Maladies & Medicine Launch

On the 9 August Sara and I launched our new book Maladies & Medicine: exploring health and healing 1540-1740 at Loughborough University London. Attendees battled a classic British Summer downpour and train stations full to the brim with Athletics spectators to share a glass of wine and some cake with us.

The launch followed a spread in The I newspaper talking about diseases that are no longer with us.

The book is currently available from Pen & Sword books, and from Amazon as either a paper back or on kindle/ebook.


Inside Versailles

A few months ago I received an exciting email asking if I would like to be involved in Inside Versailles with the awesome hosts Greg Jenner and Kate Williams. We talked all things aphrodisiacs – as this season has featured several including satyrion, Spanish fly and some more mysterious love potions.

If you missed it you can catch up on IPlayer for the next couple of days.

2017-05-29 (8)

Perceptions of Pregnancy Published

evans_2ndpassI am very pleased to announce that the edited collection I put together with Ciara Meehan is now available. To celebrate we are offering the chance to win a copy of the collection.

To be in with a chance follow this link

The book includes a fantastic selection of chapters covering issues of emotions, consumerism, violence, and literary representations. For more details here are the abstracts.

Perceptions of Pregnancy from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century

This multi-disciplinary collection brings together work by scholars from Britain, America and Canada on the popular, personal and institutional histories of pregnancy. It follows the process of reproduction from conception and contraception, to birth and parenthood. The contributors explore several key themes: narratives of pregnancy and birth, the patient-consumer, and literary representations of childbearing. This book explores how these issues have been constructed, represented and experienced in a range of geographical locations from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. Crossing the boundary between the pre-modern and modern worlds, the chapters reveal the continuities, similarities and differences in understanding a process that is often, in the popular mind-set, considered to be fundamental and unchanging.


Pregnancy was a routine, often regular experience for women across their child-bearing years in the long eighteenth century, since the majority of women wed in their mid-twenties and bore children until the menopause. Pregnancy was limited only by fertility, health, and sexual abstinence before the ‘fertility transition. As such pregnancy from its earliest stages to birth was a topic consistently discussed in family correspondence and diaries among the literate social ranks.’ Although individual circumstances were often different, one common theme emerges across these relatively mundane commentaries on pregnancy, a pervasive sense of apprehension. This chapter surveys the language used to describe pregnancy and the unborn child in order to learn more about the bodily and emotional experience of pregnancy in late Georgian England.


The introduction, acceptance, and growing popularity of obstetric anaesthesia in Canada went hand in hand with changing conceptualisations of both pregnancy and birth. By the turn of the twentieth century, labour and delivery were overwhelmingly seen as pathological states, increasingly requiring medical management. Discussions surrounding the role of ‘birth pangs’ or labour pain in the birthing process, as both a diagnostic tool, and as a feature of labour requiring increasing attention, treatment, and control at the hands of overwhelmingly male physicians, were at the heart of this shift. This chapter offers an analysis of both professional and popular medical discourses with the aim of situating first person narratives within the broader contexts of these changes, in order to highlight Canadian perceptions of pregnancy during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.


During the Irish Revolution, individuals increasingly recognised that joining nationalist groups, membership of the Sinn Féin political party, interest in Irish language revival, or active (or suspected) service in the IRA, implicated others. These considerations were not merely peripheral; anxiety over the safety of non-combatants within one’s family and community, and a desire to reduce collateral damage are frequent and central themes of the independence narrative. Such anxiety could also be placed within the context of fatherly concern more broadly.  Moreover, as terror became a common feature the conflict throughout 1920 so, too, did the fear of sexual violence. This chapter explores the experiences of parents and their children, women and violation of bodies and intimate space, and the vulnerability and emotional anxiety experienced during this turbulent period.


What do women perceive when they hear birth? This question is complex. Web 2.0 has offered mothers the opportunity to participate in the accumulation of text, audio and visual data about motherhood, and the women on Mumsnet provide a plethora of rich sonic descriptions. This chapter is part summary and part collaborative critique, an arts-inspired exploration of thousands of Mumsnet threads woven into a unique narrative fabric. The women-authored materials on Mumsnet contain many perspectives and complex social analyses, which can be contextualised by broader feminist critiques of the gender power relations at the core of families and medical institutions. In doing so, this chapter locates women’s intellectual work in non-elite women-authored literature.


Recent scholarship reveals an emerging interest in the female characters in The Birth of Merlin. This shifting scholarly interest seems warranted in relation to a play which positions reproduction as a main concern through both its title and its plot. This chapter will demonstrate how the female characters raise issues related to reproduction and, through doing so, both interrogate the power afforded to women in their generative potential and explore how women can function productively in relation to the larger patriarchal condition of the kingdom. Analysing the play alongside contemporary discussions of pregnancy and childbirth will highlight how this depiction of womanhood participates within a larger cultural dialogue which values women because of their generative function, yet equally resists an elevation of the female because of this role.


