical purges were very popular treatments (just think of bloodletting).

The organs in the body knew how to ‘purge’ themselves of these impurities; it was up to people to help remove the residues to maintain health. Even hair was understood as an ‘excrement’ of the head (seriously!), which had to be kept clean to remain healthy. And, in Renaissance books about health, the care of the head, and especially the scalp and the hair, was extensively discussed. Curiously, what we today consider excrement, faeces and urine, weren’t as prominent, although authors gave readers some dietary advice. So, daily hygiene focused on preventing illness through the care of the body, especially the skin and hair.

Everyday Rituals

Morning toilette became a central part of healthcare. We often think of combing or brushing the hair as part of styling it and, although that was certainly important too, in the Renaissance these practices were also considered part of hygiene, as combs removed excrements from the head. Deep cleansing of the scalp and hair was a matter of health more than beauty. Plus, at a time in which both philosophy and physiology considered the brain to be the central organ of the body, this cleansing was considered specifically crucial for brain health. Men increasingly visited barbers, who treated their beards and hair, but also nails, ears, teeth, and the skin of the upper body.

So, this was a period in which objects connected to health proliferated, especially combs. Because combs would be in close contact with excrement, it was advised that people don’t share them – and even that men use different combs for the hair and beard, to avoid contamination. Ear cleaners and toothpicks were popular too. Wealthy people could have them made of precious materials such as ivory and encrusted with jewels. (There was even a 16th-century commentator who wrote how gentlemen who wore gold toothpicks in necklaces around their necks were vulgar and showing off.)

Special soaps and herbal washes were recommended to clean the head and hair – although one should proceed with caution. Washing the hair was potentially dangerous during pregnancy, and pregnant people were advised to clean their hair with powders and combs (not unlike the ‘dry shampoo’ many of us use today). There were even tales of miscarriages being caused by hair washing during pregnancy – which meant, of course, that the woman could be blamed for the loss of pregnancy.

Baths and Skincare

In Renaissance regimens, which gave advice on how to preserve health, it was recommended that readers open the pores of the skin to cleanse it. This could be done by rubbing the skin with the hands or a cloth, usually with a herbal solution. Exercising (and especially sweating) was also believed to help open the pores and expel impurities from the body (which makes me think of contemporary ‘detox’ trends such as ‘hot yoga’!). However, the porosity of the body made it vulnerable to contamination, so readers should be mindful of excess.

Baths shouldn’t be too long or frequent, and the water shouldn’t be too hot nor too cold, but tepid. Bathing could bring health hazards with it, as the wet body left the water, and the cold air touched the open pores. Afterwards, the person should rest, to help the body recover. As other forms of bodily hygiene were adopted, bathing became increasingly less popular, although medicinal baths for specific conditions continued to be used. Baths fell out of fashion and started to become rare in domestic environments. On the other hand, basins, ewers, and towels became increasingly popular for washing the face and hands – which makes sense in a period in which many diseases were believed to be transmitted by contact with other people’s hands. With these transformations, the distinction between the medical hygiene of the body and the world of cosmetics and beauty virtually disappeared.

Hygiene and Undergarments

But one of the main ways of keeping the body clean had to do with clothing. Although most people didn’t bathe as often as we do today (although there are records of people washing daily), they cleansed their bodies in other ways. The main one, and the one most foreign to us when we think of ‘bodily hygiene’, was probably changing their bedlinens and linen underclothes often, as they collected residues expelled by the body. This was particularly important for people who menstruated. As Petronio wrote in 1602:

‘[The bath] was the discovery of the ancients for keeping the body fresh and clean, for since they did nor have the custom of wearing linen garments […] they were apt to become covered in dirt of all kinds […] but in our times since all, rich and poor alike, are accustomed to wear shirts and thereby more easily keep the body clean, the bath is neither so widely nor frequently employed as in the times of the ancients.’

If the body expelled excrement through the pores of the skin, these impurities were absorbed by clothing, which meant that changing the bedding and undergarments regularly was believed to be superior to washing, according to many health regimens and domestic manuals (although baths were recommended for children under 5 years old).

Hygiene and Health

In any case, men were largely believed to be cleaner than women, especially because of the ‘things natural to women’ – menstruation. Female bodies were imagined as being particularly ‘leaky’ and so needed further care and hygiene. Plus, with their hair often being longer, they needed to take special care to remain clean. And female bodies were believed to be much more susceptible to illness and disease, again highlighting the connection between hygiene and health.

The cleansing of the body in Renaissance Italy was about more than personal care; it was a matter of health. This meant that newly created spaces in houses, such as dressing rooms, became ever more important, and objects such as combs and brushes, too. Linen underwear also became virtually omnipresent. Although the ‘Renaissance way’ of keeping the body clean might differ from our contemporary standards, it is undeniable that people took hygiene seriously, and they tried their best to keep the body in good health.


Castore Durante, Il Tesoro della sanità (Rome, 1586).

Marsilio Ficino, De le tre vite (Venice, 1548).  

Alessandro Petronio, Del Viver delli Romani (Rome, 1592).

Further Reading:

Rudolph Bell, How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians (London, 1999).

Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey, Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy (Oxford, 2013).

Roy Porter, Patients and Practitioners: Lay Perceptions of Medicine and re-Industrial Society (Cambridge, 1985).

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The ‘Queen of Hysterics’ and 19th-Century Theatrical Hysteria

Content Warning: Discussions of sexual assault and violence against women.

