Eighteenth-Century "Monsters" and Nineteenth-Century "Freaks": Reading the Maternally Marked Child
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Literature and Medicine 21.1 (2002) 1-25



[Access article in PDF]

Eighteenth-Century "Monsters" and Nineteenth-Century "Freaks":
Reading the Maternally Marked Child

Philip K. Wilson


The human genome, the body, and disability have attracted unprecedented levels of interdisciplinary academic interest in recent years. Literature abounds describing myriad concerns over human genetic research, its regulation, and subsequent implications for what is, at least figuratively, often referred to as the "Brave New World" in which we live. 1 Somewhat paradoxically, as technological advances steer many to gaze deeper into the hitherto invisible, twisted ladder of our genetic code, others have diverted their gaze toward the skin, the most outwardly visible layer of the physical body. It is often through markings on the skin that expressions of both individual and cultural identities are read. 2

Considerable attention has also been focused upon ways in which "the body" can be seen to express deviance through some physical, readable marking. In essence, those deemed to be socially or morally deviant are believed to carry upon them, or within their genes, some recognizable marking peculiar to their deviancy. Similar arguments regarding the "disabled" body regularly appear in the burgeoning literature of disability studies. 3

This essay interconnects current interest in heredity, the body, and embodied deviance by reviewing representations of children reputedly "marked" by their mother's imagination in English and American medical and popular literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An age-old belief, which persists in many cultures, alleges that a [End Page 1] pregnant woman's imagination, frights, or longings can be transferred to her unborn child, thereby imprinting the child with characteristic marks or deformities. In Henry Fielding's satirical novel Joseph Andrews (1742), the protagonist's strawberry-shaped birthmark is claimed to be the result of his mother's longing for strawberries while pregnant. Frights, too, have reputedly contributed to such markings. One nineteenth-century medical case history describes a pregnant woman, while being bled with leeches, becoming frightened by an unusually large leech. The incident forges such an impression upon her mind when awake and in her dreams that she ultimately delivers a child marked with the likeness of a leech. 4 In medical literature, a child's resemblance to either parent—what many now consider to be the result of a random reallocation of hereditary traits—was once commonly attributed to maternal impressions.

My intention in this essay is to selectively examine medical and popular discussion of the "maternal imagination" in Britain and the United States from the early eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. 5 Rather than a complete historical overview, this work represents, at best, a respectable fragment of how discussion about the origin of "marked children" in medical and popular literature changed over time. Differences in the textual representation of marked children between these two kinds of literature and between the two centuries will be highlighted. Additionally, attention will be focused on the skin as the corporeal text upon which monstrosity or freakishness was inscribed. 6 Ways that professional and popular audiences "read" markings upon the skin are also discussed. Here, "reading" is taken to imply the ways in which the bodies themselves were made objects of study, scrutiny, investigation, and interpretation. Such endeavors not only help us better understand what marked children meant in earlier times but also, as my concluding remarks will suggest, provide useful historical insight into the discussion and representation of the "disabled" in current scholarship.

Eighteenth-Century Monstrous Children

Discourse on the belief in maternal impressions has been a staple of both popular and medical literature for millennia. The following poem by Abbot Claude Quillet, Callipaediae: or, An Art How to Have Handsome Children, vividly contextualizes the popular imagery of this peculiar maternal-fetal phenomenon during the early Enlightenment. [End Page 2]

Ye Pregnant Wives, whose Wish it is, and Care,
To bring your Issue, and to breed it Fair,
On what you look, on what you think, beware.
When in the Womb the Forming Infant Grows,
And Swelling Beauties shew a Teeming Spouse;
All Melancholy, Spleen, and...