What Mary Toft felt: women's voices, pain, power and the body

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Abstract

In autumn 1726, Mary Toft began to deliver rabbits in Godalming, Surrey. The case became a sensation and was reported widely in newspapers, popular pamphlets, poems and caricatures. Toft was attended by at least six different doctors, some members of the Royal College of Physicians or attached to the Royal Court, but no doctor declared the affair a hoax until Toft herself confessed on 7 December 1726. This article focuses on Toft’s three surviving confessions in order to explore not the doctors or even wider representations of the affair but instead the person of Mary Toft herself. These rare sources give rare insight into one woman’s experiences of reproduction in the early eighteenth century. The essay engages with recent work on recovering women’s voices in the past, reconstructing Mary Toft’s words and her embodied and affective experience of the affair. These documents suggest a revision to our understanding of the hoax of 1726, one that situates the affair not in the context of the scientific revolution and Enlightenment or the assumption of men’s control over midwifery, but instead in the context of power dynamics amongst women in the practices of early-modern reproduction and birth.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)33-51
Number of pages19
JournalHistory Workshop Journal
Volume80
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 23 Sep 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science

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