Tag Archives: women

The Mothers Blessing (1616)

The works I have recently been looking at for my Female as Shapeshifter paper have been concerned with outlining proper codes of behavior for women, especially while they were with child, for fear that their conduct would effect their unborn babies. The two prior pieces both relied upon excessive consequences for improper behavior, almost as scare tactics to keep women in line. However, there is another facet to this genre that sidesteps fear inducing literature and appeals to simple common sense and human decency, and most interestingly, the participants of this genre are mostly women. I am referring to the mother’s manuals, and one of the most popular in the seventeenth century was Dorothy Leigh’s The Mothers Blessing, first published in 1616 (and countless times thereafter).

She positions her work as the domestic duty of a mother to instruct her children, humbly acknowledging her status in society. However, through the very act of publication she also acknowledges her ambitions in society where her words would reach well outside her domestic sphere as she inserts herself within the male dominated print culture –  “a thing so unusual among us,” meaning women. Less than fifty years later there would be dozens of works published by women as they were beginning to understand the importance of this medium to impress their voices.

Further evidence of Leigh’s desire for immortality through the press, along with a global audience lies in her many examples for female conduct, despite having had only sons. Arguably she posits these tidbits of advice as being reserved for the future wives of her sons, but that too stretches her influence well beyond the ordinary role of the mother whose sons’ wives’ obedience was expectantly their husbands’ alone.

Yet while this aspect of publication is fascinating, it resides well outside the scope of my paper (and I will be the first to admit I often need to be reigned in from pursuing adjacent and equally interesting topics), and unfortunately I don’t think I will have time for this in my fifteen minute presentation. Thus I will refocus on the aspect of childbearing and the implications of this enterprise for women. Leigh obviously believed the mother’s comport while pregnant effected the child, but in a different manner, where she equated giving birth almost in terms of a Marian feat, and the mother’s conduct influenced the baby well outside of the womb, not in some supernatural sense where the mother’s fashion choices altered a baby’s appearance, but rather that the mother served as a role model and guide for her children and thus must have always been cautious with her piety, never straying from the ways of God.

L0005357 Woman bearing 20 children. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Franciscus Picus Mirandolae, quoted by pare, says that one Dorothea, n Italian, bore 20 children at 2 confinements, the first time bearing 9 and the second time 11. He gives a picture of the marvel of prolificity, in which her belly is represented as hanging down to her knees and supported by a girdle from the neck. (Gould and Pyle). Illustration Prodigiorum ac ostentorum Chronicon Conradus Lycosthenes Published: 1557 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

L0005357 Woman bearing 20 children.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Franciscus Picus Mirandolae, quoted by pare, says that one Dorothea, n Italian, bore 20 children at 2 confinements, the first time bearing 9 and the second time 11. He gives a picture of the marvel of prolificity, in which her belly is represented as hanging down to her knees and supported by a girdle from the neck. (Gould and Pyle).
Prodigiorum ac ostentorum Chronicon
Conradus Lycosthenes
Published: 1557
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Leigh at one point in her writing referred to nursing her babies in Christological terms, likening the process to infusing the baby with blessings and life blood. This too referenced an anxiety of the early modern period that viewed breast milk as a potentially corrupt and subversive element. Much like Leigh believed she was pouring goodness into her babes mouths, others’s beliefs were much more nefarious. In Juan Luis Vive’s Education of Christian Women (1524), he presents the duality of breast milk as admirable nourishment on the part of those women who did not opt for a wet nurse simply out of convenience, but also regarded it as possibly harmful as it passed along the mother’s temperament and even more dangerously, her impurity. However, this did not negate the existing hazards of allowing a wet nurse access to a malleable baby, as she too could negatively influence him through her milk. Clearly there was no winning strategy and it must therefore be understood that female interference in a baby’s life, from conception in the womb well into the infant state was a disruption in patrilineage, and even the best intentions were frighteningly the reflections of maternal agency.


(Madonna with child, Da Vinci, 1491)

Thus it can be surmised that the woman’s role in society was to remain as unobtrusive as possible, dispelling male fears based upon their utter dependence upon women for promulgating and identifying lineage. Therefore despite Leigh’s clear indication of the importance of instructing children, and essentially dictating their upbringing through the creation of written accounts, her work served as an example of the friction between ideology and practice.

The Lamenting Lady

In continuing my Female as Shapeshifter paper, the first part of which focused on  “The true discripcion of a childe with ruffes,” I will now look at a popular seventeenth century ballad that has its roots in the thirteenth century, “The Lamenting Lady.”

