What to Expect When You’re Expiring: Pregnancy and Death in Seventeenth-Century England

On October 12, 1622, a 26-year-old English woman named Elizabeth Jocelin gave birth to her first child, a baby girl. Nine days later, she died of puerperal fever, an infection of the genital tract — most likely from bacteria accidentally introduced by a birthing attendant during labor — that can cause fatal sepsis in postpartum women.

Jocelin’s tragedy was a depressingly common one before the widespread adoption of more hygienic obstetric practices in the nineteenth century. Jane Seymour, third wife to Henry VIII, and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women, both died of the same cause, along with many less famous women. Jocelin is noteworthy, not because her situation was unusual, but because of what we know about how she prepared for it. When she learned she was pregnant, she secretly bought herself a sheet that she could be buried in and began writing a document full of maternal advice for her unborn child, in case she did not survive to raise him or her. Her husband only learned of her activities after her death, when he discovered the unfinished manuscript, which he later had published as The Mother’s Legacy to her Unborn Child, inside her desk.1

Praskovia Kovalyova by an artist of the Argunov family, 1803. She died in childbirth, so the painting may be a posthumous version of an earlier head and shoulders. (Wikimedia Commons)

It is impossible to know for sure why Jocelin secretly treated her healthy pregnancy as a preparation for death. Thomas Goad, the clergyman whose introduction to the Legacy contains the fullest surviving account of her life and character, attributes her actions to her piety. Later historians and literary critics have suggested understandable fear of the dangers of childbirth or ambivalence about motherhood.2 Any and all of these might be true. There’s no certainty at this historical distance, and surviving records of Jocelin can be particularly confounding to modern readers because her actions and beliefs cut across our categories of progessive and conservative. She was an unusually educated woman; Goad notes that she studied history and multiple languages as a child, and continued to read widely into adulthood. She cites the Aeneid alongside scripture as a precedent for familial piety. But she also tells her husband that if she has a daughter, “I desire her bringing up may be learning the Bible, as my sisters do, good housewifery, writing, and good works: other learning a woman needs not.”3 Jocelin seems to want to deny any future daughter access to resources she clearly values herself.

But if Jocelin’s private motives are not accessible, her behavior nonetheless reveals a lot about how British people in the seventeenth century discussed and prepared for death. Once she decided to treat her pregnancy as a potentially terminal illness, Jocelin was able to draw on multiple aids to help her to navigate the process of dying. Memento mori traditions encouraged the living to anticipate their future deaths by looking at pictures of dead bodies and skulls, or even by acting out the role of a corpse. For instance, near the end of his life, the poet John Donne famously posed for a painting as though already dead, and then spent his last days contemplating the image. In this context, buying a shroud seems like both a prudent preparation and a strategy for becoming comfortable with the idea of the end of life. Religious guides to dying well, with titles like Learn to Die, The Sick Man’s Salve and Holy Dying, were enormously popular in this period, going through multiple editions. They offered spiritual meditations on mortality, but also practical plans of action for the terminally ill and their attendants in dealing with pain, fear and confusion in the final days of life.

The prospect of dying could even empower Jocelin to assert herself in ways usually unavailable to women at the time. One important aspect of preparing for death was disposing of property. Although today wills are seen as purely legal documents, in the seventeenth century they also served a religious purpose. Writing one was a mechanism to loosen earthly attachments and settle worldly debts before turning to God. As a married woman, Jocelin could own nothing independent of her husband and was barred from leaving material goods after death. But when she titled her message to her child a “legacy,” she adapted the spiritual understanding of a will to insist on a strong moral and emotional connection to a child she was not sure she would live to meet, and to make decisions about his or her education and upbringing. These frameworks for approaching death were widely available. While Jocelin’s preparations were unusually elaborate and well-publicized, many other women anticipating birth also made provision for children who might be orphaned, composed prayers for their souls or anticipated their burials.4

John Donne, Deaths Duell (London: 1632), frontispiece. (By permission of the
Photo Negative Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.)

For Jocelin, death may simply have been easier to talk about in positive terms than childbearing, and less connected to shame. Far fewer resources about pregnancy were available in the period. Interested people could learn from women who had experience attending births. Evidence assembled by Doreen Evenden in her book The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London suggests that midwives typically pursued lengthy practical apprenticeships, and were respected within their communities (though a stereotype that they were ignorant and unskilled when compared to male doctors and “man midwives” would take root over the next century). The curious could also read books like Thomas Raynalde’s popular The Birth of Mankind, which explained the rudiments of anatomy, labor and conception for a general audience. However, even Raynalde feels the need to defend himself from accusations that the contents of his book risk causing readers to “abhor and loathe the company of women.”5 Mary Fissell suggests that pregnant female bodies were increasingly understood as sites of corruption over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.6 Death was a safer subject.

Today, the cultural visibility of death manuals and birth manuals has almost reversed. What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Heidi Murkoff’s blockbuster pregnancy guide first published in 1984, is in its 5th edition and has spawned multiple spinoffs, imitators, and even a romantic comedy. The book’s descriptions of complications scarcely mention maternal mortality; its index entry on death points readers to pregnancy loss and sudden infant death syndrome but makes no reference to the mother. By contrast, efforts to make the end of life easier to prepare for and talk about, like the Order of the Good Death and Death Cafes, find far smaller audiences. It’s obviously good news that pregnancy and labor are no longer taboo topics and that death rates have fallen from seventeenth-century levels. Nevertheless, it is worth considering what earlier discussions of pregnancy and death in relation to one another still have to teach us today. Since the 1980s, maternal mortality rates have risen in the US, particularly among black and indigenous women. The causes of this increase are multiple, and include the growth in rates of chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension, an increasingly unaffordable and unequal healthcare system, and a medical culture that has often “focused more on fetal and infant safety and survival than on the mother’s health and well-being.” In this context, texts like Jocelin’s Legacy might be a helpful reminder to acknowledge pregnant people’s private fears and experiences. Talking about death and pregnancy need not be a morbid or defeatist activity. It can be a way to ensure that some of the most vulnerable parents and soon-to-be parents are heard.

Notes

  1. Elizabeth Jocelin, The Mother’s Legacy to Her Unborn Child (London: 1622). Return to text.
  2. See Lucinda Becker, Death and the Early Modern Englishwoman (Ashgate, 2003) 34–35; Teresa Feroli, “Infelix Simulacrum: The Rewriting of Loss in Elizabeth Jocelin’s The Mothers Legacie,” ELH 61 (1994): 89–102. Return to text.
  3. Jocelin, B4r. Return to text.
  4. For examples see Ralph Houlbrooke, Death, Religion, and the Family, 1480–1750 (Oxford University Press, 1998), 68. Return to text.
  5. Thomas Raynalde, The Birth of Mankind, Overwise Named the Woman’s Book (London: 1598), 9. Return to text.
  6. Mary Fissell, Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2004), 3–4. Return to text.

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