pregnancy


pregnancy
   The folklore of pregnancy, like that of 'childbirth, is inadequately recorded in England. The process was jokingly compared with baking bread; a pregnant woman is still said to 'have a bun in the oven', and a mentally impaired child to be 'half-baked'. Various signs were thought to indicate the baby's sex. Ancient Greek authorities had taught that a male foetus lay to the 'right of the mother's womb and affected the right side of her body, and this notion can be found as late as 1724 in Jane Sharp's The Compleat Midwife's Companion: 'If it be a Boy, she is better Coloured, her Right Breast will swell more, for Males lie most on the right side and her Belly especially on that side lieth rounder and more tumefied and the Child will be first felt to move on that side, the Woman is more cheerful and in better Health, her Pains are not so often or so great' (cited in Chamberlain, 1981: 190).
   Women still pass on such tips to one another, though often with amusement rather than belief. Some say one can tell the baby's sex by whether it is carried high or low, and whether it kicks to the right or to the left; others, that 'boy baby bumps are all out at the front, while girl baby bumps are spread round the side as well'. Many say boy babies kick harder ('He'll be a footballer!'), but the reverse is recorded too: 'If you don't feel much movement from the baby it is a boy' (Chamberlain, 1981: 241).
   A divination frequently mentioned is to suspend a wedding ring or a key over the pregnant woman's womb on a thread, or one of her own hairs, to see if it spins clockwise or anti-clockwise, or straight; however, informants disagree on which movement means which sex (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 302-3; Chamberlain, 1981: 241; Sutton, 1992: 57).
   Blemishes in a newborn infant were blamed on the circumstances of its 'conception, or events during the mother's pregnancy. The best known is the harelip, caused by a 'hare crossing the mother's path, but virtually any troubles could be explained this way. If, for instance, a child had an ugly birthmark, it would be said to resemble something the mother had stared too hard at, or been frightened by, or longed in vain to eat. Examples of this belief can be found from the 16th century to the present. A woman from Hackthorn (Lincolnshire) recalled in the 1980s:
   I knew of a child who was born with a perfect mouse on his wrist. His mother had gone into the pantry and had seen a mouse (it's the truth I'm telling you) and she grabbed her wrist like this and the child was born with the shape of a mouse on his wrist. My husband used to say it was balderdash, but it's true. Anyway, he had to go into hospital to have it taken off, so there. (Sutton, 1992: 56)
   Deformities were also sometimes seen as God's 'judgement on a sin of the mother (not the father), typically a blasphemous remark, or a refusal of charity. The belief was exploited for propaganda by both sides during the Civil War. A royalist pamphleteer claimed a Puritan woman had declared while pregnant that she would rather bear a headless baby than let her baby be baptized, and that this had duly happened; a Puritan pamphleteer matched this with the story that a royalist woman had said it would be better her child had no head than become a Roundhead, with the same result. In 1871, the Revd Francis Kilvert learnt of a crippled woman then living in Presteigne, who was said to have the face and feet of a frog:
   The story about this unfortunate being is as follows. Shortly before she was born, a woman came begging to her mother's door with two or three little children. Her mother was angry and ordered the woman away. 'Get away with your young frogs,' she said. And the child she was expecting was born partly in the form of a frog, as a punishment and a curse upon her. (Kilvert's Diary, ed. W. Plomer (1960), i. 380-1)

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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