The medieval pregnancy test: determining pregnancy and predicting the child's sex in later medieval Europe
Royal Holloway, University of London
Year of enrolment: 2015 -
Supervisor: Professor Peregrine Horden
Accurate home pregnancy tests have only been available since the 1970s, but attempts to discover such tests hae been ongoing for centuries . This project will provide the first systematic study of medieval methods of pregnancy testing and determining the sex of the child, using these tests as a focus for discussing the much wider issues of gender and power over women's bodies, and abortion in later medieval Europe. Intense medical scrutiny focused on women's pregnant bodies in the later middle ages. Male medical authors asserted authority over female patients by examining the process of conception and the secrets of women.
Ancient ideas on the subject came to Western Europe via translations from Arabic into Latin, and theinkers assimiliated them into their understanding of conception. Societal pressures on medieval women to further the dynastic interests of their families combined with the priorities of medical authorities, and by the fifteenth century if not earlier a genre of medical texts had developed to identify signs of pregnancy and the sex of the unborn child.
These texts corresponded with the medieval emphasis on prognostic medicine, and most recommended examining a woman's urine according to contemporary theories of urology. But alongside these orthodox techniques there were numerous occult and unorthodox tests using astrology, and even onomancy, converting the parents' names to numbers and performing mathematical calculations to discern the child's sex. This unstudied corpus of texts had enormous social implications. It demonstrates gendered power relation in a medical context, and the interplay between medicine and magic in these methods of discernment fit within th wider area of pre-modern prediction. The interest shown in the sex of the child and teh preference for male children as heirs raises the possibility that these tests inspired sex-selective abortions, and they also have major implications for the study of medieval contraception.