Everybody was talking about hysteria in late 19th-century Paris. Hysterics appeared in novels and plays; they were painted, photographed, sculpted and drawn. People crowded the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris to attend demonstrations and lectures on hysterics given by the world-renowned neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), and to gaze at his star patients. Who could resist admiring the ‘queen of hysterics’, the beautiful Blanche Wittmann (1859-1913), her face relaxed and insensible as she was pierced with needles by doctors, to demonstrate how she couldn’t feel any pain?

Born Marie Wittmann, Blanche was a ‘difficult’ child, who came from an abusive household. She was sent as an apprentice to a furrier, who sexually assaulted her at thirteen. Her medical symptoms quickly followed, and she eventually ran away, finding work as a ‘fille de service’, or a ‘ward girl’ at another hospital, before being hired at the Salpêtrière, where she spent the rest of her life. Patients provided much of the labour needed to keep the gigantic hospital and its facilities running: the work was mandatory for patients who were able, who were paid a nominal fee for their work. Hysterics were the stars of the hospital, but they were also not considered ‘insane’; according to Charcot, they suffered from a neurological disorder, not a mental illness (a statement which has been rightly problematised) and so the hysterics enjoyed a certain level of freedom. There was even a ‘bal des folles’ – a ball of the madwomen – at the hospital, in which patients dressed up, sang and danced.

When Blanche was admitted, at eighteen years old, she suffered from convulsions, paralysis, and fainting spells. In her early days there, she was described as ordinary, although her ‘hysterogenic zones’ (points in the body which could trigger hysterical attacks) were very sensitive. During her fits, she often called out the name Blanche (possibly her sister’s name), which was why she eventually started to be called by that name. Blanche was described as beautiful, with her fair skin, big bosom, and blonde hair: a perfect example of femininity, with an ever-fragile and vulnerable female body, largely susceptible to hysteria.

Hypnotism played a central role in shaping Blanche. It wasn’t used to treat patients, but to reproduce symptoms and allow for doctors to experiment. It allowed the unpredictable, unruly female body to become ‘rational’ and predictable, following a specific order. Charcot wanted to provide a rational framework for hysterical symptoms, and he used hypnotism to create the three main phases of hysteria: lethargy, catalepsy, and somnambulism. For him, hypnosis allowed doctors to study hysteria and isolate symptoms. Furthermore, he considered those more susceptible to hypnosis to likely be hysterics themselves (which was highly contested at the time). Blanche was at the centre of all these theoretical discussions.

Through endless demonstrations (they sometimes lasted hours), Blanche held gravity-defying poses for long periods of time, was flashed with bright lights, was hypnotised, received electrical stimuli, was pricked with needles, was deceived by doctors, and had her body manipulated in virtually all ways one can imagine. When she arrived at the Salpêtrière, the young Marie presented a variety of difficult-to-diagnose symptoms but, years later, as Blanche, she was the perfect hysteric, whose symptoms flawlessly illustrated Charcot’s teachings. She was shaped slowly by her life at the hospital, where her name was changed as she was, by the social and medical milieu she inhabited. She was transformed from an ‘ordinary’ hysteric into an ‘exemplary’ one through practice and repetition of enacting her symptoms: her talent and beauty made her the ‘ideal’ hysteric, and the literal star of the show.

Attending these demonstrations at the Salpêtrière was fashionable (socialites sat side by side with politicians, physicians, and artists – not to mention Sigmund Freud), but it was also fascinating, as people could see ‘Charcot’s hysterics’ act out the symptoms of hysteria. Arguably, these sessions were even more about theatre than they were about medicine. Charcot’s goal wasn’t to treat his patients, but rather to isolate and reproduce symptoms in a specific order, to classify the chaotic, making his patients living incarnations of the illness. His focus was on hysteria itself, not people like Blanche.

Although she was a medical celebrity, a ‘diva’ in contemporary terms, Blanche’s relationship with her doctors, and especially Charcot, was uneasy. Hysterics were believed to be overly sexual and deceitful, exaggerating their symptoms and blatantly lying to others. Additionally, theirs was a necessarily unbalanced relationship: the wealthy and educated male doctors held almost absolute power over the poor, uneducated female patients. And it is chilling how casually sexual relationships between them were brushed aside in the records, as though not worthy of mention. Not to mention how many of these ‘experiments’ were violent or cruel.

After Charcot’s death in 1893, hysteria as it had been created (and the ‘medical divas’ it had shaped) was in decline. His followers disbanded, his theories were largely abandoned, and his patients lost their star status. Interestingly, Blanche never suffered another hysterical attack after Charcot’s death, nor any other symptoms. She continued at the Salpêtrière but as an employee, not a patient. Blanche was interested in photography, and so she worked as an assistant at the photography laboratory for a while, before working as a radiology technician. She refused to talk about her past as the ‘queen of hysterics’. Sadly, Blanche developed radiology-induced cancer, and spent her final years in pain, suffering a series of amputations to her limbs, until she finally died.

Hysteria has a long history, from the ‘wandering womb’ in ancient Greece to contemporary discourse: female politicians are often described as ‘hysterics’ by their detractors. In the 19th century, it was an illness linked to unruly womanhood, to women who did not conform to strictly limited gender roles, in one way or another. It was in some ways a female response to a stifling patriarchal society: women who suffered from hysteria often felt paralysed.

