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: