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  • The Masque and the Matrix: Alice Egerton, Richard Napier, and Suffocation of the Mother
  • Boyd Brogan

A widow, 44 . . . in May of 1546 seriously suffered from the suffocation of the mother (suffocatio uteri). When she was taken for dead and was lying unconscious, I was urgently called to her. However, it was a case of suffocation because of retained seed (suffocatio ex semine retento) . . . I moved [her own burned hair] constantly before her nostrils for her to smell. Then I gave her feet a painful rubbing. . . . We also applied bindings to her hips. . . . In the meantime, because of the urgency of the situation, we asked a midwife to come and apply the following ointment to the patient’s genitals, rubbing them inside with her finger. . . . And thus she was against hope brought back to consciousness. For such titillation with the finger is commended by all physicians . . . particularly for widows and those who live chastely, and nuns. . . . However, I am of the opinion that this should only be done in very urgent circumstances after other remedies have failed.

— Pieter van Foreest, Observationum et curationum medicinalium libri [End Page 3]

A senseless, motionless female patient; a male physician, his techniques exhausted, summons a woman for help.1 Could a scene of this kind — a typical example of the early modern womb disease known as suffocation of the mother — have inspired the puzzling sequence of events that closes John Milton’s A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634? Such a possibility may seem unlikely. How could Milton possibly have risked even the most stylized of depictions of the Earl of Bridgewater’s daughter undergoing this kind of treatment — a treatment that van Foreest, like many of his contemporaries, clearly believes to be a kind of therapeutic masturbation?

Other parallels are numerous, however; while recent criticism has sometimes taken it as axiomatic that an unconscious woman in an early modern drama must be suffering from this ailment, few such dramas fit the description as closely as A Maske. Previous studies have noted Milton’s claustrophobic womb imagery, and discovered references to menstruation or the early modern notion of “female seed.”2 Suffocation of the mother, thought to be caused when seed or menses were unhealthily retained within the womb, or “matrix,” offers a point at which these independent suggestions may converge. This was also a disease that had been known for centuries to be “without any possible doubt . . . caused by chastity”3 — the virtue to which Milton’s Lady is famously committed — and which became particularly well known in England in the early seventeenth century. Two of its features were especially notorious: its similarity to the effects of witchcraft and the deathlike paralysis that constituted its most famous symptom. These points resonate with critical debates about whether the Lady’s immobilization is caused by Comus’s “numbing spell,” or somehow self-inflicted.4 A subtext of suffocatio can also make sense of why Sabrina is necessary: once the paralysis has taken hold it requires a therapy that only a woman can perform.

As van Foreest’s closing words of caution suggest, that therapy could be controversial. But this essay will propose that in 1630s England the controversy may have receded. Cases of “the mother” were thought to be unusually frequent in this period, increasing [End Page 4] the potential demand for this remedy of last resort. From 1625, moreover, a very different interpretation to van Foreest’s was available. On this account, there was nothing sexual about what I will refer to for convenience, in the absence of any standard early modern term, as the “midwife’s cure.” Aimed merely at opening the cervix to release toxins from the affected womb, it was a humane and medically vital procedure derived from a standard obstetric technique. Assertions to the contrary were anatomically ignorant and associated with “silly superstitious Papists.”5 By 1634 the midwife’s cure may have become an accepted part of the medical repertoire, so that its dramatic representation required little more than the entry of a female healer to take charge of proceedings.

The larger point in the context of A Maske, however, is that chastity was something that might need curing...