It is impossible to know to what degree Blanche’s illness was physically or socially determined, or whether her symptoms were somatic or psychosomatic. She wasn’t exactly a fraud, nor was she just a passive recipient of Charcot’s actions. It is also problematic to try to diagnose her retrospectively, a usually frowned-upon idea for historians of medicine. What we do know is just how influential Blanche’s demonstrations were: would we have Madame Bovary without people like her, or Freudian psychoanalysis as we know it? Blanche’s case illustrates how the physical body and the culture of a specific time and place can transform medical symptoms, influencing the way illnesses are understood: cultures shape bodies, which respond and adapt. But Blanche’s story is also a tale of a young woman who had few options, and who had to be resourceful to survive. She might have been described as not particularly intelligent, but I find that hard to believe.


Jean-Marie Charcot, ‘Sur les divers états nerveux déterminés par l’hypnotisation chez les hystériques’,Comptes Rendues hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des Sciences 94 (1882): 403-405.

Albert Londe, La photographie médicale: application aux sciences médicales et physiologiques (Paris, 1893).

Désiré Magloire Bourneville and Paul-Marie-Léon Regnard, Iconographie Photographique de la Salpetriere (Service de M. Charcot) (Paris, 1878).

Further Reading:

Georges Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière (Boston, 2004T).

Per Olov Enquist, The Story of Blanche and Marie (London, 2007).

Asti Hustvedt, Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris (London, 2011).

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Maternal Mortality and “The Mother’s Legacy to Her Unborn Child”

Content Warning: Childbirth pain and death

Giving birth in early modern Europe was a dangerous rite of passage, one which most women would go through, and some would not survive. Women were largely defined by their domestic roles as wives and mothers: going through childbirth often changed a woman’s social status, as matrons were usually more respected, in no doubt thanks to their lived experiences giving birth and caring for their families. Yet many women feared childbirth. Besides the promise of pain, the possibility of either or both mother and baby not surviving could be daunting, which made some expectant mothers write to their unborn children, in case they were never able to meet them.

The Social and Spiritual Complexities of Childbirth in Early Modern Europe

Those about to give birth would pray to be able to endure the suffering of childbirth and its unavoidable pain. According to the Bible, as daughters of Eve, all women were cursed with pain, to atone for the original sin:

‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth; In pain, you will bring forth children’.
Genesis 3:16

So, childbirth pain was more than natural and physiological: it was God-given. And, although midwives knew many ways of speeding the delivery and alleviating pain, many women would pray to be able to endure it and survive the birth. Elizabeth, Countess of Bridgewater (d. 1666), wrote down the prayer she would utter as her time approached:

‘Lord Jesus since thou art pleased my time is come, to bring forth this my babe, thou hast made in me, give me a heart full of all truth and obedience to thee and that I make take this height of pain patiently, without grudging at thy holy will and pleasure […] O Lord hear, O Lord forgive, and suffer me not to accompany my sins in the deep, but part us, and make me become a new creature, and if it be by thy will, O God, that I should be no more in this world, Christ raise me to life everlasting in the true belief of thee, who art my only saviour: Amen.’

Elizabeth asked for the strength to face the expected pain, but, knowing how perilous the journey was, she also asked to survive. For those interested in history, it is easy to find many examples of women dying in childbirth. Just think of Henry VIII’s wives: two of the six died following difficult deliveries, Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr, who by then was married to Thomas Seymour. Yet these famous cases might give us an inaccurate picture of early modern childbed deaths. Most women survived childbirth with few complications and recovered well.

Famously, in the 1612 Child-Birth, or The Happy Deliverie of Women, Jacques Guillemeau wrote how of a thousand births, ‘there is scarce one found that is amiss’. That number was probably closer to 1% in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, but still, dying in childbirth was not as common as we tend to believe. (You can also watch a video in which I talk about statistics here.) However, that did not mean that women did not fear the perils of childbirth.

Maternal Letters and Prayers: A Legacy for the Unborn Child

It was not uncommon for expectant mothers to write wills as their time approached, as well as letters to their unborn children, in case they survived, and the mothers did not. That is exactly what happened to another Elizabeth, a Jacobean gentlewoman called Elizabeth Joceline (1595–1622), who died at 26 years old, nine days after giving birth to a daughter. The text she wrote before the delivery was published posthumously and called The Mothers Legacie to her Unborn Child. And it’s just heartbreaking.

Elizabeth wrote of her happiness at being pregnant; the book is joyful and full of advice for her unborn child. Elizabeth was clearly determined to be the best mother she could be. So, she advised the child to pray often, respect sacred days, be charitable, and avoid temptation. She was very much a woman of her time, and so, she also issued specific advice depending on gender: girls should be raised to be obedient and, eventually, good mothers – presumably, just like she had been. It was not necessary for them to learn much else, although that could be valuable – if they were virtuous:

‘I desire her bringing up may bee learning the Bible, as my sisters doe, good housewifery, writing, and good works: other learning a woman needs not; though I admire it in those whom God hath blest with descretion, yet I desired not much in my owne, having seene that sometimes women have greater portions of learning than wisdom […] But where learning and wisdom meet in a vertuous disposed woman she is the fittest closet for all goodnesse. She is like a well-balanced ship that may beare all her saile. […] I pray God give her a wise and religious heart, that she may use it to his glory, thy comfort, and her own salvation.”

Elizabeth goes on to say that, if the baby is a girl, her daughter might think that Elizabeth had died in vain delivering her, highlighting the usual preference in families for sons. Yet that was not the case:

‘…thou shalt see my love and care of thee [a girl] and thy salvation is as great, as if thou wert a sonne, and my feare greater”.

As a woman, Elizabeth understood what awaited her unborn daughter; she was full of empathy for her future daughter. The Mother’s Legacy allows us a glimpse into the intimate life and thoughts of an early modern mother-to-be. It is perhaps the best example of how conscious early modern women were of the perils of childbirth and how, despite that, many of them were able to feel joyful and hopeful.

