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Conceiving Histories

Conceiving Histories is a research project examining the history of pre-pregnancy, funded by Birkbeck/Wellcome ISSF. A collaboration between Isabel Davis, an academic literary historian, and Anna Burel, a visual artist, it puts different ways of working into dialogue and uses artwork as well as writing to articulate the project’s research findings.

It seeks new and creative answers to the project’s research questions: how was the time before diagnosis – of pregnancy or infertility – experienced, negotiated and described and what might historical knowledge of this topic contribute to debates and questions about becoming parents, or not, today?

This history of not being pregnant has not yet been written because it is a history of nothing happening! However, in our contemporary moment, lots of people find the time of pre-pregnancy remarkable: a strange encounter with time, the body and the imagination. Women and their partners are waiting for and wondering about pregnancy and parenthood; might it happen for them, might it happen soon or not at all?

Whilst we sometimes think that men and women in the past were more likely to accept fate, research into archives shows this not to be the case. People were as eager then as today to know about their futures and their families. Some things have really changed, of course, not least the advent of reliable home pregnancy testing. Yet there will always be experiences with which science cannot help. In particular, science cannot help us to wait. And some people wait to test, wait to try, wait for parenthood, for months, for years or even forever.  

Prospective parents and their medical practitioners in the past, like men and women today, found the time of pre- and early pregnancy to be filled with fantasy: about objective and scientific knowledge, about the body and sexuality, about the origins of life, of babies, children and the future. Conceiving Histories looks through the archive for stories of hidden, misdiagnosed, imagined, feigned and hysterical pregnancies, as well as the desire to know about and to diagnose early pregnancy. Conceiving histories thinks, too, about the cultural resistance to and politics around childlessness, which is so often socially understood as an ambiguous, unresolved state.

To give a few examples, the project looks at the wishful idea of angel messengers who revealed the pregnancies of the saints; at the invention and practice of uroscopy, auscultation and other diagnostic tools; at the pregnancy diagnostic centres in the twentieth century and the logistics of supplying them with hundreds of thousands of test toads; at cases of false pregnancy like those, famously, of Mary Tudor in the sixteenth century on whose reproductive chances the fortunes of the known world rested; at experiments and also plans for experiments to determine the moment of conception; at the peculiarity of pregnant temporalities; and at the possibly pregnant in scandals, trials and sensational stories in both historical and literary materials.

For more information and events, visit the project website; follow us on twitter@conceivinghists and facebook @conceivinghistories