Beware the Female Imagination

The other night, I learned the origin of this image that has appeared and changed over centuries in Aristotle’s Masterpiece. The hairy woman, and the black baby. Although originally having nothing to do with each other aside from illustrating the dangers of maternal imagination, they were together on a single woodcut on accident, and thus, have always stayed together until later editions when a black baby meant something very different in America than in Europe. The lady loses the hair eventually, too.

Maternal impression or imagination was the theory that a baby would, or could, look like something the mother imagines or sees. So, if the mother saw something traumatic or awful while pregnant, it would manifest itself onto the baby. This is why pregnant women were told not to go to executions and avoid unpleasant sights as a rule. The book actually tells you how to trick your husband if you are with a lover; just imagine your husband while you are having sex, and then, the baby will still look like your husband. Easy! Here are some babies where the mother had nightmares or saw something terrible….

Any inherited diseases or mutations always got blamed on the mother, of course. Or it was an act of God to punish the mother for some misdeed. Whatever the case, a woman’s imagination is a powerful and dangerous thing that has to be kept in check, otherwise, bad things happen. This book was still in publication until the 1930s and mostly unaltered. In fact, there is some evidence it was still being published into the late 1940s. This is what your grandmothers and every woman before her had to read in order to learn about reproduction and child care. I wonder how people will laugh at our current medical literature in the next few centuries?

3 thoughts on “Beware the Female Imagination”

  1. A while back, I came across an autobiographical pamphlet by Joseph Merrick (1862-1890), the severely deformed Victorian man unfortunately better remembered by his sideshow stage name “The Elephant Man”. In the pamphlet, (, he attributed his deformities to his mother’s close-call with a circus animal, writing:

    “The deformity which I am now exhibiting was caused by my mother being frightened by an Elephant; my mother was going along the street when a procession of Animals were passing by, there was a terrible crush to see them, and unfortunately she was pushed under the Elephant’s feet, which frightened her very much; this occurring during a time of pregnancy was the cause of my deformity.”

    Until now, I assumed that Merrick’s “explanation” for his condition was a private superstition; but it looks like he had absorbed “maternal impression” ideas in currency at the time.

    I almost want to say the vaccine/autism association will be looked back on as the 21st century’s weirdest medical belief, but I’m pessimistic it will ever fall out of the popular imagination. The myth is a recent one (autism itself was only clinically described 61 years ago) and might be a fad, but it’s only the latest iteration of surreptitiousness surrounding vaccines, which has existed as long as the technology of inoculation. People will keep inventing reasons to justify their sense of ickiness.

Comment On This

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.