This book was reprinted multiple times, well into the 19th century, and read by countless women. Once more, just like the Countess of Bridgewater’s private prayer, this text delineated a model of fortitude based on faith for all expectant mothers. Fulfilling the role expected of her by a patriarchal and Christian society, even after death, Elizabeth was an ideal early modern mother: she thought of her child and family above all else. It is particularly hard not to feel emotional when reading her advice to her husband about how to select a nurse to breastfeed their child in case Elizabeth died, especially because we know he needed to do so, just over a week after the birth.


Jacques Guillemeau, Child-Birth, or The Happy Deliverie of Women (London, 1612).

Elizabeth Joceline, Mothers Legacie, to her Unborne Childe (London, 1624).

Further Reading:

David Cressy, Birth, Marriage & Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 1999).

Roger Schofield, ‘Did the Mothers Really Die? Three Centuries of Maternal Mortality in ”The World We Have Lost”’, in The World We Have Gained: Histories of Population and Social Structure, edited by L. Bonfield, R. Smith, and K. Wrightson (Oxford, 1986), pp. 231-60.

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A Grip on the History of Forceps in Medicine

Content Warning: Discussion of childbirth, obstetric violence, maternal and infant mortality.

On a cold winter evening in 1600, Peter Chamberlen the Younger found himself attending to a labouring woman on the outskirts of London. The mother-to-be had been in labour for over 48 hours, and the situation was dire. Despite his wealth of experience, Peter feared that both the mother and child might be lost. With time running out, he made the fateful decision to use a secret tool that he and his brother, Peter Chamberlen the Elder, had been developing: a pair of obstetrical forceps. Miraculously, the mother gave birth to a healthy baby boy, much to the relief and amazement of everyone present. Little did they know that this life-saving tool, hidden away in a locked box, would revolutionize childbirth and save countless lives in the centuries to come. Just to give you an idea, today in the UK around 7% of deliveries in the NHS involve the use of forceps.

At the same time, the history of forceps highlights the gradual transition of birth from a ‘natural’ to a ‘medical’ event, with physicians competing with midwives and taking over childbirth. The rise of forceps is very closely connected to the creation of the field of obstetrics. To make things even more interesting, for decades this tool was surrounded by secrecy, making us question who should have access to medical knowledge. So, let’s try to get a grip on the history of forceps.

The Origins of Forceps

The earliest known references to forceps can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, with physicians like Hippocrates and Galen mentioning the use of forceps-like instruments in their writings. The word forceps itself comes from the Latin formus (hot) and capere (to grab). But these early tools were very rudimentary compared to the later, more anatomically refined designs that emerged in the early modern period.

The history of forceps became inextricably linked to the Chamberlen surgeons, especially the brothers mentioned above, Peter Chamberlen the Elder (1560-1631) and Peter Chamberlen the Younger (1572-1626). The Chamberlen family were French Huguenots who emigrated to England in 1569 and became prominent in their field. (Still, no one really knows which of them created the design for their famous forceps.) Peter the Elder served as a physician to Queen Anne, the wife of King James I, and later to Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I. His younger brother was appointed the royal physician to both King James I and King Charles I. But it was their newly designed forceps that cemented their fame.

A Family Secret

For over a century, the design of this tool was a closely guarded secret since the Chamberlen brothers realised how their forceps set them apart from other medical practitioners, be they midwives, physicians, or surgeons. Before forceps, the situation was difficult for babies who were stuck in the birth canal. Sometimes surgeons were called to remove them with hooks, often in pieces, in the hope of saving the mother.

When the Chamberlens were called to attend difficult births, the brothers brought their forceps in a large (and locked) box. No one was allowed to see the instrument, not even the person giving birth. The labouring mother was usually blindfolded, and all others present were removed from the room. As soon as the baby was born, the secret tool was hidden away in its box once more.

What made the Chamberlen forceps so unique was its unique, ‘gentler’ design: the blades were curved (imagine soup ladles), to conform to the baby’s head, minimising the risk of injury during the extraction. Crucially, the blades could be locked together at the handles with a spring, after being inserted separately, facilitating the delivery. Plus, being made of steel, their forceps were easy to clean.

The Chamberlens’ Detractors

Rumour had it that the Chamberlens had the highest success rates for delivering the baby safely and the mother surviving. Many women believed that they had higher chances of a safe birth with their help, which made the brothers highly sought-after and, unsurprisingly, deeply resented by their competitors. One of their critics even wrote a poem against them ending in:

‘To give you his character truly compleat
He’s Doctor, Projector, Man-Midwife, and Cheat.’

The Chamberlen brothers were members of the Guild of Barbers and Surgeons, who were never highly regarded by physicians since they hadn’t formally read medicine in Oxford or Cambridge. The Chamberlens were also not popular among midwives. In 1634, Peter had petitioned the king to create a Midwives Corporation which, of course, he intended to run. That did not go well with midwives.

Forceps and Secrecy

It probably didn’t help the Chamberlens’ popularity that they refused to share their secrets with other medical practitioners. Keep in mind that this was a time before patents to protect their design and they would make no money from sharing it. Still, when you think about how many people could have been spared if they shared their secrets, it’s hard to sympathise with the Chamberlens. Hugh Chamberlen was unapologetic:

‘My fathers, brothers,and my self […] have, by God’s blessing, and our Industry, attain’d to, and long practis’d a Way to deliver Women in these cases without any Prejudice to them or their infants. […] I will not take apology for not publishing the Secret I mention we have to extract Children without Hooks. […] I do but inform that the fore-mention’d three Persons of our Family, and my Self, can Serve them in these Extremities, with greater Safety than others.’

