Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Perceptions of Pregnancy: From Medieval to Modern

A guest blog by Dr Ciara Meehan, School of Humanities
On 16 July, more than sixty delegates attended the three-day Perceptions of Pregnancy conference, organised by Dr Jennifer Evans and Dr Ciara Meehan of the School of Humanities.

Ciara Meehan (left),
Jennifer Evans (right) & Joanne Bailey
The aim of the conference was to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to hold an international and interdisciplinary conversation on fertility, pregnancy and childbirth from the medieval to the modern. The broad timespan allowed for a careful consideration of continuities and changes throughout history.  Speakers came from institutions in Britain, Ireland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Poland, Canada and the United States.  From Anna Andreeva’s (University of Heidelberg) paper on medieval Japan to Julia Allison’s (University of Nottingham) on Rural East Anglia, the content of the papers also covered a broad geographical span.  We heard from historians, midwives, curators, political geographers, literary critics and scholars working on visual culture.

The conference covered everything from conception to the birthing experience.  Particularly striking was the paper from Anija Dokter (University of Cambridge) that featured sound-recordings of childbirth. The darker side of pregnancy was also explored and day two, for example, featured a panel on seduction, violence and supernatural hazards.

Conference delegates
Sylvia Murphy Tighe (Trinity College Dublin) presented some of the findings from an on-going study with Irishwomen who have or are currently concealing their pregnancy.  Moreover, while pregnancy is associated with women in the popular mindset, speakers such as Jennifer Evans (University of Hertfordshire) and Justin Dolan Stover (Idaho State University) sought to locate the man in the narrative of pregnancy and childhood.

There were a number of timely contributions.  Elaine Farrell (Queen’s University, Belfast) and Ciara Meehan (University of Hertfordshire) explored the stigma of being an unmarried mother.  Both made reference to the recent scandal in Ireland, which attracted international attention following revelations that the bodies of up to 800 babies had been uncovered at the site of a former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway.  With recent campaigns for gender equality in both the British and Irish parliaments, Claire McGing’s (NUI Maynooth) paper, which gave recommendations on facilitating parenting for politicians, was particularly relevant.

Ciara Meehan (left),
Jennifer Evans (right) & Elaine Farrell
The conference was book-ended by two exhibitions. The first was curated by Liz Burns of the Burns Archive in New York and featured images of deceased children, sometimes posed with their parents. The practice of post-mortem photography was common in the Victorian era as an act of memorialisation.  The second exhibition gave a sneak-peak of Ellen duPont’s forthcoming gift-book for the ‘thinking mother’, which will contain a collection of forty historical images of pregnant women, accompanied by quotations, to coincide with each week of pregnancy.

Conference outcomes will include an edited collection and a special edition of Women’s History Magazine.  Although the event is now over, the conference blog will remain active. Another aim of the conference was to build networks and facilitate further conversations, and we see the blog as an excellent forum for doing so.  We hope to develop it into a space for the community of researchers working on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences to engage, exchange ideas and highlight their work.

The conference was generously supported by the School of Humanities at the University of Hertfordshire, the Social History Society and the Royal Historical Society.

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