The Medieval Pregnancy Test: Diagnosing Pregnancy and Predicting the Child’s Sex in Later Medieval Europe

Zosia Edwards

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis challenges the assumption that pregnancy diagnosis is a modern innovation, by examining methods of pregnancy diagnosis from later medieval Europe. Medical and divinatory methods for diagnosing pregnancy and predicting the sex of the child were recorded in medical, divinatory and astrological texts, and legal procedures for diagnosis were also developed. This thesis seeks to establish whether methods of pregnancy diagnosis were important in the Middle Ages: were they ever used? By whom? Why? And in what contexts?

Methods recorded in medical texts include information about the physical signs and symptoms of pregnancy, and methods of testing women’s bodies and bodily fluids for indications of pregnancy and the sex of the foetus. Astrological and divinatory texts also included means for ascertaining similar information. It is likely that these methods were used to assist potentially pregnant women and their families in establishing whether they were carrying a much-wanted child. These methods would provide certainty in the uncertain early days of pregnancy. Medical practitioners may have used these methods to guide women’s care, but some texts demonstrate a more theoretical interest in signs of pregnancy.

Evidence from English legal cases involving pregnancy diagnosis is also explored, relating to pregnancy in inheritance cases, and after death sentences had been ordered. Women’s claims to pregnancy had to be proven in these circumstances, but diagnostic procedures did not involve medical or divinatory practitioners. Instead, juries of women were sworn in to perform the diagnosis, selected on the basis of their social standing rather than apparent medical expertise.

The processes recorded in these texts demonstrate contemporary medical and social approaches to early pregnancy in intellectual contexts, but this focus on the uncertain days before a pregnancy was confirmed also gives new insights into women’s experiences of pregnancy in the middle ages.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Horden, Peregrine, Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Feb 2020
Publication statusUnpublished - 28 Jan 2020


  • Pregnancy
  • Medieval
  • Middle Ages
  • Medieval medicine
  • Pregnancy diagnosis

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