Meaning that, if you wanted a safe delivery, you better hire a Chamberlen, which meant you had to live in London and be able to afford their fees. Otherwise… well, too bad for you!

Openness at Last

The secret design remained hidden within the Chamberlen family for generations. In 1670, Hugh Chamberlen travelled to Paris to sell the design to the French doctor Francois Mauriceau, one of the most well-known ‘man-midwives’ of the time. You might be wondering how come the Chamberlens were willing to share their design. Well, Mauriceau won a bet. Chamberlen needed to prove that a forceps delivery was quick and safe, otherwise, Mauriceau would have the right to buy the secret.

Mauriceau chose the woman on whose body they would decide their wager: she had rickets and a malformed pelvis. Both mother and baby died following a horrific delivery in which Chamberlen perforated the woman’s womb and Mauriceau attempted a caesarean section. We know next to nothing about her, the woman who died over a bet between two medical practitioners. In the end, the sale wasn’t made, and Chamberlen returned to England.

According to legend, he eventually moved to the Netherlands, where he sold the design to a local doctor. However, the story goes, this ‘forceps’ was only composed of one half, and was, of course, useless. Hugh Chamberlen’s son, also named Hugh, eventually allowed the design to be made public in England in the early eighteenth century. There is even a monument to him inside Westminster Abbey.

But where did the original forceps go? Well, it was hidden (probably by Peter Chamberlen) under the floorboards of his Essex home, where it was found in 1813, by the mother of the family then living there. By then, many competing designs had been created by other obstetricians.

After the Chamberlens

Forceps opened the door to a flood of innovations and ‘birth gadgets’, including the (to me, very silly) ‘self-operated forceps’. Can you imagine trying to use forceps on yourself while giving birth?!

Post-forceps, medical men were increasingly present in the birth room. The Chamberlens became known as ‘man-midwives’, helping popularise this concept. Other changes followed; midwives were used to attending people giving birth on birth stools or chairs, but physicians preferred their patients lying down so that they could use their tools more easily.

Forceps became popular for many reasons, including that physicians believed that some elite women were ‘too fragile’ to push. However, their use was contentious from the beginning. Just take a look at this passage from a poem against forceps, penned by John Maubray, the author of the Female Physician:

[Forceps] Kill many more INFANTS than they save and ruin
Many more WOMEN than they deliver
[…] I would advise you to practice Butchery rather than MIDWIFERY…

Following the height of their popularity in the nineteenth and early twenty centuries, their use gradually faded, especially as caesarean sections became more widespread. Still, the history behind forceps begs one of the most crucial questions in the social history of knowledge: who should have access to knowledge? Crucially, it also asks the (always feminist) question: who should make decisions about our bodies?


John Maubray, The Female Physician (London: James Holland,1724).

Francois Mauriceau, The Diseases of Women with Child, translated and annotated by Hugh Chamberlen (London: T. Cox and J. Clarke, 1793).

Further Reading:

A.    C. Banks, Birth Chairs, Midwives, and Medicine (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999).

K. Das, Obstetric Forceps: Its History and Evolution (Leeds: Medical Museum, 1993).

B. Hibbard, The Obstetrician’s Armamentarium (San Anselmo, CA: Norman, 2000).

R. H. Epstein, Get me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank (New York: Norton, 2010).

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Eostre and Easter: ‘Rebranding’ a Spring Goddess to Fit Christianity?

Have you ever wondered where the word ‘Easter’ comes from? Let me introduce you to the Germanic goddess of dawn and spring, Eostre, after whom Easter was possibly named. (Historians and folklorists are still debating this, largely due to the paucity of sources about her.) Like many other Anglo-Saxon deities, Eostre was a victim of the expansion of Christianity, as pagan gods were replaced with the monotheistic religion. Yet in the twentieth century, modern paganism rediscovered her, with one of the eight Wiccan festivals (or Sabbats) being celebrated in her honour. Eostre was reinvented to fit a New-Age kind of religion, linked to the spring equinox, with myths and traditions from different origins blending to create a syncretic goddess of rebirth. Let’s investigate.

Unfortunately, because the Anglo-Saxon culture was largely oral, this means there are few primary sources to work with to find out more about her.  A seventh-century Christian monk called Venerable Bede provides a clue. He lived in Northumbria (in modern-day England) and is considered the ‘father of English history’.

Venerable Bede writes of how Eostre was losing her place to the Christian holidays, themselves influenced by the Jewish tradition (Paschal comes from the Jewish Pesach or Passover). According to him, the month of April used to be called Eosturmonath (month of Eostre), since this is when the spring goddess would be worshipped:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated as ‘Paschal month’ [Easter month], and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.  Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.
(Venerable Bede, The Reckoning of Time)

The problem is that, following this text, I can hardly find anything about the goddess for more than a thousand years. The next mention of her (Ostara) is in the nineteenth century, in Jacob Grimm’s 1835 Teutonic Mythology, in which he writes of an oral tradition of her worship. Like his brother Wilhelm, Jacob was fascinated by myths and folklore, which is why they compiled the popular Grimm’s fairy tales. Jacob Grimm linked the Germanic goddess Ostara to the Anglo-Saxon Eostre, as she also had the month of April named after her: Ostermonat, or month of Ostara. This is how he described her:

‘Eostre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God.’

