Category: pregnancies


He was the runt of the litter.   His mother was a beauty queen with many prizes to her credit.

She had not been an enthusiastic participant in her mating with a much older dog at a distant kennel.  Her resentment had grown during her pregnancy and her owners had watched her very carefully during the whelping.  It was feared that she might decide to devour her puppies.

The thought might have crossed her mind, but she chose to just glare balefully at any human who came into sight.  Humans had betrayed her.  She, a prizewinning pedigree Pekinese bitch, who could trace her ancestors back to intimate companions to emperors, some of whom had even been suckled by the aristocratic ladies of the Court, had been humiliated.

She had been taken away from her territory, dumped unceremoniously into a strange room, and before she had had time to adjust to her new surroundings, That Dog had invaded her space.  And her person.  She had tried to refuse, both haughtily and very firmly, but it was his territory, so she had had to submit.  She could have fought him, but she was too frightened.  And bewildered.  Why had her humans done this to her?

The smell of him had lingered, even after her next shampoo.  It came back in waves.  Even now, after the birth of her puppies, she could still smell him.  Then there was The Runt.

He was much smaller than the others and she just knew that there was something wrong with him.  It wasn’t his size, nor the fact that his nose jutted out slightly – a hideous fault, which certainly didn’t come from her side.  (There was obviously bad blood in That Dog.)  It was something more subtle.  She couldn’t quite put her paw on it, but she knew that he shouldn’t be encouraged to live.

She tried to prevent him suckling.  Somehow, he managed to sneak to a teat while, exhausted, she was taking a well-earned nap.

After the puppies’ eyes had opened, humans started to visit the new mother.  They ooh-ed and ah-ed over the puppies – and ignored her completely.

Before her maternity, she had been the kennel’s star attraction.  Torn between indignation at being ignored and maternal pride, she decided that it was time to examine The Runt’s case more closely.

Apart from The Nose, everything about him was perfect show material.  His legs were beautifully bowed, his eyes bulged as they should, his socks were just the right height, his rusty markings were beautiful, his tail curled as it ought.  He was small of course, but the unavoidable defect was indubitably those few millimetres of Nose.  The perfect Pekinese nose is flat against the face, and this one wasn’t.

However, it wasn’t his physical appearance that repelled her.  It was something else.  A feeling.  He had to go.

She tried suffocation.  Pekinese jaws open to a surprising (and often very frightening) size.  She wrapped them around the runt’s neck and held her mouth shut.  She didn’t try to bite.  She just waited.  A kennel maid saw her and, with much shrieking, alerted the owners.  The Runt was removed from her jaws and she was accused of trying to bite off his head.  Which was quite untrue.  The time for eating him would have been at his birth.  It was much too late now.

She made a second attempt at suffocation a few days later, but was again thwarted.  After that, she was constantly watched, so she gave up trying to rid the world of her defective offspring.

***

My parents visited the kennel and were introduced to the now weaned Runt.  He had a very aristocratic pedigree name, but Daddy christened him Cheng with an acute accent on the “e”.  I don’t know why.  Was he trying to make the name sound French?  If so, why?  I don’t even know why he chose a Pekinese.  The only possible reason which comes to mind is that our next-door neighbours had a Pekinese.  An affable gentleman whose bulging eyes became completely blind and were further damaged by the poor old thing constantly running into things while roaring around the yard.  He was eventually helped to a merciful end.  However, when Cheng arrived home, our canine neighbour could still see and was very interested in the puppy next-door.

***

Cheng had been in our home for a few days and was poking his head into every cupboard he could reach, as soon as it was opened.  Mummy was kneeling in front of the open saucepan cupboard and Cheng’s head was inside.  Mummy sneezed.  The sound echoed through the cupboard and Cheng screeched, shot across the room, and cowered up against the wall, near the back door.  He was in the corner sitting on his backside with his front paws pawing the air.  Later, Mummy taught him to “clap hands” while in this position – a variation on this first pawing of the air.   However, he avoided going near the open saucepan cupboard again.

***

Cheng once appeared in a play.  I don’t remember the name of it, but the lady who carried him onstage (he was playing her lap-dog) was Miss Lorna Taylor.  I called her Auntie Lorna because, in our family, children did not address adults by their first names.  It was disrespectful.  Close family friends were given the honorary title of “aunt” or “uncle”.  Everyone else was Mr, Mrs or Miss.  We didn’t know any Lords, Ladies or knights at the time.

Cheng was usually taken home after his last scene in the play.  However, on the last night, he was allowed to take his curtain call with the rest of the cast.  Auntie Lorna carried him onstage and the audience applauded – and so did Cheng.  He sat up in Auntie Lorna’s arms and “clapped hands” with all his might.  The audience went wild.  It was his greatest moment.  He quite stole the curtain call from the other actors.

***

Cheng was my first dog and I loved him.  After a few years, he started biting anyone who entered his yard, including me.  He would come roaring down from the other end and fasten his teeth onto my calf.  I would drag him along with me as I walked.  Mummy was worried about it but, after he bit my face, his days with us were numbered.

For some time, he had been refusing to allow anyone to groom him and his long fur was matted.  We had bite marks on our hands from our attempts to even cut out some of the knots.

One day, I came home from school to find my mother in tears.  She had called the R.S.P.C.A. to take him away.  I thought that I would never forgive her.

She told me that, when the people had come for him, he had sat up and “clapped hands” for them.  The lady had said to Mummy, “How can you bear to part with him?”  Mummy had explained about the biting and refusal of grooming and recommended that they find a home for him without children.

***

It has been suggested that he might have suffered brain damage when his mother was trying to destroy him.  I now think that he could have been missing performing and was depressive.

***

I don’t know where he went.  I never saw him again.

I remember there being a photo of him onstage during his curtain call.  The photo was taken from the wings.  However, I haven’t been able to find it, and I don’t remember any other photos of him.

***

Heather, aged 15, with her 13 year old sister.

