Conceiving histories

Conceiving histories

Conceiving histories

By Dr Isabel Davis, Senior Lecturer in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Birkbeck, University of London

What was it like for people in the past before home pregnancy testing was available? Isabel Davis tells us about her upcoming event Conceiving histories, which looks at the history of conception during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through two very interesting case studies – a pad for simulating pregnancy and an ‘Experimental Conception Hospital’ aimed at demystifying female reproduction .   

Hope and fear place us in history. Hope hurries us forward, to the future; fear forces us to step back, towards the past. Our Being Human event, Conceiving histories, connects the past to the present and future, thinking about the un-pregnant body and the problems of diagnosing early pregnancy.

The event is show-casing two case studies from a larger project which together respond to the festival’s themes of hope and fear. For hope we are looking at a bizarre fashion, which was current for just one or two years in 1792-3, for wearing a pad which simulated pregnancy. We will be looking at some of the humorous but also rather cynical takes on the Pad, as it was known, in literature and art in its own time. But we will also be thinking about the prospect of breaking down the exclusivity of maternity-wear today. To feign pregnancy today is an unwritten offence, which is rigorously tried in the court of the internet. Celebrities who have done it or thought to have done it are ruthlessly trolled. Why is pregnancy such a respected and privatising category? What does it matter if the un-pregnant wear the new maternity fashions and live for a time as if they were expecting? Could it ever look good? Looking back at the eighteenth century Pad can help us to answer some of these questions, even if it won’t quite make us rush out to buy a pregnancy suit to wear in public.


Our case study for fear is a darker inquiry. This looks at an idea for an ‘Experimental Conception Hospital’ developed in response to an early nineteenth century peerage dispute. It is thought up as a way of determining the length of gestation and pinpointing the moment of conception, problems which were at the heart of the dispute. In the ‘Experimental Conception Hospital’, built on monastic principles, a hundred women would be incarcerated and ‘experimented’ on by male doctors who, by keeping really good records of their visits to have sex with these prisoners, would be able to resolve the mysteries of the female reproductive body. It is suggested only as an idea; the hospital was never meant to be built or put into practice but it is interesting, nonetheless. In particular, although it was written at a time of hyper-modernity, when science and technology were making great scientific strides, it looks back to the medieval past, finding in the space of the medieval monastery a place to unravel biological conundrums which eluded the best scientific minds of the age.

We also live in a time of huge technological achievement. In terms of reproduction, we can only marvel at the possibilities opened up by assisted reproductive technologies. But there are also limits to that technology. And, beyond those limits, people are left waiting and wondering whether or not they might be parents. Those waits don’t feel very modern; they feel, instead, perplexingly ancient. What if there was a technology which could work in the wait? A test that you could do immediately upon conception, a screen where you could watch it take place, a gadget that could see into our futures? Would we want it? At what cost would it come?

We will be presenting these case studies through historical talks but also we’ll be discussing new contemporary art work which has been made as a direct response to them. Our concerns are to think about the ambiguities around the un- or the just pregnant body in the past, but also about what this historical reflection could do for us in the present. Along the way we will be touching on some complex issues around sexuality, pregnancy and science and look at some powerful new art work. There will also be space to ask questions or contribute comments on the work and the issues it raises. Everyone is welcome, but please do book a place here.

Please be aware that the artwork in this event tackles the emotive subject of the female body in relation to pregnancy. Some people may find the images that will be presented disturbing. Click here to see the character of the work, although not the specific images involved in this event.

Conceiving histories takes place on Wednesday 23 November in Senate House, London.