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(facsimile of the ballad in Pepys 1.44-45)

I have reproduced the entirety of the ballad at the bottom, but briefly, it is told from the first person perspective of a Countess, whose identity has varied among different accounts of the tale over the centuries, and who, while refusing to help a poor beggar woman carrying twins with her, heaps myriad insults upon her, among which are allegation of infidelity, for which the Countess is cursed to give birth to 365 children at once. The Countess dies shortly after the monstrous birth, but not before instructing her audience on proper moral behavior.

This ballad operates two-fold as it overtly preaches against the sins of pride, greed, and envy, resting squarely upon the shoulders of materialism to guide the argument opposing the byproducts of relying upon earthly wealth to garner superiority above another, which can be gathered by the original categorization of this ballad in line with others on “devotion and morality.” However, it also serves as a reminder of the dangers associated with fertility.

Further, through her refusal to the beggar the Countess negates ties of reciprocal obligation which helped bind society; the Countess was too proud to ever believe her efforts would be reciprocated by a poor woman who could barely feed herself and her two babes. Of course this too relies on the notion of materialism, where the expected repayment would be equal in physical value. Mere repayment with kind words or deeds was removed from the equation, and ironically replaced with reciprocal malice. As the Countess relentlessly defames the poor woman to the point of accusations of harlotry, the beggar repays her word for word with a curse. Most interestingly, the curse is an inversion of the Countess’s crime, and her reasons behind her transgressions. Her barrenness leaves her bitter as she balks at the fertility bestowed upon a woman whom she believes to be less deserving. Despite the Countess’s numerous efforts at conceiving, including partaking in only the best foods, another woman who in all probability doesn’t even have food achieves not a single birth, but twins. Thus the Countess’s spite against the beggar’s conspicuous fertility is rewarded with excessive fertility. Pregnancy, a perceived desirable state of being, especially for the Countess, takes on the attributes of the grotesque, and transforms into a curse, or burden she must literally bear.

Fertility and the pregnant body were causes for anxiety for both practical and sociological reasons. First, for the general population, unlike the Countess of the ballad, fertility lead to pregnancy, which logically lead to another member of the family, and consequently another mouth to feed. Excessive fertility that brought about multiple children in sequence, or worse, all at once, could severally deplete the familial stores. Secondly, and for my purposes more importantly, this preoccupation with the pregnant body was tied in with the idea that childbearing had multiple extraneous influences, brought upon by the mother’s conduct or even her thoughts.

While the beggar in the ballad is asking for money or food to support herself so that her babes may continue successfully suckling, the curse placed upon the Countess is not the result of refusing to perform charity, but rather a punishment for her conduct as she doesn’t just turn the woman away, but berates her in the process. Her womb is then reconfigured in accordance to external stimuli, namely her vitriol conduct. She operates outside of socially condoned behavior, as noted by the shame she feels afterwards, and as a repercussion the sins of the mother are visited upon her unborn children. Additionally, her actions not only dictate the amount of children that are about to pour forth, but also their size. In a similar vein to the child with ruffes I looked at in my last post, here the children’s deformities are found in their size, as they are as big as newborn mice. This obviously is meant to add “credibility” to the story since the idea of 365 full sized babies would be even more physically impossible to carry, but it also plays on the anxiety of premature labor that would often result in small, and consequently weaker babies that would have a slighter chance of survival.

Much like “The true discripcion of a childe with ruffes” was created as a means of admonishing women for their immodesty during such a precarious period in their lives, this ballad also functions as a guide for women who are told to “regard” the results of the Countess’s transgressions, and heed her warnings against improper behavior. In short, it is created in response to society’s unease at the idea of female autonomy, underscoring the potential negative consequences of women being left to their own devices; women must be corralled into proper conduct for their own well-being, and to ensure the safety of their progeny.

Here is the full text of the ballad (reproduced from A Pepysian Garland, Black-Letter Broadside Ballads of the Years 1595-1639 – Chiefly from the Collection of Samuel Pepys. Ed. Hyder E. Rollins):

REgard my griefe kind Ladies all,
my heart now bleeding dyes,
And shewers of silver pearled teares
falls from my weeping eyes:
I was once lovely, faire, and young.,
by nature sweet and kinde,
And had those joyes that might content
a gallant Ladies minde.