Auntie Heather was born on 6 October 1918.  Her mother and father, my grandparents, had been courting for six years when they finally married on 5 January 1918.  This was because Pa (short for Papa, later for Grandpa) refused to marry while the other men were away at war.

Grandma had very nearly stood him up on their first “appointment” as she called their dates.  She had confided to a work colleague that she wasn’t really attracted to him and thought that she wouldn’t go.  Her colleague had encouraged her to meet him, saying “You never know, you might like him.”  Much later, she had confessed this hesitation to her husband, who had replied, “I knew where you lived!”

During the First World War, Australia’s soldiers were all volunteers.  Pa had volunteered but, although he passed muster on height and chest measurement, his request had been refused.  He wouldn’t say why.  Later, when the War dragged on and thousands of men were being killed or wounded, height and chest measurements were lowered and Pa thought that he might be accepted this time.  He was refused for the second time.  Grandma used to say that men who had volunteered and been refused should have been given some sort of badge to wear so that they didn’t receive dirty looks from passers-by in the street.  Pa played sport and looked like a strapping young man who just didn’t want to go to war.  After his death, Grandma found his application papers with CARDIAC written across them in red.

Heather at the beach.

So Grandma, who, at the age of sixteen had refused her first offer of marriage, finally had to wait until she was twenty-nine before being able to tie the knot.  Pa was thirty-five.

Their first child was born nine months and one day after the wedding, at home with the assistance of a midwife.  Grandma’s pregnancy had been a bit rough and so had the birth, but mother and daughter were doing well, even if both were very tired after the ordeal.  Grandma managed to say to the midwife, “I just saved my good name!”  To which the midwife snapped, “You would have saved your good name if she had been born three weeks ago!”

While Grandma was still weak, one of her husband’s aunts paid her a visit and enquired about the baby’s name.  Grandma replied that she was to be christened “Brenda”.  The aunt exclaimed, “Brenda!  Brenda!  Brindle!  Brindle cow!  If you call her Brenda, I’ll call her ‘Cowie'”  So Grandma, in her weakened state, agreed to change the name, and my aunt was named Heather Catherine.  Relatives sent white heather to her from Scotland the Brave.

Heather with her future husband.

When Grandma had recovered sufficiently to go for a walk with her baby in the perambulator (later shortened to “pram”) “an old biddy up the street” (Grandma’s words)  admired the little one, then proceeded to say insinuatingly, “My daughter had her baby one year after her wedding!”  Grandma rose to her full height of five feet two inches and replied icily, “Well, my daughter was born nine months and one day after my wedding!”  Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

The little girl had her mother’s blonde hair and blue eyes but her features were those of her father.  Later, a dark-haired hazel-green eyed sister came along and Pa, who would have loved to have fathered a son, refused to allow Grandma to risk her life a third time to try to have a boy.

Heather with her father and mother on her wedding day.

The girls grew up in a two-bedroom brick house, with a dog and an enormous aviary in the backyard.  The birds were Pa’s but the dog was everyone’s.  She was a black Pomeranian who loved to taunt the biggest dogs she could find on her walks, then, when chased by them, leap into Grandma’s arms and let her deal with them.  Grandma was not amused by this.  She wasn’t afraid of dogs, but an angry German Shepherd, still being insulted by the black curly bundle in her arms, was not a reassuring encounter.

The girls shared a bedroom and this arrangement displayed its limitations when the younger of the two went into a depression (known as a nervous breakdown then) and piled all the blame for her state on her sister Heather, who was twenty years old at the time.  Not only did young Heather have to assume the burden of her mentally ill sister at this time, the antagonism lasted for the rest of their lives.  Her sister continued to systematically blame her for everything that had gone wrong with her life and eventually stopped talking to her.  At the same time she did everything that she could to try to turn the rest of the family against her.  Fortunately, not always successfully.  Auntie Heather maintained a dignified silence through it all.

The family (left to right) Heather’s sister (my mother), me at 14, Grandma, Heather’s husband, her daughter at 10, and Heather.

Despite these problems, which hadn’t yet reached complete maturity when I was born, Auntie Heather became one of my godmothers.  She was consulted, including by her sister, my mother, for questions concerning the correct way to dress for a particular event.  The sisters even collaborated as a medical first-aid team during the Second World War.  Auntie Heather always knew what the text-book said to do and my mother always knew how to do it.  Things didn’t go as well when they tried to reverse the roles.  The whole family was on first-aid alert duty on the night that the Japanese attacked Sydney Harbour.  The siren was at the end of the street, a few houses away.  On the bus, on their way to work the next morning, the girls thought that people were joking when they heard them talking about the attack and the siren going off.  They had slept through the whole thing and could have been fined for it.

Same people, different places. We’re all a bit older.

Auntie Heather was the matriarch of the family.  She outlived her parents, her younger sister, her husband (a high-ranking Free Mason) and her only child, my cousin.  She died last Friday, 29 June, and will be cremated tomorrow, 4 July 2012, in Sydney.

She is survived by her four grandchildren and her son-in-law, but I am the only one left who knew her when she was a young woman.  Which is why I have written this.  All of the people in these photos, except for me, are now deceased.

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) in 1886.

Meanwhile, in France, nothing has changed.  The great medical chiefs have absolute confidence in themselves, and despite the brilliant results that Joseph Lister continues to obtain in Edinburgh, the principle of asepsis is disdainfully rejected.  Today, one can look back sadly at the number of lives which would have been saved if Pasteur’s, Lister’s and Guerin’s advice on elementary hygiene had been adopted as soon as it was known.  Pasteur, a great one for shaking up ideas, outdoes himself in communications before the Academie de medecine, and battles on all fronts:

“If one examines a probe under the microscope, one finds on its surface ridges and valleys inside which are lodged dusts that the most minutious washing cannot completely remove.  The flame allows the entire destruction of these organic dusts.  So, in my laboratory where I am enveloped in germs of all sorts, I do not use an instrument without firstly passing it through the flame.”