He added:

‘This Ostara, like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eostre, must in heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the Christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries.’
(Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology)

It would make sense to choose a date to symbolise Christ’s resurrection at a time when people were already celebrating the idea of rebirth. Yet it was important to separate the Christian Easter from the Jewish Passover, as established in the Easter controversy of the 325 CE Council of Nicaea. Moreover, symbols that we came to associate with spring and Easter, such as eggs and bunnies, which developed independently from the worship of Eostre, are all connected to fertility, rebirth, spring, and life. Our contemporary Easter is a mosaic of different traditions. The same can be said of the association between Eostre and dawn (probably from the old High German ‘dawn’, eostarum), and the idea of the cycle of life. The theme of rebirth fitted perfectly in all of this: Christ’s sacrifice is followed by his resurrection, just like nature comes back to life in spring following the wintertime.

Christianity is well-known for appropriating elements from other, earlier faiths, like many religions. Partly, this was a tactic for easing people into the new faith, as they could keep some practices or rituals. For instance, in 595 CE, Pope Gregory sent missionaries to modern-day England in the hope of converting people to Christianity, advising them to allow many festivals and rituals to remain, while adding Christian meanings to them. It is possible that the Christian Pascha was assimilated to Eostre’s festival in the hope of converting people away from their old religion and into Christianity. Because of the lack of primary sources, it is difficult to know. It is likely that Eostre was a localised goddess worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons in present-day England, who may have been connected to Ostara.

Frustrating as it might be for historians, we simply don’t have enough sources to know for sure. Yet I find it fascinating how, following Jacob Grimm, modern Wiccans have adopted Eostre and made her their own. Is that so different from early Christianity adopting elements of other religions to build their own faith? I don’t think so. In this syncretic narrative about Eostre, elements of her ancient cult remain: many of us still celebrate Easter every year, even if it is in connection to another religion. Or, really, no faith at all. Some of us just want to celebrate spring and nature coming back to life, a reminder of our own possibilities of recreating and reinventing ourselves. Others just want an excuse to decorate the house with cute bunnies and eat chocolate eggs. Who am I to judge? Indirectly, we keep the goddess Eostre alive, by creating our own traditions and myths. Plus, which deity would have objected to eating a few chocolates…?


Venerable Bede, De ratione temporum/The Reckoning of Time, translated by Faith Wallis (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999).

Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (The Project Gutenberg, 2011).

Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) (first ed. 1880).

Further Reading:

Kerri Connor, Ostara Rituals, Recipes, & Lore for the Spring Equinox (Woodbury, Llewellyn Publications: 2015)

Carole Cusack, ‘The Goddess Eostre: Bede’s Text and Contemporary Pagan Tradition(s)’, Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 9(1), 2007.

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The Surprising Connection Between Freud and Greek Mythology

If there’s one person who thought and wrote about penises a lot, it was Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the ‘father of psychoanalysis’. Like many nineteenth-century intellectuals, Freud was interested in sex and sexuality, and how lived experiences shape our minds. For men like him (for it was mostly men who were writing about this subject), Greco-Roman antiquity was key to understanding what it meant to be human.

In the 1886’s reference book Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study (Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie), the Austrian-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing classified what he termed ‘sexual pathologies’, such as homosexuality, sadism and masochism, among others, using Latin vocabulary as his inspiration. However, while sexologists like Krafft-Ebing were interested in historical narratives from antiquity, Freud believed human sexuality could be better understood through myths, which were closer to the human unconscious. For psychoanalysis, these myths could describe things unknown even to ourselves: just think of the Oedipus complex, which is probably the first thing that occurs to us when we think of Freud. So, how did Greek mythology and sex come to play such an important role in Freud’s thinking, defining psychoanalysis in the process?

For both Freud and Krafft-Ebing, their interest in classic antiquity to explain human sexuality followed the eighteenth-century archaeological craze. The excavation of the Roman sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii had unearthed hundreds of artefacts of a phallic or sexual nature, including plenty of figures of ‘hermaphrodites’. Following these discoveries, many European intellectuals started to collect these phallic objects, as did museums. Also, following many archaeological finds, such as Heinrich Schliemann’s ‘discoveries’ of Troy and Mycenae, the nineteenth century saw the institutionalisation of archaeology. It was a period in which classical archaeology was becoming its own discipline, studied in museums and universities. It is no coincidence, then, that Freud often used archaeological analogies to describe psychoanalysis, such as ‘excavating the mind’. In his paper ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’, Freud described how, just like archaeologists unearthed hidden ruins, so too could the psychoanalyst excavate the past, doing an archaeology of the mind.

But what about myths, which were so often depicted by nineteenth-century artists? Well, Freud described the stories patient told him about their childhoods as not unlike myths. Much like Greek mythology, he believed the stories we told ourselves were our own myths, which could tell much about ourselves. And the psychoanalyst could make sense of these stories with the help of classical mythology. And that brings me to one of psychoanalysis’ most fascinating concepts, the phallic mother. As the name suggests, this is a woman who lacks nothing, bringing together all possibilities of sex. Freud believed that, for children’s ‘normal’ development, this was an incredibly common fantasy, in which the mother could satisfy all needs. (It’s important to keep in mind that in this repressive Victorian period, it was mostly women who cared for babies and young children.) Later, through dealing with the Oedipus complex, they would develop their own sexuality. But where did these ideas come from? Well, archaeologists such as Arthur Evans had excavated what they deemed matriarchal deities in different sites, supporting the idea of a mythological and powerful mother.

