Sometimes, a woman experiences all of the signs of pregnancy, without being pregnant.  In the late XIXth Century, almost all of the obstetric manuels devoted some space to these false pregnancies, known as “nervous pregnancies” in France and “hysterical pregnancies” in Anglo-Saxon countries.

At the beginning of most of these cases, we find cessation of menstruation, thickening of the abdomen, mammary engorgement, and symptoms “produced by the imagination”, such as nausea, spasmodic contractions of the abdomen, etc.

In 1895, Dr Weir Mitchell describes a case of hysterical pregnancy like this:  “a young woman, or one who has passed the age of menopause, ardently desires a child, or is terribly frightened of being pregnant.  Her periods become a lot less abundant, irregular, and may even cease.  At the same time,  the abdomen and the breasts swell, because of a rapid weight gain, which is a lot less visible elsewhere.  With this excess of weight, the deepest conviction of being pregnant is born.  Soon, she feels the child move, her doctor takes her word for it, and this can continue until Time, the great diagnostician, corrects the illusion.  Then, the fat disappears remarkably fast, and this singular situation is finished.”

Dr Mitchell also cites two cases, which he, himself, observed.  We give one of them here:  “I was consulted by a lady on the subject of a thirty-year-old woman, a nurse in whom she was interested.  This person had been married roughly three years to a very old man of considerable means.  He died, leaving the legal part to his wife, and the rest to distant cousins, unless his wife had a child.

“Two months before he died, the woman, who was very anaemic, had no more periods.  She was sure that she was pregnant, and started to put on weight at a rhythm, and in the proportions, which appeared to justify her opinion.  Her chest and abdomen were the privileged places for this weight gain.  Her menstruations did not return;  her pallor increased, the child was felt to move, and all was prepared for the birth.  The eighth month, she was examined by a doctor who assured her that she was not pregnant.  A second medical opinion confirmed the first.

“By the tenth month, she had become enormous, and continued to affirm her state.  The twelfth month, her menstrual flow returned, and she was sure that it was the first sign of birth.  When it was over, she was convinced of her mistake, and suddenly started to lose weight, at the rhythm of about 225 gms per day, in spite of efforts to limit the speed of this important weight loss.  After two months, she had lost fifty pounds and was, at least, less anaemic.

“At this stage, I was consulted by letter, the woman having become excessively hysterical.  This case, which happened many years ago, is a good illustration of my thesis.”

In former days, before all of our modern technology, pathological conditions often created the illusion of pregnancy.  In May 1895, Dr Hirst writes about a woman who had several children, and was suffering from a thoracic illness, followed by an oedema.  For fifteen months, she was confined to her bed and had no sexual relations with her husband.

Her menstruations stopped, her breasts swelled and a serous, lactescent  liquid flowed from them;  her abdomen swelled;  both she and her doctor felt foetal movements in her abdomen.  Like her former pregnancies, she suffered from nausea.  Naturally, her husband doubted her virtue, but when he considered the fact that she had never left her bed in fifteen months, he judged the pregnancy to be impossible.

However, the woman insisted that she was, and a midwife confirmed it.  The abdomen continued to grow, and around eleven months after her periods had stopped, she had the pains.  Three doctors and a deliverer were present, and when they declared that the head of the foetus was presenting, the husband abandoned his position.  The supposed foetus was born shortly afterwards and was discovered to be a mass of hydatides.  There was no sign of a real pregnancy.

The most notable Historic case of hysterical pregnancy is that of Queen Mary of England, or Bloody Mary, as she is known.  To assure her succession, she vividly desired a Catholic heir, son of her consort Philip, and she prayed constantly and made vows in the hope of becoming pregnant.

Finally, her menstruations ceased;  her breasts began to swell and to discolour around the nipples.  She had strong nausea in the morning and her abdomen was growing bigger.  Consultation with the ladies of the court confirmed her opinion of being pregnant.  Her favourite amusement was to make the baby’s layette and count the months of pregnancy on her fingers.

When the end of the ninth month was near, the people were woken one night by the joyful ringing of the bells of London, announcing the arrival of a new heir.  An ambassador was sent to the Pope to tell him that Mary felt the new life in her, and the people rushed to Saint Paul’s Cathedral to hear the venerable Archbishop of Canterbury describe the little prince and give thanks to God for his birth.

The illusionary pains disappeared, and after she had been assured that there was no real pregnancy, Mary suffered violent attacks of hysteria, and Philip, disgusted, left her.  After that, the persecution of the Protestants, which tarnished her reign and gave her the nickname of Bloody Mary, began.

These days, thanks to our modern medicine, hysterical pregnancies can be immediately diagnosed, which prevents them from continuing as long as these former cases.  It is also much more difficult now for a queen to take out her maternal and marital frustrations on her people.  At least, in our Western democratic monarchies.