Alas, for the eternal supporters of spontaneous generation, the germ is born in the patient, it does not come from the instruments.  Therefore, people continue to die under the Surgeon’s scalpel.

The room where one gives birth seems to the women of the people to be death’s antechamber.  They still recall in horror that, inside the Hopital de la Maternite de Paris, from 1st April to 10 May 1856, out of three hundred and forty-seven women having given birth, there were sixty-four deaths.  The hospital had to be closed, and the survivors were obliged to take refuge in the Hopital Lariboisiere, where almost all of them succumbed, pursued – it was said – by the epidemic.  Eight years later, in 1864, out of one thousand, five hundred and thirty women having given birth, there were three hundred and ten deaths.  It was another thirteen years before Tarnier, then at the head of the Maternite de Paris, put into practice Lister’s techniques, asepsis techniques which had already been adopted by Russia, Holland, Germany, Austria and Denmark, with the greatest success.  Doctor Roux evokes Pasteur’s state of mind during these incessant battles that he was having with the Doctors.  He is not content with just giving advice, criticizing (and, in passing, making permanent enemies among those who place their professional vanity higher than scientific progress), he works ceaselessly to demonstrate that which he is advancing.  He searches, he experiments and improves the technique of the culture of microbes in the laboratory, getting them to reproduce in his flasks, his test-tubes, in different nutritive media, such as the beer yeast bouillon.  This technique was initiated by a young German Medical Doctor who himself admitted being stimulated by Pasteur’s studies.  His name is Doctor Koch.  Assisted by his wife and daughter, this country Doctor, living in a little village in an eastern province, will bring direct proof that a defined type of microbe is at the origin of a defined type of illness, by developing a pure culture containing only one bacterial layer.  It is with this method that he would succeed, in 1882, in isolating the tuberculosis bacillus.

In Paris, Pasteur goes into hospitals, takes samples from sick people, with his sterilized test-tubes and pipettes.  When he is warned of the dangers of contagion, he replies:

“Life amongst danger is a real life, it is a great life, it is a life of sacrifice, it is a life of example, that which fecunds!”

He roars with holy anger against the Doctors who continue to dissert without acting:

“I’ll make them move!  They must come round to it, whatever it takes!”

In June 1877, he notices under his microsope a long filament, crawling and flexible, translucent to the point of easily not being seen and which, in his own words, “pushes aside the globules of blood like a serpent pushes aside grass in the bushes”.  It is the septic vibrion, discovered inside the deep veins of an asphyxiated horse.  From the peritone where it is rife, this moving thread passes into the blood after death.  A drop of this infected blood innoculated into another animal immediately provokes septicaemia in it.  But there is a problem:  this minuscule killer cannot stand oxygen, which destroys it.  How can it then act and make victims by passing through the air?  The Chemist cultivates the vibrion in a vacuum and in the presence of carbonic gas.  His experience in the seeding and dissemination of beer yeasts, and those of the silkworm maladies, allow him to work by comparisons.  As Emile Duclaux says:

“To the question:  is it a virus?  Is it a microbe?  Pasteur is better placed than anyone else to find an answer.  From his studies on beer, from his fights with his contradictors, he is armed with a technique already formed, with the knowledge and the manipulation of microbian species.”

In fact, the “so-called Chemist” permits himself to give courses on Methodology to his enemies.  Amedee Latour, a journalist from Union Medicale, who regularly follows the seances at the Academie de medecine, reports, amused, one of Pasteur’s clashes with a contradictor.  It is again a believer in spontaneous generation, but this time it is not a Medical Doctor, it is a Veterinary Surgeon, Colin,  professeur d’ecole from Alfort.  Colin describes his experiment:  he had innoculated the leg of an animal with blood from another animal which had died from anthrax.  The lymph gland nearest to the injection swelled, the innoculated animal is in turn ill, but Colin does not find bacteridies in the gland, or in the animal’s blood, and yet, it is infectious.  Pasteur asks him how he had examined the glandular liquid.  Colin replies with the microscope of course.  Pasteur tells him that, as his microscope only shows things four or five hundred times their size, this was not the right way to go about it.

“It was four or five square metres of your glass plate over which you should have passed your microscope to be able to perceive the one and only bacteridie which had escaped […] when you examined your gland.  It is by the culture of the bacteridies that one is able to arrive at the certitude of the opinions that I have advanced on anthrax.”

And the journalist concludes:

“What a valiant fighter Monsieur Pasteur is!”

To be continued.

In the XVIIIth Century, it was believed that a woman sleeping naked on her bed could be fecunded by the South-West zephyr.

The whole History of procreation seems to have been marked by great misogyny.  Over two or three centuries, a completely specialized literature develops it, inspired at the same time by Scripture, scientific observation and philosophy.  Speaking of Woman, eminent Sorbonnards affirm:

“The humidity of her constitution renders her inapt for tasks which demand character”,

and,

“on top of which, one is not totally sure that she has a soul”…

It is for this reason that, out of prudence, the first human dissections are practised on women.

In 1595, an opuscule in Latin by the German philosopher Acidalius proclaims:

“Mulieres non esse homines”;  women are not part of humankind…

***

It is therefore understandable that parents are not ecstatic about the birth of a little girl…

In the XVIIIth Century, it was starting to be said that women carried eggs from which children were born.

From the IVth Century before the present era, since Aristotle, the woman is only the receptacle of the embryo deposited by the man.  She is a reproduction tool accorded to the man to relieve him of the burden of having to nourish this embryo and give birth to it.

This is why L’art de procreer des males, a book by Morel de Rubempre, still has, in 1824, great success and numerous re-editions.  It essentially takes up the elucubrations of Millot in 1802, of which the following is a sample:

“The husband must always lie on the woman’s left.  At the moment of the ejaculation, he must quickly pass his left hand under his spouse’s right buttock, and lift her up until her hip forms, with the suface on which she is lying, an angle of twenty-five to thirty degrees.  This is not all, things such as the height of the bed, the position of the husband, whether he is standing, and the wife lying down, for example, must be taken into account.  If he is himself lying down, he has to modify the firing angle of the “cannon of life” in function of the width of the opening of his spouse’s hips and the depth of the dent that they make in the mattress.”

