Grunting and groaning: descriptions of pregnancy

I’ve nearly finished writing about perceptions of pregnancy and will be heading off to the conference tomorrow. In the meantime, here is a short post about one of the accounts of the late stages of pregnancy, which particularly caught my attention.

In writing my paper about people’s descriptions of pregnancy, I have been fascinated by the mix of ‘old’ and ‘new’ terms used in the later Georgian period in Britain. This was a time when childbirth had shifted thanks to men midwives and the professionalization of paediatrics. New information was being circulated in printed manuals and cultural fashions like sensibility dictated how one should talk about women’s bodies. Nonetheless, a ‘traditional’ and rather earthier language of ‘breeding’ survived alongside more refined terms like ‘expecting’.

For example, the clergyman Edward Leathes of Norfolk wrote to his wife’s parents in 1775 to report on her progress:

I now think Betsey’s prodigious size is the strangest phenomena that ever was. Had it been her lot to have been born a male, she would have been an excellent Dutch Tailor as they are generally reputed the worst because they are more frequently out in their reckoning than any others, however, to be serious, we are not without our forebodings that the little Master or Miss which ever it may be will not tarry much longer as Betsey is arrived at certain period called a Grunter which as the Old Women term is the certain forerunner of a Groaning.

This charming update makes a humorous play on both Betsey’s inaccuracy of dating her pregnancy (a fairly common experience before pregnancy tests!) and the cruder terms for physical size and the pains of childbirth. I’m delighted by this image of the rather huge Betsey grunting when she rose from her chair, levered herself into or out of bed, or moved around, which Edward sees as the ‘forerunner of a Groaning’.

Groaning-CakeThis ‘Old Woman’ term as he puts it was the profoundly descriptive term for the pains of labour. Indeed, ‘groaning’ was so associated with childbirth in the early modern period that it lent its name to groaning-beer, groaning-cheese and groaning-cakes (recipes still circulated today!): beverage and food served during labour if not for the mother then at least for the women who attended her. The groaning was also an evocative metaphor for the lying-in period after birth, and the groaning-chair, a chair in which women received visitors after the birth. Here one imagines the groaning shifted slightly to its other meaning of complaining.

As well as the archaic and the new mixing in this narrative of pregnancy, I’m also struck by the combination of foreboding and humour. One of the things I’ve been pursuing in the paper in its fuller form is how ‘emotion words’ used about pregnancy could alleviate the anxiety caused by the uncertainty of pregnancy – such as the inaccuracy of timing with Edward Leathes discusses here. I’ll talk more about what a history of emotions approach can tell us about pregnancy in future posts.


Many thanks to Dr Michael James for sharing the Leathes correspondence with me. For more on this fascinating family, see Michael’s PhD thesis: ‘The effect on family life during the late Georgian period of indisposition, medication, treatments and the resultant outcomes’ (2010) available here:

What went on in beds?

Historical beds are very much in view at the moment. There is an exhibition at Hampton Court Palace called ‘Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber’ with an accompanying BBC4 TV programme with Lucy Worsley called ‘Tales from the Royal Bedchamber’.

What is probably the Paradise State Bed, Henry VII’s bed, jas just gone on display at Bishop Auckland Castle until the end of September 2014. Jonathan Foyle revealed the wonders of this 572 year old bed on BBC4 in the documentary, Secret Knowledge: The King’s Lost Bed.


This interest in the fantastic and fantastical beds of our monarchs is wonderful. But my good friend and colleague, Dr Angela McShane, and I have been looking at the meaning of more mundane beds from the past. We have been fascinated by the meaning of something that was fundamental to so many homes and families in early modern England.

As an item of furniture, the bed was at the centre of the domestic sphere. It was the most expensive single item of the household and many of the family’s key events happened in the marital bed. Marriages were made there, children were born, and people were nursed, and eventually died in its warmth and protection. Thus, the bed literally made the household.


But as a household space, it was not only a zone of domestic comfort  – we realised it was also a battle-ground for family tensions and breakdowns. Angela and I have brought our combined knowledge of the history of design and social historical approaches to a wide range of sources on beds, including popular literature, inventories and wills, beds and textiles, and court records covering theft, property dispute and family breakdown, in order to uncover some of those stories.

We’d like to share these stories with new readers, so please follow Joanne on this blog and on twitter to see our stories unfold.

First we’re opening with the story of a problematic marriage. In 1742 13 yr old Isabel Lowee, a fatherless heiress, and 12 yr old William Cashin were wed by marriage licence in a church with closed and locked doors on the Isle of Man. After the ceremony, there was a wedding dinner and dance at Isabel’s guardian’s house and then Isabel and William were taken to the guardian’s barn to be ‘put to bed’, the traditional ritual for fixing the marriage.

There were lots of signs already that this union was a wrong-un. The husband and wife were too young – the usual age of marriage was around the mid twenties. Instead of being a public ceremony, the church’s doors were closed to prevent publicity and the licence was questioned by Isabel’s family who accused the Cashins of coercing Isabel so that they could lay their hands on her inheritance. They claimed that William’s family took Isabel away from her friends and persuaded her to marry with fine clothes and a ‘babby’ or a child’s doll.

wedding bed

But a further concern, pointed out by witnesses, was the material inadequacy of the bedding ceremony. Where was their bed? The bedding had taken place in a barn on a straw ‘bed’ that was hastily made and set upon the ground. The crucial question for Angela and I: is why was this aspect noticed by the people of the time? The next post will explain more.

All images are from Wikimedia Commons:

  1. St James’s Palace, Old Bed Chamber,
  2. Bed photographed at Freilichtmuseum
  3. Woodcut from The Fair Melusina / 15th century: How Reymont and Melusina were betrothed / And by the bishop were blessed in their bed on their wedlock