But barren grew my wished hopes,
no children I could have,
Which twixt my wedded Lord and me
much cause of sorrows gave:
My tender body pure and faire,
and of a princely frame
Could not abstaine these surged joyes
that came by Cupid’s Game.

Yet beggers borned of low degree
such blessings did possesse,
Which when I saw my heart grew full
of woes and heaviness:
O why should people poore (quoth I)
those happy joyes obstaine
When I that am a Lady brave
should barren thus remaine?

I feed on sweet delicious meates,
and drinke the purest wine,
Yet are tehre homely bodies still
as faire and cleere as mine,
and have more sweet fac’d smiling babes
then Ladies of degree,
And of as tender flesh and blood
as can be shewed by me.

In grief of heart complaining thus,
by chance a woman poore
With two sweet children in her armes
came begging to my doore:
Poore pretty babes they smiled sweete,
whereat I needs must know
If those two smiling children were
the woman’s owne or no?

They are (sweet Madam) both (said she)
and both borne at one birth,
The which are now my chiefest wealth
and blessings on the earth:
Can Beggers have what Ladies want
in anger I repli’d,
And can they wombe be fruitfull made
when mine is still deni’d?

I goe attyr’d in garments rich
bedeck’d with burnish’d gold,
And waited on with worldly pompe,
and pleasures minfold,
Whilst thou in rags all rent and toren,
for thy relife dost crave,
And with two children blest at once,
when I not one can have.

Thou art some Stumpt sure I know,
and spend’st they dayes in shame,
And stained sure thy marriage bed
with spots of black defame:
Else unto these two lovely babes
thou canst no mother be,
When I that live in greatest grace
no such content can see.

A hundreth such like taunting termes
I gave this woman poore
Whilst she for pitty and reliefe
stood begging at the doore:
Reviling her most spightfully
with harlots hatefull name,
Dissembling with a shamelesse face
to cover up her shame.

Her heart hereat with inward griefes
did feele such mortall paine,
And as it were before my face
did seeme to breake in twaine:
her pretty babes which at her breasts
did sweetly sucking lye
To see their mothers bitter moane
did sadly sob and crye.

Whereat, halfe kild with woe alas,
I with my wrongs (quoth she)
That these my babes may be reveng’d
proud Lady upon thee:
And as I am both true and just
unto my marriage bed
so let Gods wondrous worke be show
on thee when I am dead.

And for these children two of mine
heaven send thee such a number
At once, as dayes be in the yeare,
to make the world to wonder.
For I was true a wife have beene,
unto my husbands love:
As any Lady on the earth,
unto her Lord can prove.

Hereat relenting I began,
to mourne for this misdeed:
And houre by houre in griefe therof,
my sorrowing hard doth bleed
At last a heavie hand of heaven,
revend this womans woes:
And on my bodies pampered pride,
a fearfull Judgement shoes.

My cheekes that were so lovely red,
of natures choycest dye:
Grew blacke and ugly to behould,
to every weeping eye.
And in my wombe distempered griefes,
so vext me day and night:
I sweld so bid that I appeard,
a strange and monstrous wight.

Remebring then the womans words
she grieving did impart,
A thousand strange misdoubting feares
incompast round my heart.
And then me thought I sawe her come,
in person unto me,
With her two children in her aremes,
my sodaine shame to see.

AT which affright my bigg weld wombe
delivered forth in feare
As many children at one time
as daies were in the yeare:
In bignesse all like new bred mice,
yet each one shap’d aright,
And every male from female knowne,
by Gods great power and might.

My husband hereat grieved much,
with inward cares and woe,
And knew not in what place he should
these pretty ympes bestowe:
The strange report of this rare birth
made people much admire,
And of the truth thereof to know
the neighbours did desire.

Which caus’d my sorrowes still increase
being made my Countryes scorne,
I wish’d I had in child-bed dyed
before tjhey had been borne:
Then had this shame unto my friends
beene never seene nor knowne,
Nor I inn Countries farre and neere
a wonder thus be showne.

But marke fiare women of the world
how Heaven did pitty me,
When I made sorrowe for my sinnes,
and in extremity:

God tooke from hence my cause of shame
my children, weake and small:
The which poore creatures in one grave
were strangely buried all.

And on the grave where now they lye
a monument still stands
To shew this wondrous hap of mine
unto all Christian lands,
That such as be of high degree
may beare a meeker minde,
Least they despising of the poore
the like misfortune finde.

The Lord we see his blessings sends
to many women poore
As well as to the noble sort,
that have aboundant store:
Therefore let none desire to have
the joyes of worldly things
Except it be his sacred will
that is the King of Kings.


