How Careful She Must Be: Midwives, Maternal Minds, and Monstrous Births

Woodcut from Les oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré showing a woman with a snake-like creature inside her.
Paré, Ambroise. Les oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré. Paris: Macé, 1614: 733. Public Domain | Google Books

By Sara Ray

Lisbet, the wife of a currier, gave birth to a monstrous child on May 21, 1723. Catharina Schrader, a midwife living in the Dutch province of Friesland, recorded the birth in her memoirs, which detailed memorable cases from her 50 year career spanning the early 18th century. About Lisbit, Schrader wrote, “the woman had a fairly easy labour but, oh horror, the child had a fantastic growth on his head. And full curls all grown like meat.” When Schrader questioned Lisbit, she confessed to “always [having] a liking for children with curls like this on their forehead beneath a hat. If she had [a] child, she would also want that.” Case closed. Schrader concluded with a swift moralization: “the child lived only an hour, luckily for her. How careful the pregnant woman must be in all she does and thinks.”

The work of a midwife in the remote villages of Friesland might seem a far cry from the learned, gentlemanly institutions that characterize much of the history of 18th-century science. Historians have tended to use colorful accounts of women’s pregnancies, such as those in Schrader’s memoirs, to illustrate instances of nature’s mysterious playfulness and an “enchanted” view of nature wherein monsters were divine portents. Yet, however far Catharina Schrader herself was from the day’s learned institutions, her stories of monstrous births were not; similar stories appear frequently in the pages of Philosophical Transactions, the journal of the 18th century’s most prestigious scientific institution, London’s Royal Society. Here, like in Schrader’s memoirs, mothers and midwives offer narrative accounts of the pregnancy preceding a monstrous birth. Beyond being colorful anecdotes, this female testimony was treated as trusted evidence in scientific attempts to understand the processes of “generation,” giving women a central role in this scientific pursuit.

Beyond being colorful anecdotes, this female testimony was treated as trusted evidence in scientific attempts to understand the processes of “generation,” thus giving women a central role in this scientific pursuit.

The subject of generation — the processes through which humans produced more humans — received intense scientific interest in the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite advances in microscopes, anatomical preparation, and dissection, the physically-concealed nature of human generation made it, in the words of one Royal Society author, Daniel de Superville, “difficult, if not impossible, to catch nature in the act.” Yet, observations through the microscope of gestational frogs, insects, and chickens paired nicely with insights from the Bible to formulate the scientific theory of “preformation.” This was the belief that God had, at the beginning of time, created all future lifeforms and nested the generations inside one another like an infinitely-regressing Russian nesting doll. The logistics of the theory are less important here than its key premise: God had created all future human bodies in complete, perfect form, and gestation itself was simply a growth process. Preformation tied together God, the body’s form, and a simple mechanistic process.

A major problem, of course, was children born with bodily anomalies, those called “monsters.” Prior to 19th century horror novels, such as Frankenstein and Dracula from which come the modern connotations of the word, “monster” was a scientific designation meaning outside of the ordinary course of nature. Monstrous births were those born with a broad spectrum of bodily forms that defied systematic explanation. Unless they accepted that monsters were preformed by God, which most did not, preformationists were left with the logical conclusion that abnormal bodies were caused by damage to originally “perfect” bodies during gestation. As a result of this thinking, a woman’s experiences during pregnancy became central to explaining why a child was born monstrous. “[D]aily observations demonstrate to us that the disordered and disturbed imagination of women often hurts the infants,” Superville wrote.

Examples of this from Philosophical Transactions neatly mirror those found within Schrader’s memoirs. For instance, a 1687 report described a woman who was hit in the temple by a cow’s teat and then gave birth to a daughter with a teat-like growth on her temple. Similarly, Schrader recorded that she learned from Hinke, wife of a corn merchant, that Hinke had been present when a butcher slaughtered a pig before she birthed a child whose intestines hung outside its body. Both sources include accounts of different women in the 1710s birthing “ape like” children after watching performing monkeys. The loose consensus was that strong sensations of pain, fright, and longing impacted a woman’s blood and, as this author explains, the circulatory connection between mother and child passed her impressions on to the growing fetus. Of course this could not be observed except for in its effects, hence the consistent attempt to correlate a child’s specific form with a specific event from the pregnancy itself.