L0005357 Woman bearing 20 children.The performance of pregnancy is a trope that is well-used in dramatic works. Pregnant characters are used to explore issues such as infidelity, concealed pregnancy, female duplicity, and unmarried pregnancy, for example. The chapter seeks to build on existing work that seeks to gain the most full understanding of a theatrical text by comparing it with other texts in a similar field. The focus will be on the ways that pregnancy was presented in works which were not primarily designed for the public stage, such as a privately commissioned playlet, along with prose and poetic works, in order to evaluate the extent to which contextual reading reveals in more depth themes prevalent in dramatic works and how far the themes overlap within these genres too.


This chapter considers the persistent stigma of unmarried motherhood as an example of the limitations of the so-called permissive society. It examines the depiction of pregnancy out of wedlock in Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (1960) and Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone (1965), arguing that these novels suggest an uneven pattern of liberalisation rather than a blanket shift to a ‘permissive society.’ In exploring taboo sexual topics, they both participate in a turn to gritty realism that characterises British fiction of the late 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s. While many examples are written by, and feature, male working-class authors from the North of England, Banks’s and Drabble’s novels, with their stories of middle-class women living in London, provide a different regional, classed, and gendered perspective on life in 1960s Britain.


From the First World War separating women opting for a hospital birth into different institutions according to class was slowly becoming a thing of the past. Nonetheless, payment and admission systems served to maintain a notable degree of separation between and within institutions. Where ability to pay is often assumed to offer an escape route from social convention, the experience of securing a hospital birth in pre-NHS England suggests otherwise. By taking an institutional perspective of maternity hospitals in Bristol, Liverpool and London, we find traditional and paternalistic attitudes towards pregnant women of different classes and marital status inscribed onto the money paid. This chapter argues that the act of paying the maternity hospital served to mitigate and mediate the rise of universalism on the juddering road towards the welfare state.


Durex’s “Closer Encounters” campaign, displayed on billboards across Britain in 1979, marked a significant moment of transition for the Durex brand. Not only was it one of the company’s highest visibility campaigns to date, but it was also one of its first to so completely foreground a message about the pleasures and sensations that condoms enabled rather than the unplanned pregnancies they helped prevent. What facilitated this transition? This chapter argues that, in terms of both the campaign’s scale and visibility, and the particular claims about condoms and their sexual function it expressed, “Closer Encounters” signaled the culmination of two interlinked processes, analysis of which provides insights into how heterosexual relationships, the gendered division of contraceptive responsibilities and meanings of “good” sex have been reconceived in postwar Britain.


Science Mixtape

Recently I was lucky enough to be on Soho Radio’s Science Mixtape. If you want to hear some gross details about early modern medicine and some awesome tunes chosen by me, then you can catch up with the podcast

I have written a book tackling these themes with Sara Read, it will be available summer 2017! Watch this space.


2015 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 20 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Fabulous Facial Hair History


A foreign man with an extremely long bushy beard requesting a shave. Credit: Wellcome Library London

On Saturday 28 November Alun Withey and I hosted Framing the Face: New Perspectives of the History of Facial Hair, a one day conference funded by the University of Hertfordshire and the University of Exeter. Alun has just begun a three year Wellcome Trust funded project on facial hair and I have been working on a history of men’s sexual health in the seventeenth century that has (surprisingly) led to lots of facial hair related material. We thus wanted to bring together scholars working across temporal and geographic boundaries to see what conversations would emerge.


Ελληνικά: Hercule Poirot via Wikimedia Commons

The day started with a fantastic interdisciplinary panel exploring the role of moustaches on canvas, stage, and screen. Art historian Victoria Alonso Cabezas examined the representation of young male painters in nineteenth-century Spanish art. We saw that several paintings included shadows of potential facial hair indicating the artist’s entrance in adult manhood. Victoria also showed how some Spanish artists introduced facial hair into their self-representations following involvement in the military or more usually following marriage. Het Philips then considered the role of moustaches as a marker of ‘creepy’ objectionable masculinity in television and film. Moustachioed characters in Trainspotting and Orange is the New Black, for example, display excessively violent, and often sexually violent, forms of masculinity that Het suggested masks the moral failing of more ‘normal’ male characters. The enjoyment of these masculinities in popular culture is, she argues, rather disconcerting. But having this immediately visually obvious character creates a trope to be subverted, where ‘normal’ men are revealed to be even more morally dubious than the moustache wearing villains. The panel was completed by makeup artist Helen Casey who explored three case studies where moustaches have been central to the creation of a male character: Charlie Chaplin’s tramp clown, Groucho Marx’s stage persona and David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot. Chaplin made a conscious choice to reject the traditional painted on stubble of tramp clowns played into his desire to have everything about the persona be a contradiction –the tramp clown who is actually a gentleman down on his luck. Poirot’s moustache, meanwhile, portrays everything about the character in one clear visual signifier; he is a man that is precise, clean, fussy and isolated.


