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Imagining the pain and peril of seventeenth-century childbirth: travail and deliverance in the making of an early modern world

Imagining the pain and peril of seventeenth-century childbirth: travail and deliverance in the making of an early modern world

Howard, Sharon

Social History of Medicine, 16:3 (2003), pp. 367-382

Abstract

This article takes as its starting point a remarkable account of childbirth in the memoirs of a seventeenth-century Yorkshire gentlewoman, Alice Thornton. Her representation of the agony of her labour exemplifies the key structuring motif of her memoirs as a whole: the ‘providentialist’ pairing of danger and deliverance. The article aims to relate this passage to that textual context and to the broader cultural and social contours of Alice Thornton’s world. Alice succeeded in giving eloquent words to the experience of extreme physical pain. Her words speak to us down the centuries, immediate and compelling. But this utterly personal, corporeal experience is culturally mediated. In order to understand her suffering, Alice Thornton drew on contemporary ‘discourses of martyrdom’, where pain could be understood as a test of faith and endurance from which she emerged strengthened, purified, reaffirmed, by God. Alice was pious and dutiful: her sense of duty and her faith motivated her to write, to record for posterity the proofs of God’s power and mercy. But her writings, recording her perils and deliverances, also became the proofs of her virtue, a source of godly authority as well as identity.

 

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