The great Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, in his Histoire des anomalies, recounts seriously, in 1832, that sentiments can have a strong influence on the child before its birth.  For example, a little girl is born in Year III of the French Republic with, on her left breast, the mark of a Phrygian bonnet.  The Directoire also rewarded with a pension of four hundred francs a mother so patriotic as to have given birth to a female child bearing on her buttock a patriotic brevet and a revolutionary emblem.

The first serious refutations of the role of the imagination or fears, or of “cravings”, only go back to the middle of the XIXth Century.  In English maternities, pregnant women are then asked what has impressed their minds during their pregnancy and it is perceived that:

(1) – children are born without anomalies;

(2) – that if there are any anomalies, it is only after the birth that the mothers find any explanations.

However, these fears of another age still last today.  In 1971, a report on pregnancy and birth, established by Marie-Therese Miehe (collection “Diagnostics”) notes the following questions asked by young women:

“I saw a black man and I had a shock.  Will my child be born black?”

“I listened to a lot of music for nine months.  Will my child be a musician?”

“Do unsatisfied cravings cause malformations?”

We are far from having left the age of magic.

***

A few years later in this XVIIth Century, thanks to the microscope which is a recent invention, a young German doctor, Louis de Ham, discovers that a drop of sperm was in fact

“an ocean where an innumerable multitude of little fishes were swimming, in a thousand different directions”.

These little fishes immediately suscitate an infatuation which is even more considerable.  Exactly what are they…  animals?  Probably!  But what sort of animals?  Fishes, tadpoles, toads?  Let us say “animalcules”, decides the scientific world.  But most importantly, it is again the man who is at the origin of life.

So fecundity, which that laughable ovist thesis had attributed to females, is returned to the males, gloats Maupertuis, the great French mathematician.

But are these animalcules miniature humans and do they have sexes?  Of course they do!  It is thought that little male and female fishes can be distinguished.  They are incredibly numerous and the adults have a tail while the little ones do not.  There is a rut season for the spermatozoa, during which they mate.  The female spermatozoa soon give birth…

Their way of life is not very amiable.  They love to fight and if the one who survives is seriously wounded, a monstrous child will be born.

It must also be noted that the little male fishes are to be found in the right bourse, the little female fishes being in the left bourse.  Therefore, in the man, as in the woman, the left testicle – the left ovary in the woman – gives females.  To be sure of having boys, which is infinitely preferable, it is enough, advises Doctor Michel Procope-Couteau, the author of a remarkable Art de faire des garcons, to cut off the left testicle.  But can any volunteers be found?  He suggests:

“To prove that this essential thesis is correct, let us start by cutting the testicles and the ovaries of people who have been condemned to death and marry these half-eunuchs together.”

This strange doctor does not appear to have found the human material for which he was asking, but his thesis flourishes…

Doctor Tissot found a way of having only boys. The woman had to lean on her left side "when she was working to become a mother"...

People are convinced that, to have a boy, they only have to place themselves on their right side at the moment of their love-making…  But in the end, the idea that Man comes from a tadpole displeases just as fast as the one that situates his origin in an egg.

Abbot Spallanzani, the great Italian biologist, Pasteur’s precursor, who died at the dawn of the XIXth Century, is the last to say anything good about spermatozoa.

Creatures endowed for him with a “supreme wisdom”, an “adorable wisdom”, they are only, for the Swiss physiologist Haller, the author of two hundred works on these questions, “insects” who are born in a not very nice environment, “faecal”, he says.  Soon, they are called “parasites”, vulgar “cercaried gymnodes” and the immense Cuvier himself reduces them, in 1841, to the rank of “microzoa”

From the beginning of the XVIIIth Century, there is a forceful return of the egg vogue…

But then these spermatozoa must be only “parasites”.

In the heart of the XIXth Century, two theses are going to sweep away all of the others, those of chemical generation and of electrical generation.

Tinchant demonstrates in four hundred tight pages that it is the man who “breathes in the principle of life contained in the air”, distills it in his blood and transforms it into sperm, “germ of life par excellence”.  The woman only “condenses” it, supplying it with hydrogen and carbon which form the membranes and the waters…  Long live the warrior once more, and too bad for the vivandiere!…

Burdach is scarcely more collected in demonstrating that the sexual act is of an electrical essence.

He explains that the electric contact which runs through the body when two people join, provokes an electrical commotion, and an “electrical conflict manifests itself in the power of the gaze of the two beings, enchained by the ties of love”

So, Victor Hugo’s contemporaries are delighted to learn that it is the electricity fairy who, by slipping “between the spinal cords of the man and the woman”, communicates to the organs of generation what is necessary to assure, with ecstasy, the survival of the species…

And Man would only begin to understand the true nature of fecundation less than one hundred and fifty years ago with Van Beneden’s fundamental discoveries.

We have only left the magical, crazy or baroque ideas on human procreation for this short space of time.

Less than one and a half centuries, against two or three  thousand years of phantasmagoria.  Food for thought, no?…

***

To be continued.

Hippocrates thought that the foetus was the result of the mixture of masculine and feminine semen which came from the brain.

As unbelievable as it seems, Humanity imagined up until the middle of the XVIIth Century that children were made either according to Aristotle’s description, or that of Hippocrates.

For the greatest doctor of Antiquity, the foetus is quite simply the result of a mixture of male and female semen.  The female, like the male, distills a semen which comes from all parts of her body, but most particularly from the brain.  According to Hippocrates, this explains the delicious sensations that are felt in all of the organs during copulation.