Narcissus’ myth was also an inspiration for Freud’s thinking about homosexuality, which he developed in a 1910 sexual biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo’s memory/fantasy of wishing to be breastfed by his mother would have turned into a form of narcissism and, subsequently, homosexual desires. These desires were eventually sublimated through his artistic and scientific pursuits and the study of ‘mother nature’, a symbol for the phallic mother. According to him, homosexuals were attracted to themselves, becoming the objects of their attraction as they searched for the love their mother would once have provided. Queer theorists have critiqued and problematised these views in detail (you can read a summary here).

For me, Freud’s most illuminating idea is to understand children’s curiosity through the story of Oedipus and, especially, the passage where he needs to decipher the Sphinx’s riddle. This will to knowledge, the drive to learn, is what motivates children to be curious about learning. The child, just like Oedipus, tries to solve the ultimate mystery: where do babies come from? These ‘sexual theories of children’ would be the basis for adult curiosity. This innate curiosity has a universality to it and is easily relatable for us in the twenty-first century, just as it would have been for ancient Greeks.

This was the backdrop for Freud’s highly influential theories about sexuality. His thinking was shaped by the European interest in Greco-Roman antiquity in general, and the idea of ancient phallic worship, especially the collecting of phallic objects (‘phallicism’). Freud himself acquired many of these objects during a trip in 1902 to Pompeii, in ivory, faience, and bronze. His collection included more than 2500 of these objects. It is possible that these ancient phalloi, detached from the human body, came to highlight the role of the penis in his thinking. For historians, it is incredible to now have access to his collection. (You can see some of it at the Freud Museum in London until July 2023, and the digital archive will be available afterwards, too.)

Freudian psychoanalysis is the product of a rich cultural and intellectual history, which was influenced by medical theories and an overall interest in classical antiquity. It emerged during archaeological, philosophical, and medical debates about sexuality. Many of Freud’s theories were restrictive and a product of their time (they can be misogynistic, patriarchal, and heteronormative), yet they were highly influential in the development of feminism, queer theory, and gender studies.  Ultimately, Freud’s goal was to unearth what it meant to be human. To do so, what better inspiration than the Greek myths?

*  This text was revised by Paula Gruman, a clinical psychologist and doctoral researcher at the Université de Paris, and my fabulous sister.


Sigmund Freud, ‘The Aetiology of Histeria’ (1896).

_____, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905).

_____, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood (1923).

_____, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900).

(Most of Freud’s writings can be found online; I recommend consulting the versions edited by James Strachey.)

Further Reading:

Rachel Bowlby, Freudian Mythologies: Greek Tragedies and Modern Identities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Daniel Orrells, Sex: Antiquity and its Legacy (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

Almut-Barbara Renger, Oedipus and the Sphinx: The Threshold Myth from Sophocles through Freud to Cocteau (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Vanda Zajko and Ellen O‘Gorman (eds.), Classical Myth and Psychoanalysis: Ancient and Modern Stories of the Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

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Moderata Fonte and ‘The Woman Question’

Is there anything more enlightening than listening in while women discuss their role in society? As the recent adaptation of Miriam Toews novel Women Talking shows, this is a pretty fascinating premise. In Toews’ story, which was inspired by real events, eight women from a Mennonite community gather to decide what to do in the aftermath of horrific sexual attacks committed by the men around them against the women and girls. They come to question the immutability of their social roles, and whether it was fair that they had so little agency, so much responsibility, and virtually no education.

In Moderata Fonte’s 1600 book The Worth of Women, seven fictitious women are in a beautiful garden in the outskirts of Venice, considering similar issues. They discuss the way men treat women and pose themselves the ultimate question: how is it that men, ‘essentially inferior’ to women, have come to dominate them? And, crucially, can that be changed?*

Moderata Fonte was born in Venice in 1555, as Modesta Pozzo, literally, ‘modesty well’, before choosing as her pen name the more confident ‘moderate fountain’, replacing the traditionally feminine virtue of modesty (and silence) with the masculine moderation, evoking reason. Orphaned as a child, Fonte had been raised in a convent and at her grandmother’s home and, according to her guardian and biographer Giovanni Niccolò Doglioni, all those around her were impressed by her intelligence. Fonte was an autodidact, and her family’s wealth allowed her great access to books. In 1581, when she was 26, she published her first work, a chivalric romance called Floridoro, under her new pen name. She continued to write throughout her life but, as a wife and a mother, often had little time to do so.

Her most celebrated work, The Worth of Women, was written during a heated intellectual debate that swept European humanists, called the querelle des femmes (literally, ‘dispute of women’, better known as ‘the woman question’). It arguably started with Boccaccio in his 1360s De claris mulieribus (‘On Famous Women’) and Christine de Pizan’s 1405 Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies). This debate went beyond women’s role, dissecting their very nature, defining and describing female qualities and vices, in opposition to men. I use the word ‘dissecting’ here intentionally, as medical and scientific knowledge were key issues in this discussion, being weaponised against women as well as used in their defence. Fonte’s characters talk at length about medicine, alchemy, astrology, and natural philosophy, highlighting how women were involved in these spheres, not only as readers and writers, but as practitioners, much like Caterina Sforza or Isabella CorteseBy discussing these subjects, the characters showcase their rationality and intellectual powers, illustrating how they should be considered equals to men.

