Tales from the Hidden Grove

Tales from the Hidden Grove
"Amongst the finest short story writers in the UK right now" ~ Black Pear Press

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Giving birth to hairy worms: bygone beliefs about the facts of life


For Christmas, my brother gave me a book called The Manly Masquerade: Masculinity, Paternity and Castration in the Italian Renaissance by Valeria Finucci.  I am probably one of the few people in Britain (or the world) who would be pleased to receive such a book for Christmas - one because my current novel, Cage of  Nightingales, has a castrato as one of its main characters, and two because I find androgyny endlessly fascinating.

But the book also turned up some strange beliefs which, as a fantasist, I find just as intriguing.  Or maybe not so strange.  Science is only based on what people can observe.  If food goes off, you come back to find it full of maggots.  Where did the maggots come from?  Without a microscope, it's not unreasonable to conclude - as our Renaissance ancestors did - that some creatures could be born spontaneously of putrefaction.

However, the spontaneous birth theories didn't end with maggots.  Here are some things that people (learned doctors as well as peasants) believed in the Renaissance:
  • Women's wombs could spontaneously produce all sorts of things, from monsters and harpies, to wood, glass or combs, to serpents, toads and hairy worms.  (I particularly like the hairy worms.  Why hairy??)
  • You could give birth to animals by seeing animals while pregnant.  In 1726, an Englishwoman called Mary Taft allegedly gave birth to 17 rabbits.
  • You could give birth to a baby of a different colour from you or your partner by looking at a picture of someone that colour.  One white woman was cleared of adultery after giving birth to a black baby because there was a picture of an Ethiopian in her bedroom.
You think this is far-fetched?  When I told my mother about it, she said that even when she was young, old wives warned pregnant women not to go to freak shows for fear of giving birth to a deformed baby.  Old beliefs die hard...