Unlike Hippocrates, the phallocratic Aristotle considers that the liqueur dispensed by the woman during copulation is deprived of any essence of life.  The role of the woman in the penetration is therefore reduced to supplying menstrual blood which, in coagulating, will serve as food for the foetus, while her abdomen will supply a lodging for the embryo placed there by the man.  That she is only “assuring shelter and food”  for the little human, as Pierre Darmon puts it.

Rene Descartes wrote a Traite de l’Homme et de la Formation de Foetus that is a model of obscurantism.  He takes literally the ideas emitted just two thousand years before him.  He writes:

“The foetus is, at the origin, only a confused mixture of two liqueurs that heat and dilate each other, by this means disposing themselves to form members, beginning by making a heart by boiling [bouillonnement].”

This French rationalist also thinks that, in any case, it is the man who contains the foetus, and the role of the woman is totally secondary.  A bit like a vivandiere when the army of males has won the battle…

The germ, however, takes its own life from the ether, from the spirit or spirits that float in the air…  And this is why the imagination of pregnant women, connected to the floating spirits, is able to transform the child that they are carrying…

In the heart of the XVIIIth Century, the Century of Light, right on the eve of the French Revolution, appears a treatise by Benjamin Bablot on the power of the imagination of pregnant women.  Like a lot of other doctors, Bablot upholds that if a pregnant woman touches a cat, a mouse or a weasel, she must very quickly wipe her hand to avoid the foetus taking on the form of the animal in question.

Swammerdam, although a naturalist and a physiologist of great talent, recounts with unperturbable seriousness that, around 1660, a pregnant woman was frightened by the sight of a “nigger”.  She rushed to her bathroom to wash herself with very hot water and, thanks to this wise precaution, the child was born white.  Alas!…  the creases in its hands and feet, that the water had not been able to reach, were all black…

In the XVIIIth Century, it was starting to be said that women carried eggs from which children were born.

It is only at the end of the XVIIth Century that the great anatomist Reinier de Graaf emits the hypothesis that women could well carry their own semen in the form of eggs.  In his Nouveau Traite des organes genitaux de la femme, he formulates, to the great scandal of one part of his contemporaries, the following daring hypothesis:

“I claim that all animals, and even Man, originate in an egg, not an egg formed in the matrix by the semen, in Aristotle thinking, or by seminal virtue, following Harvey, but from an egg which exists before the copulation in the testicles of the females.”

So women carry eggs…  They are like hens?…  Voltaire, who remains dry on the mysteries of generation, resorts to irony, that is to say, however he can.

“Woman is only a white hen in Europe, and a black hen in Africa!…”

Already marked by the disrepect of the new ideas, the ovist thesis had been raising reserves of a totally different order, a few years before.

“It’s contrary to the Scriptures”,

the whole of the world of believers had then protested.

Doctor Pierre Roussel, who is on the side of the Hippocrates thesis, finds that ovism offends the dignity of women, and the theologians chime in to say that if ever anyone discovers eggs in his wife’s ovaries, it could only be the result of a prodigy of Satan.

Eggs?  This is badly digested food, says a scholar of this epoch, while another estimes that this thesis is too favourable to women, which is totally insupportable.  Others, on the other hand, are enthusiastic about the egg thesis.  A Brest doctor swears in 1684 that he has just seen a woman who is seven months pregnant give birth to a big serving dish of eggs.

“I saw some too”,

affirms Doctor de Houppeville in a brochure that appears in Rouen at the same epoch.

“But it’s the devil to get them out without breaking them…  particularly with virgins!…”

***

To be continued.

In the XVIIIth Century, it was believed that a woman sleeping naked on her bed could be fecunded by the South-West zephyr "charged with floating embryos".

The way in which, throughout the centuries, humans have imagined that they are engendered is a passionate subject.  A young History professor, Monsieur Pierre Darmon, wrote a History of it in which procreation appears as the most prolific of mysteries, a sort of immense, baroque tapistery, around the edges of which the imagination of theologians, jurists, philosophers and doctors has enormously embroidered.

Does sleep favourise the birth of male children?  Yes.

Does the foetus resemble the mother more than the father?  Of course.

The more lascive a woman is, the more fecund she is?  Oh dear no.

Are short women more fecund than tall ones?  Definitely.

Are women whose matrice is cold fecund?  Of course not.

Are women who give birth to a boy more fecund?  Assuredly.

These are very serious subjects of thesis, defended before the very venerable Faculte de medecine de Paris up until the time when, around 1770, Lavoisier gives the first foundations of modern chemistry…

In the XVIth and XVIIth Centuries, it was believed that women who gave birth to monstrous children had been fecunded by a witch.

In the XVth Century, the monks Sprenger and Institutor write the first big treatise on demonology, Le Marteau des Sorcieres.  For two centuries, this guide – red with the blood of thousands of victims – will inflame all parts of Europe, in the hands of Inquisitors and Judges who have blind confidence in it.

During witchcraft [sorcery] trials, sexuality and generation always play a determining role.  One discovers there, in a tragic light, the idea that humanity has had, over the ages, of the role of the sexes and of procreation.

Mandated by the Pope to hunt witches [female sorcerers], Sprenger and Institutor assure that these women are capable of detaching by a spell [enchantment] the fascinus (the “object which fascinates”) of these gentlemen and of taking them away.  The witches place these little animals – these little sparrows? – endowed with their own lives, inside a nest.  The XVth Century text says:

“There, they wriggle and feed themselves with seeds, as several people have recounted.”

And our two grave demonologists recount the following story which they hold to be absolutely true:

“A man notices that, under the effect of a spell, the most precious of his goods has disappeared.  He addresses himself to a known witch and demands reparation from her by the practising of a graft which she knows how to do.  The witch makes him climb a tree and presents him with her collection.  In a nest, several objects of virility are jumping and dancing.  He chooses one, the most flattering.  The witch who, although diabolic, still has scruples, exclaims:  ‘Above all, not that one, it belongs to the parish curate!…’ “

When a woman gives birth to a monstrous child, for several centuries it was thought that it was because of a magical operation.  Therefore, the person responsible has to be found.  It is always a witch or a wizard who has impregnated the mother with bad germs.  And where do these monster germs come from?  They float in the air.  In any case, it is never the fault of the father…

Up until the middle of the XVIIIth Century, a quantity of scientific treatises can be found which doctorly explain that

“at the origin of all animal life, there are little, invisible beings, already formed, but lifeless, which are waiting to enter into contact with a liqueur which is subtle enough to vivify them”.