The women in Fonte’s work, reflecting different social states (widow, single, married), gathered in Leonora’s palatial garden, where she asked them how men had come to rule over women. Corinna, a stand-in for Fonte, replies that the explanation for gender inequality in sixteenth-century Venice was custom, not natural law, questioning the Aristotelian tradition of understanding men as inherently more rational, superior, and ‘perfect’ than women. This widely accepted idea justified male rule over women, who were ‘naturally’ inferior and weak, lacking reason. The Worth of Women is a unique and clever literary dialogue, not only questioning women’s role and painting a picture of women’s lived experiences but also imagining a world in which women could opt out of marriage, choosing singledom and enjoying female friendship. By denouncing the Aristotelian ‘natural order’ as a creation, Fonte’s women imply that it could change.

Other Renaissance writers questioned this assumption and argued for the equality of the sexes, besides Christine de Pizan and Boccaccio, who wrote two centuries before Fonte. The Worth of Women was published at the height of ‘the woman question’, when ‘pro-women’ works abounded, including Galeazzo Flavio Capra’s 1525 Dell’eccellenza e dignità delle donne (‘On the Excellence and Dignity of Women’) and Lucrezia Marinella’s 1600 La nobiltà et eccellenza delle donne co’ difetti et mancamenti degli uomini (‘The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men’).  In Fonte’s work, the characters’ erudition, especially in medicine and alchemy, serve to argue for a new kind of society, in which women would control their own lives.

It is telling that, on the ‘pro-woman’ side, there were people like the alchemist Henricus Cornelius Agrippa. In his 1520s Declamatio de nobilitat ed et praeccellentia foeminei sexus (On the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex), he argued that women excelled over men in many aspects, including scientific pursuits. Antifeminists, such as Giuseppe Passi, disagreed. In his 1599 I donneschi difetti (The Defects of Women), he denounced female vanity, sexual excess, and greed. But he also accused women meddling in science and medicine of overstepping their bounds: their practice was no more than witchcraft. Fonte, on the other hand, denounced male alchemists: while women could use this art for the good of the community, such as making medicines, men’s volatile nature could easily be lured by promises of wealth and be blinded by the pursuit of turning base metals into gold. Moreover, this transformation mirrored men’s unreliability and lack of constancy. Again, alchemy and medicine were used to make broader points in the debate over men and women.

Of course, we can and should question these ideas: it is clear that women are as capable of doing harm to those around them as men are (just look at the recent case of Elizabeth Holmes). Also, inspiring as proto-feminists might be, it’s important to keep in mind that both ‘pro-women’ writers like Fonte and antifeminists took for granted the fundamental and essential differences between the sexes, never questioning this rigid binary. This is a very cisgender, heterosexual debate. (Much like the influential 1992 best-seller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray.) In any case, this ‘war of the sexes’, as it was later called, was questioned by many, as illustrated by Virginia Woolf:

“All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are ‘sides’, and it is necessary for one side to beat another side…”
A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

Still, for Fonte, there was a fundamental paradox in her society. Renaissance Venice was built on the myth of republican sovereignty and liberty, which was incompatible with women’s social status as subjugated to men. She saw women as victims of illegitimate rule by ‘tyrannic’ men, which clashed directly against Venetian values. The characters dare to imagine a different Venice, with Corinna, representing Fonte in the text, choosing to remain single. (It’s hard not to think of the intellectual Jo in Louise May Alcott’s Little Women, forced in the end to get married, which probably went against the author’s wishes and was required by the book’s editor.) Corinna’s choice is also conditional: it’s only possible because the garden in which this conversation takes place is set apart from Venice, with its liminal position allowing for this conjecture. Through Corinna, Fonte makes the case for female autonomy and freedom:

“Wouldn’t it be possible for us just to banish these men from our lives, and escape their carping and jeering once and for all? Couldn’t we live without them? Couldn’t we earn our living and manage our affairs without help from them? Come on, let’s wake up, and claim back our freedom, and the honour and dignity that they have usurped from us for so long. Do you think that if we really put our minds to it, we would be lacking the courage to defend ourselves, the strength to fend for ourselves, or the talents to earn our own living? Let’s take our courage into our hands and do it, and then we can leave it up to them to mend their ways as much as they can: we shan’t really care what the outcome is, just as long as we are no longer subjugated to them.”
The Worth of Women, Moderada Fonte

Gender equality depended directly on access to legal, political, and scientific knowledge, including alchemy and medicine. Women should be given the same chances as men, including material resources, a point famously developed in the early twentieth century by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. Women’s potential had also been described by Fonte, in her romance Floridoro, through the alchemical image of ‘buried gold’, just waiting to be unearthed. Sadly, despite Fonte’s undisputed genius, we will never know how her literary and scientific life could have developed further. Fonte finished writing The Worth of Women the night before she died from childbirth, in 1592. She was just 37 years old.

*Because of the socio-cultural context of the querelle des femmes, I have embraced the binary men vs women in this text, as that was how these authors articulated their views. You can read my statement here about Language and Inclusivity.


Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, Declamatio de nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (London: 1652).

Cristofano Bronzini, Della dignità e nobilità delle donne (Florence: 1624).

Giovanni Niccolò Doglioni, Vita della Sig.ra Modesta Pozzo de’ Zorzi (Venice: 1593).

Galeazzo Flavio Capra Dell’eccellenza e dignità delle donne (Rome: 1525).

Moderata Fonte, Il Merito delle donne (Venice: 1600).

Moderata Fonte, Tredici Canti del Floridoro (Venice: 1581).

Ortensio Lando, Lettere di molte valorose donne (Venice: 1548).

Lucrezia Marinella La nobiltà et eccellenza delle donne co’ difetti et mancamenti degli uomini (Venice: 1601).

Further Reading:

Paola Malpezzi Price, Moderata Fonte: Women and Life in Sixteenth-Century Venice (Vancouver: The Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003).

Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

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