Conceiving Histories: A Project Exploring the History of Pre-Pregnancy

If you begin typing ‘Am I …’ into a Google search box, ‘Am I pregnant?’ is the first offered suggestion, just ahead of ‘Am I registered to vote?’ (a vestige from the Brexit referendum), ‘Am I depressed?’ and ‘Am I insured?’. The internet is externalising and collectivising something that for our mothers’ generation had been private, internal: the ambiguity of early pregnancy. Whether hoping for or fearing pregnancy, the wait to find out can be hard: a time of fantasy and projection, of bitter anxiety or ardent longing. These days, the time before a pregnancy test will give a sure result is referred to as the ‘two week wait’. In practice, because false negatives are likely in the early stages of pregnancy, it often takes a little longer than that for a not-pregnant woman to accept a negative result: more like two and a half to three weeks. What is more, some women and their partners are waiting like this month on month, year on year. They are waiting, too, to try, as well as to test. They are waiting for parenthood, for something that may never be.

The monthly wait to test is speculative territory; people are left only with the option of asking a machine as if it were a fortune teller and which, for all the knowledge on the internet, finally cannot answer the question ‘am I pregnant?’. This wait, before it’s possible to use a pregnancy test, a wait swirling with anxieties and speculation, belief and fantasy, reconstructs in modernity a historical space, before the technology of the home test was available. It’s odd to find that we don’t and can’t know; it doesn’t feel very modern. For the duration of this strange time we exist in the same imaginative spaces our ancestors inhabited: they too tried to know their futures through impossible technologies.

Indeed, like the internet, the archive is full of materials about the difficulties and anxieties of diagnosing early pregnancy and the urgent desires that attended that ambition. The wait to diagnose pregnancy was more protracted in the past, but it was no more tolerable. Women, their partners and their medical practitioners all wanted to know, perhaps for differing and competing reasons, and to be able to solve the mysteries of the reproductive body.

Conceiving Histories is a collaboration between literary academic, Isabel Davis, and practising artist, Anna Burel. We will be researching these materials together and we will be presenting our research in different ways: through different kinds of writing but also in new art work, exhibitions and events. Anna’s first artistic responses to the Conceiving Histories collaboration will be on display at the exhibition Ends, being held at the Hundred Years Gallery in Hoxton 7-24th July. We will also be holding an event there on 21st July at 2pm at which we will be talking more about our project and particularly about one of our case studies: the Experimental Conception Hospital. The Experimental Conceptual Hospital is a strange building imagined in a commentary on an early nineteenth-century legitimacy trial by the botanist Robert Lyall, a place where the mysteries of conception would be solved and the outer limits of gestation fixed for certain. It would have high walls, over which air balloons would be forbidden from flying. Within it women would be imprisoned and visited by ‘healthy physician-accoucheurs of London’ who would, as Lyall euphemistically puts it, ‘administer physic and consolation’. Lyall’s is a bureaucratic vision and he is clear about how and who should keep the careful records which would supply the ‘sure data’ to the British parliament and enable them to ‘construct precise and just laws with regard to the legitimacy and illegitimacy of all children born in these realms’. ‘Nothing,’ he says, ‘should be left to memory’. We will consider this example, thinking through, and contextualising its naked anxieties and dark fantasies about the unknowability of women and their reproductive bodies.

Burel Anna, 2016, De Formatu Foetu, Ends Exhibition, Hundred Years Gallery

Conceiving Histories is a new project, funded by Birkbeck, University of London and the Wellcome Trust, which is looking into these archival materials to investigate two questions: how was the time of pre-pregnancy negotiated, experienced and described in the past, and how might this historical knowledge contribute to questions and debates about the experience of trying to conceive today and in the future? The project is a collaboration between art practice and academic literary research and it looks at the history of nothing happening, of un- and pre-pregnancy, as well as early pregnancy loss. We will consider hidden, misdiagnosed, imagined, feigned and hysterical pregnancies and fashions which simulated pregnancy. Because the time-frame of the project is a long one (from the Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century), Conceiving Histories will develop and work through case studies, from different historical moments, looking – to give a few examples – at the wishful idea of angel messengers revealing the pregnancies of the saints; the invention and practice of uroscopy, auscultation and other diagnostic tools; cases of false pregnancy like those, famously, of Mary Tudor for whom so much was at stake; strange plans for experiments (see below); questions around pregnant temporalities; the possibly pregnant in scandals, trials and other sensational stories both in historical and literary materials.

Isabel Davis is an academic in the School of Arts at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on medieval literature, gender, temporality and the body.


Anna Burel is an artist based at the Bow Arts Trust in London.She works in a range of different media – photography, drawing, costume and performance art – to think about the body, and particularly the female body, under medical scrutiny. Her work mediates on the properties of skin and viscera, anatomy, surgical examination and pharmacopoeia.