A woman can therefore procreate on her own, through enchantment or even simply a dream.

This is why, on 13 January 1637, the Grenoble Parliament declares Magdeleine d’Automont d’Aiguemere innocent of the sin of adultery.  This chaste spouse has just given birth to a boy.  But, her husband has been absent for four years.  However, the judgement underlines that

“having imagined the person and the physical contact of the said Lord d’Aiguemere, her husband, in a dream, she received the same sentiments of conception and of pregnancy that she would have received in his presence”.

The judges refer to Saint Thomas who said that, in the state of innocence, children were made by the intention of thoughts alone.

This judgement is accompanied by a highly scientific declaration:

“One supposes that, on the night of Madame d’Aiguemere’s dream, her window being open, her bed exposed to the West, her blanket in disorder, that the South-West zephyr, duly impregnated with organic molecules of human insects, of floating embryos, had fecunded her.”

***

To be continued.

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary, by Raab (1867).

On 12 June 1867, Empress Elisabeth and Emperor Franz-Josef, exhausted, leave the Hungarian capital for Bad Ischl where they go to rest.  On Wednesday 19 June, in the calm of the Kaiservilla, Archduchess Sophia of Austria opens her diary and notes:

“The news from Mexico City makes us hope more and more for Max’ return.  God be praised for that.”

She cannot know that her son Maximilien has already been shot at Queretaro.  The execution squad fired six bullets which all traversed his body, and the impacts form a cross.  This tragic end is the lamentable result of an adventure in ambition.  That of a younger brother, unhappy at not being the first-born;  that of his spouse, the unfortunate Charlotte, who was looking to wear a crown, that also of Napoleon III, who had wanted to profit from the difficulties of the young United States of America, torn by a war of Secession, to constitute a latin empire in Mexico which would be protected by France.  When the United States, now really united, had risen against the intervention decided by Paris, Mexico was faraway, and its destiny embarrassing.  Maximilien found himself abandoned, facing a population which was unanimous against him.  He knew how to leave this life with dignity, in the spirit of the Habsburgs.

The news of his execution, a message from the Austrian Ambassador in Washington, reached Franz-Josef and Sissi at Ratisbonn, where they were attending the funeral of Helena’s husband, the Prince of Tour and Taxis.  Sissi is in tears, more personally touched by the premature decease of her brother-in-law, who formed with Helena a very united couple.  But she cannot forget a letter that she had written to Charlotte to inform her of her hostility to this Mexican adventure:

“Why look for sterile honours and the slavery of a throne when you have the privilege of living your own life?  Why compromise your happiness by so many unpleasant tasks and fastidious ceremonies?”

A real self-portrait.  At the time, Sissi would have voluntarily exchanged her crown with the secondary destiny of her sister-in-law.

Poor Charlotte having already lost her mind, the most difficult part remains to be done.  Franz-Josef has to inform Archduchess Sophia, who has returned to Vienna.  The shock breaks the elderly lady, and when a telegramme from Napoleon III arrives, she turns away, refusing to see this message of condoleance.  Drunk with anger, she no longer wants to hear of “that assassin of her son”.

Louis II of Bavaria.

Sissi returns to Bad Ischl on 2 July.  She is worried.  To the drama of her sister Helena, brutally widowed, is added that of her other sister, Sophia, the neglected fiancee of Louis II of Bavaria.  The unhappy girl is in despair, with no news of her bizarre fiance who does not stop sending the carriage that she is supposed to use on the day of her wedding to roll empty through Munich.  When Tannhauser is again performed in Munich, on 1 August, Louis II appears alone in the royal box.  Sophia, like before their engagement, is in a lateral box.  The King only visits her at the intermission, for five minutes, to give her a bouquet.  Liszt resumes the spectators’ impression when he writes to a female friend:

“His Majesty’s matrimonial ardours seem very temperate.”

It is learnt that the date of the wedding has been pushed back to 12 October.  Princess Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria, Sophia’s mother, lets her anger explode.  Sophia cries out her sadness:

“But, don’t you see that he doesn’t love me?  He is playing with me!”

In fact, Louis II is playing at his wedding instead of living it.  Sissi, who receives a distressed letter from her little sister, doesn’t know what to think.  Her cousin’s comportment is beginning to be embarrassing.  She mentions it to her husband, who promises her to try to find out what is wrong, but there is something more urgent.  Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie are coming to Salzburg, more or less for a visit of reparation and condoleance for Franz-Josef.  Sissi, remaining at Bad Ischl while Franz-Josef returns to Vienna, writes to him to try to avoid being present at the Salzburg interview.  She invokes the fact that she is not feeling well and is very tired.  En reply, he reminds her of her duty and insists on her presence in Salzburg, four days later.

On 18 August, the French train stops in Salzburg Station.  The handshake between the two men is not very enthusiastic.  Napoleon III, the man who had prodded Maximilen to Mexico, is amiable but ill;  Franz-Josef is deeply troubled.  It must be recognized that these habits that European sovereigns have of warring against each other, betraying each other, and then making polite visits to each other, are sometimes exasperating.

Apart from the condoleances and the political conversations to encourage closer ties between Vienna and Paris, the main interest of the meeting is, for the population, the awaited confrontation between the two Empresses.  One question is circulating on everyone’s lips:  which of them is the more beautiful?  At first, opinions are divided.  But, very quickly, the comparison turns to Sissi’s advantage, for she is taller and slimmer than the French Empress, and the first meeting between the two women ends, five days later, with the Austrians’ impression that they have the prettiest European lady sovereign.  And Sissi’s prestige, tarnished by her favouritism toward Hungary, is a little more gilded.