Friedrich Ludwig Jahn

The speakers in the second panel looked at facial hair more broadly and crossed gender lines. Emily Cock questioned the ways in which early modern literature utilised the beard as a key characteristic of a bawd. These one-time prostitutes turned madams were inversions of all that was sexually attractive. They were not though described as having full beards but were endowed with prickly hairs upon their chins. This facial hair excluded them from the realms of the feminine but did not bestow masculinity. Ellie Rycroft also took us into the world of early modern England examining the lifecycle of boy players and the roles they played on the stage. Beards, as she pointed out, did not suddenly appear but grew over time. Young male actors slipped through social categories and may have had to employ false beards to play adult men. However, as Rycroft noted, in the seventeenth century concern about false beards perhaps meant companies of players moved towards using actors with their real facial hair at its different stages of development. While young and beardless these boys played roles like the page, a bawdy role, which unnerved society by connecting youth to criminality. The growth of facial hair moved youths into the role of gallant or soldier. The extravagance and impermanence of Gallants, who shaved their beards, represented a real threat to society, whilst soldiers, whose martial masculinity was repeatedly asserted through excessive beard growth, suggested the wildness and disorder of unbridled masculine activity. The final paper in the paper was delivered by Hanna Weibye who described the complex representational qualities of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn’s beard. The nineteenth-century creator of a gymnastic movement in Germany, she argued, perhaps used his beard to signify his sense of difference to the ruling class of German bourgeoisie. While they were clean shaven or wore neat short beards, Jahn’s rather long beard associated him with artisans and a nostalgic Germanic past. His beard was a memorial to his patriotic youth movement that the government refused to support. It was sign of his constancy, loyalty to the state and the fact that he was alienated from his own time.

12-08-p-848-1900From the representational qualities of beards the conference moved on to think about choice and consumerism. John Gagné revealed the intriguing example of Italian beards around 1500. After charting the rise and fall of facial hair in the Roman epochs, he explored the beard wearing of Francesco Gonzaga, who was unusual amongst European princes for wearing a beard. This coincided with Gonzaga’s fight against the French, and under French rule Milanese men were ordered to shave off their beards within three days. Their choice was thus nominally removed from them by a French government who feared that beards were connected to wickedness and sin and that false beards allowed for the disguise of men who had committed crime. Enforced shaving was an indignity to the Milanese who sought diplomatic redress and wore their beards as a sign of mourning for their city, and their defiance of their French overlords. Moving into the nineteenth-century Justin Bengry delved into the world of shaving adverts and showed how shaving companies sought to instill anxieties about disease and the vulnerability of the masculine body into their potential customers. Concerns that could of course be eased and abated by the use of the ‘right’ shaving products. Adverts both showed the man at home as model of domestic patriarchal bliss, and showed men in the rugged outdoors, escaping the confines of domesticity. Bengry argued that adverts invoked domestic, imperial, modern and traditional tropes to tie their products to extant and new identities. They created tensions in masculinity – showing men that it was fragile, defensive and at risk – in order to encourage men’s consumer choices. Christopher Oldston-Moore concluded the speakers’ sessions by taking a longue durée approach to understanding choices and trends in facial hair fashion. He suggested that there have been four relatively brief periods of ‘bearded’ history in a western tradition dominated by clean shaven faces. These beard wearing eras were provoked, he argued, by shifts in the foundation of masculine authority towards the ‘naturalness’ of the male body.

The day concluded with a plenary paper by Margaret Pelling that took us on a tour through early modern portraiture and the self-presentation of hair and facial hair. Pelling pointed out that the body and clothing have tended to be considered by historians separately from hair and facial hair. Heads, she noted, have received a lot of scholarly attention because they force themselves on our notice. Yet sexuality and sex, which have often been considered, might not be the best ways to think about the history of the beard: Shylock’s beard, for example, was central to his identity but this was not simply about his masculinity. Hair after all was visible and alterable and could be shaped to show ritual, religious and social status. Beards and hair were not covered by sumptuary laws that, although not rigidly enforced, suggested that appropriate ways to manifest these outward signs of status through clothing. This is intriguing given that the head and hands were the most exposed and vulnerable parts of the body. Facial hair could be used as a screen to hide the face, but is easily distorted by emotive movements meaning that in many contexts it exaggerates rather than hides the face and emotions. Another way to read the wearing of facial hair in this era, Pelling offered, is to think about the static nature of the court which might have given rise to boredom and the growing of facial hair to provide a diversion. Alternatively, older men in particular were prone to wear facial hair, which might have acted as a compensation for male pattern baldness. Pelling’s paper summarized a key theme of the day which is that there are many ways to think about and understand beards and facial hair in the past. And importantly points out that there is much ground still to be covered.

This entry was posted on December 1, 2015. 1 Comment