Crawford, Patricia. “The construction and experience of maternity in seventeenth century England.”

Macfarlane, Alan. Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction 1300-1840.

Evans, Jennifer. Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England.

An Admonition For Readers

While working on my “Female as Shapeshifter” paper, I am beginning to look at some primary sources for inclusion. The first I wanted to work with is a piece from 1566, “The true discripcion of a childe with ruffes borne in the parish of Micheham in the cou[n]tie of Surrey in the yeere of our Lord. M.D.LXvi,” which is in two parts. The first part is a vignette describing the physical attributes of a baby girl born with malformations to her skin. The second part, however, is most interesting as it relies on popular portents that construed birth monstrosities as omens against sinfulness for others, as well as indications of the parents’ transgressions, specifically those of the mother.

Monsters in the medieval period were often thought of as the physical manifestations of sin, and if their purpose was correctly deciphered, could serve as warnings. Similarly, once their significance was understood, they illustrated the sin, fait accompli, which brought them into existence. In my example, the baby with ruffes, or ruffled skin, was the punishment brought upon the mother for her indecent, or immodest wearing of ruffles on her garments. Here is a snippet of the original poem (the entirety of which can be found here):

Pray we the Lord our hart{is} to turn, whilest we haue time and space:
Lest that our soules in hel doo burn, for voiding of his grace.

And ye O England whose womākinde, in ruffes doo walke to oft:
Parswade them stil to bere in minde, this Childe with ruffes so soft.

In fourme as they in nature so, a maid she is in déed:
God graunt vs grace how euer we go, for to repent with spéed.

Her supposed vanity while pregnant was transmitted to the child inside of her, physically shaping the baby in accordance to the mother. Thus this second section is an admonition to women everywhere, reminding them of their responsibilities not only to themselves but to society who entrusts them with the duty of creating future adults.

Just yesterday afternoon I lectured on Susan Sontag’s “A Woman’s Beauty” and in both my classes the discussion turned towards the great facility with which we split off the “inside” from the “outside” when defining beauty, namely in modern culture. There is a strong belief that the two are irreconcilable. It doesn’t help that Sontag attributes this distinction to a Christian era that she believes ostracized women for being attractive. Nevertheless she is not wrong, and this is the double edged sword of beauty – attention to physical appearance is admonished and reprimanded, yet anything less is a portent of a stain upon our hearts. So beauty is a representation of purity, but rejoicing in it is pride, and a sin. Thus in the Christian era Sontag cites, the inside and outside are not mutually exclusive, only reflections of each other.

The woman in my quoted passage, however, is not condemned for flaunting her God-given appearance, but rather for embellishing herself with ruffles (Ruffles!). She may well have been a great beauty, and was immodestly boasting by drawing further attention to herself. Or she may have been rather ordinary looking, or even unattractive, using ruffles to overcompensate for lack of beauty. This does not matter. I am going to completely ignore the insinuation that acquired traits which bear no genetic inheritance are used as an explanation for her baby’s appearance, and rather focus on the social implications that are transmitted by the work. Here pride is not only a punishable sin; pride is a particularly anxiety producing character trait because it reveals the extent to which female comport resides outside the boundaries of societal, and more importantly, male control. The baby inherits her mother’s flaws, genetic or otherwise, and fails to resemble the father, negating the demands of patrilineage. Further, this child does not even so much as resemble the mother but rather holds a mirror to her sinful behavior, providing a double offense to the father who has nothing to show for his role in the process of conception, and now must also suffer a reminder of his wife’s transgressions.

The female body during pregnancy becomes a locus of activity. Her body changes as she shapes and molds the baby inside of her according to her physical appearance, her thoughts, and her behavior. Consequently all of these facets of female existence then need to be controlled in order to ensure proper progeny. This resulted in an abundance of texts produced during the early modern period, specifically intended for women, that admonished unfavorable behaviors in an attempt to eradicate them. While a large portion of these were of course political, and help shed light on some of the controversies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including the dispute between Puritans and the reforms of Charles I, these are of less concern to me than the regard for the female body during the period of gestation. And as I continue working on my paper I look forward to exploring several other texts as well.


Crawford, Julie. Marvelous Protestantism: Monstrous Births in Post-Reformation England.

Crawford, Patricia. “The construction and experience of maternity in seventeenth century England.”

Purkiss, Diane. “Producing the voice, consuming the body: Women prophets of the seventeenth century.”