On 23 August, Sissi leaves to see her sisters Maria and Mathilda in Zurich.  Franz-Josef comes to find her and she begs him to stop in Munich.  Her father is beginning to be unable to put up with Louis II any longer.  He debarks at midnight to make his purely literary court to Sophia and then disappears for days, leaving the young girl in tears.  The truth is out:  Louis, the impossible fiance, is an improbable husband.  He admits to his secretary at the Court:

“I would prefer to throw myself into the lake rather than get married now.”

While Franz-Josef is receiving a delegation of Czechs who also want a Coronation in Prague, Sissi is resting.  Her doctor has confirmed the happy news:  she is pregnant.  She writes in her diary:

“I would like to give a son, a king to Hungary, a clear mind, a strong man.”

At the beginning of October, Louis II, ostensibly fleeing the realities of marriage, is ordered by Prince Max to make up his mind.  The honour of the ducal branch of the family is at stake.  Exasperated, Sophia’s father fixes the date of the ceremony on 28 November, at the latest.  Furious, Louis II takes this ultimatum very badly.  He asks his secretary:

“Is this how one addresses one’s sovereign?”

The public servant replies:

“Sire, Duke Max has not written to you as a subject but as a father.”

The King seizes this pretext.  After three days of torment, he writes a letter of rupture to Sophia.  He tells her of his “fraternal, true and faithful love”, he assures her that he loves her “like a tender sister”.

***

To be continued.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) only leaves her state of prostration on 8 July 1857, to welcome the Prussian sovereigns.  King Frederic-Wilhelm is in an excellent mood, although a little too agitated because of his hypertension, and Queen Maria, sister to the princesses Sophia, Archduchess of Austria, and Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria, is happy to see her niece.  At the end of the month, the marriage of the Emperor’s brother, Ferdinand-Maximilien, to Charlotte of Saxe-Coburg makes the family rejoice.  The Archduchess welcomes her new daughter-in-law with “very maternal” grace.  Sissi and Franz-Josef do everything to make their new sister-in-law feel at home.  Charlotte, daughter of the King of the Belgians, is judged to be charming and delicious.

In October, the King of Prussia suffers an attack which takes away his speech and obliges him to entrust the administration of the kingdom to his brother, Prince Wilhelm.  Franz-Josef is worried:  until now, definitive rupture with Prussia has been avoided.  What will happen now?

The Empress’ worries appear to be continual for, since her daughter’s death, a divergence with Doctor Seeburger has been added to the conflict with her mother-in-law.  Sissi had asked for his removal, Sophia had obtained that he remain.  The Empress is suffering from an exostosis, a little benign tumour, on her hand.  Seeburger proposes an infallible treatment, place on it two twenty-crown silver coins, bind the hand very tightly and hope that the exostosis is reduced by the pressure of the coins.  This therapy reveals itself to be worse that the ill, Sissi suffers even more.  After two days of patience, she throws away the strange dressing.  Seerburger is decidedly still just as useless…

November.  News runs through the Hofburg and in Vienna:  the Empress is again pregnant.  Secretly, Elisabeth prays that the child she is carrying be a son.  Her pregnancy continues normally, under her mother-in-law’s attentive surveillance.

When Summer arrives, Sissi settles at Laxenburg.  At Dawn on 21 August 1858, three days after Franz-Josef’s twenty-eighth birthday, she enters into labour, a lot more violent than for her preceding deliveries.  All day, the Empress suffers.  The Archduchess, arriving from Vienna, has the Holy Sacrament exhibited in the Palace’s chapel, before sitting in silence in her daughter-in-law’s bedchamber.  The whole of Lazenburg is in prayer, and Vienna, where the heat is appalling, holds its breath.

At a quarter-past-ten in the evening, Sissi is delivered.  Her screams had terrified the Archduchess, and Countess Esterhazy, kneeling near her bed, imploring divine grace.  Sissi is exhausted and very pale.  She asks the question with anguish, in a weak voice:

“Is it a boy?…”

Franz-Josef is crying.

“So, it’s another girl,”

Sissi sighs, crushed.

But the Emperor’s tears are tears of joy and emotion.  He mumbles and begins by saying:

“We don’t know yet!”

In his confusion, Franz-Josef has forgotten that it is a boy.  The Imperial Crown has an heir.  God be praised!  At the height of happiness, the Emperor detaches the Collar of the Golden Fleece from his chest and places it on the little boy.  The future is there, hope now has a first name, Rudolf, the fourth Habsburg to bear the name since the XIIIth Century.  In his veins flows the blood of two of the oldest royal families of Europe.

In Vienna, a hundred-and-one cannon salute shakes the sleeping city.  Enthusiasm flows through the streets.  Archduchess Sophia declares that never has a child been welcomed with so much joy.  Franz-Josef, who refuses to admit that the child is weak, finds him strong and magnificently proportioned.  And he names him Colonel of the 19th Infantry Regiment.  Therefore, Rudolf is immediately consecrated to a military life.

Sissi is tired.  But what secret joy, what revenge!  The pamphlet destined for Marie-Antoinette no longer haunts her, and her personal position at Court is reinforced.

Princess Sophia, Archduchess of Austria.

For the baptism, Franz-Josef gives her a four-strand pearl necklace.  The Archduchess and her spouse give Sissi the necklace and earrings in turquoise that Sophia had received at the birth of Franz-Josef, twenty-eight years earlier.  Unfortunately, the Archduchess considers that she must closely watch over the baby, the heir to the Empire.  The Empress’ inconsequences, her strange ideas which already hardly suit the education of the Princesses, are to be absolutely excluded from that of the future emperor.  So, Elisabeth finds herself submitted to increased tension.  The first conflict about Rudolf concerns his feeding.  Sissi has the “extravagant” idea of wanting to breast-feed her son herself.  But the fever does not leave her.  A nurse replaces the Empress, to the Archduchess’ great satisfaction.   Sissi’s disequilibrium becomes worse.  Helpless, weakened, her only recourse is Franz-Josef.  Alas, the Emperor is taken up with politics.  Once more, a storm is brewing over Europe.