As experts on childbirth, midwives were often called upon to gather evidence and give testimony regarding women’s bodies, which was most common in legal cases of rape, infanticide, and illegitimacy. Midwives were trusted to authenticate facts of the body, such as whether a woman had recently given birth (despite mysteriously having no infant) or whether there was indication of sexual trauma. A midwife’s investigation involved physical examination, but it also relied on the oral testimony of the woman in question and her community. In cases of infanticide, this might involve neighbors checking a woman’s breasts for milk and describing to the midwife when they suspected a woman had been at certain stages of pregnancy. In cases of illegitimacy, midwives sometimes withheld care during delivery until the father’s name was confessed.

Schrader’s memoirs demonstrate a similarly interrogative approach to cases of abnormal bodies. Once Lisibt’s child was born with the growth on its head, Schrader immediately began questioning Lisbit about her thoughts and desires. The case of Tetzke, wife of a laborer, indicates that Schrader’s investigation didn’t stop with the mother. Tetzke’s child was “a big creature, and dead. It [had] a pig’s head,” missing several cranial bones and with malformed hands and feet. Schrader reported that “the people accused the woman of having worked so much around a young pig, that the creature must have always been with her, sitting with her at the table or on her lap.” One woman was reported to have danced with irresponsible fervor. Another, to have sworn she would not get pregnant despite cavorting with a local doctor. The “punishment” to both: monsters.

Monstrous births were not crimes, nor were the events believed to have produced them. But they did place transformational power into the hands of gestating women by suggesting that fetuses were changeable in utero. These births were inherently problematic for preformationist embryology. If God had created all generations perfectly in his image, how could these women shape their offspring through their thoughts or inadvertent actions?

Midwives, as trusted sources to gather information about troublesome pregnancies, were perfectly poised to contribute to this scientific question. There are dozens of reports on monstrous births in the pages of Philosophical Transactions, a journal intended for the eyes of elite scientific men. And when midwives appear in these pages, their information and input is trusted. In 1708, Reverend Mr. W. Derham wrote to the Royal Society to report a case of a child heard crying in the womb. Derham’s initial letter about the incident consists entirely of him relaying information told to him by the mother and the midwife, and he concludes the letter by explaining “both the mother and the midwife (a sensible woman in her business) answered me a great many questions … only in general they told me, they found no great difference between her in her case, and other women in the same condition.”

These stories are fleeting windows into the minds of women long dead. Scientifically valuable as they were, they confirmed the dangerous power of a woman’s thoughts and made her culpable for destroying something entrusted to her by God.

If these accounts were simply relaying interesting stories to the Royal Society, the trust in midwives and mothers might be less noteworthy. But monstrous births were a chance to learn more information about the precise mechanics, limitations, and physiology of a preformationist embryology. The testimony of mothers and midwives formed the initial premises from which scientific theories spun. In a 1713 account, Derham states, “having thus related the case to you, as the midwife told it to me, I shall leave it to you, and such good judges as yourself, to determine these two things.” He then goes on to  frame two theoretical questions. The stories women told about pregnancies were facts upon which theory could be built. Schrader’s moralizing message to mothers and the musings in Philosophical Transactions about topics like gestational respiration are simply different vantage points into attempts to explain monstrous births within the scientific paradigm of preformationist embryology. Yet, holding them together reveals the central role of women’s knowledge to this pursuit.

These stories are fleeting windows into the minds of women long dead. Scientifically valuable as they were, they confirmed the dangerous power of a woman’s thoughts and made her culpable for destroying something entrusted to her by God. Lisbit’s child was born in May. It is easy to imagine her pregnant in the cold Frisian winter, admiring the curly hair poking out from beneath children’s warm hats as they played. It is easy to understand how her mind could wander to tender daydreams about the child growing within her one day running around the countryside with curls of his own. Instead, she birthed a monster and the dream she had of her child became a confession of her culpability.

Note: Memoir entries are sourced from Schrader, Catharina, Hilary Marland, Marius Jan van Lieburg, and Gerrit Jan Kloosterman. “Mother and Child Were Saved”: The Memoirs (1693 - 1740) of the Frisian Midwife Catharina Schrader. Nieuwe Nederlandse Bijdragen Tot de Geschiedenis Der Geneeskunde En Der Natuurwetenschappen 22. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1987.

Further Reading

Yaarah Bar-On, “Neighbours and Gossip in Early Modern Gynaecology” in Cultural Approaches to the History of Medicine: Mediating Medicine in Early Modern and Modern Europe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 36-55.

Teresa Maria Monti, “Epigenesis of the Monstrous Form and Preformationist ‘Genetics’ (Lémery-Winslow-Haller), Early Science and Medicine 5, no. 1 (2000): 3-32.

Sara Ray is a Doctoral Candidate in History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

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