In filigrane to the Paris Treaty, Russia, humiliated, is concocting revenge.  The man who holds the key to the new imbroglio is Napoleon III.  Behind his veiled gaze and his apparent distraction, the Emperor of the French nourishes a dream:  to organize a new Italy.  Napoleon I’s great-nephew is having trouble accepting that Vienna reigns over Milan and Venice, and keeps garnisons in the duchies of Tuscany, Modena and Parma.  This attachment of the Lombardo-Venitian States to the Habsburgs is a living reminder of the Congress of Vienna and the collapse of Imperial France.

Napoleon III has reflected on what he can do.  Unity of the northern and southern Italian States is still premature.  On the other hand, the creation of a Federation after the expulsion of Austria is envisageable.  Saint Petersburg completely agrees with Paris.  The enemies of Sebastopol become conspirators on the same side.  Berlin follows with delectation the community of views between Paris and Russia.  As for London, the Crimean adventure has cooled her European pretensions.  Diplomatically speaking, England has become an island again.

For the Tsar in Saint Petersburg and Bismarck in Berlin, war against Austria is desirable.  For Napoleon III, it is a necessity.  Without transforming the Mediterranean into “a French lake”, the annexing of Nice and the Savoie would be a stroke of genius.

On 21 July 1858, exactly one month before the birth of Rudolf, France promises to send two hundred thousand men to Italy if Austria commits an act of aggression.

Cavour, satisfied, remarks:

“We have backed Austria into an impasse from which I defy it to be able to extricate itself without firing its cannons.”

The fire can be ignited, all that is missing is the spark.

To be continued.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

On 2 March 1855, Tsar Nicolas I dies.  Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria orders a four-week mourning period in the Hofburg Palace and sends a personal letter of condolence to Saint Petersburg.  He has himself represented at the funeral, for in Vienna, Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) is in labour.  On 5 March, at seven o’clock in the morning, the Emperor informs his mother.  The Archduchess settles herself next to the bed and mechanically embroiders, while watching her son hold his spouse’s hand and embrace her.

After three hours, the baby is born:  it is a girl.  Disappointment is immense, but Sissi, radiant, almost immediately says:

“All that I have suffered is now unimportant.”

Franz-Josef tenderly gives her a bracelet and a pendant which will contain locks of hair from the Emperor and the baby.

Princess Sophia, Archduchess of Austria.

And the infernal machine again grinds into action.  Without consulting the Empress, the Archduchess decides that the heiress will be named Sophia like herself, and Franz-Josef can do nothing less than ask his mother to be godmother.  At the baptism, the absence of the new Tsar Alexander II’s Ambassador is noted, the only diplomat having received instructions not to appear at this celebration, which is both a family and a political occasion.

Scarcely a month-and-a-half after giving birth, Sissi surprises the whole Court, and scandalises the Archduchess, by mounting on horseback.  Apart from her real equestrian pleasure, Sissi is defying her mother-in-law.  It must be said that Sophia has added another, fatal degree to her authoritarianism.  The heiress Princess is “her” child.  She has chosen her nurses and governesses, selected the doctors, and jealously watches over the nursery installed in her apartments.  Sissi, mortified, can only see her daughter in the presence of her mother-in-law, not always even then;  maternity also has its timetable.  If Sissi gives instructions for the suckling or the care of her baby, the Archduchess annuls or contradicts them.  The worst is the daily parade of the Archduchess’ friends, who admire the child, taking great care to congratulate the grandmother.  Elisabeth is ignored, effaced, relegated to the lowest rank of genitrix, not even having succeeded in giving the throne an heir.  This veritable kidnapping deeply humiliates Sissi.  Her mother-in-law removes from her her joy at being a mother, one of those motivations which should help her to live.

The Archduchess therefore commits a serious mistake.  Worse, a fault, for she cuts one of the ties which would have allowed Sissi to put up with Court life, and like Vienna.  From then on, the Empress will be a woman in revolt.  By passing through the heavy palace doors, she is liberating herself.  With gallops in the Vienna forest and outings to the Prater in an open carriage, Sissi takes revenge.  She is more and more beautiful.  Her face has remained that of a young girl, but her figure has been marked, becoming that of a woman.  In the Vienna Spring, her appearances suscitate admiration.  People elbow each other to see her pass by.  The whole of Vienna talks about it, the Empress is even more ravishing than on her wedding day.  Involuntarily, by pushing her daughter-in-law to show herself a lot, the Archduchess increases imperial popularity.  Very favourable notes arrive on Franz-Josef’s desk, while the conflict continues to stagnate in the Black Sea.  Sissi’s sudden prestige is soon considered as the prelude to political influence.  People seek to present requests to her.  The imperial Cabinet invariably answers:

“Her Majesty the Empress has no influence.”

Emperor Franz-Joseph of Austria on his way to a military banquet in the grounds of Schonbrunn.

Another trip is supposed to take Franz-Josef into Galicia.  As it is a vast military inspection, he suggests to Sissi to spend some time with her family, in Bavaria.  Needless to say, the Empress seizes this occasion, despite the sadness of separation.  On 21 June, she leaves Vienna for Possenhofen, her heart beating at the idea of seeing her universe again.

She had left her childhood paradise as a romantic princess.  She returns as Empress, with a cortege of ladies-in-waiting, valets, coachmen, stableboys, and a high-ranking escort.  But protocol, which has no place in her baggage, is joyfully trampled.  She goes out in all weathers, including when a storm breaks in cataracts over Starnberg Lake.  Elisabeth becomes Sissi again, and too bad if her suite, dripping and muddy, grumbles about these fresh air urges.  And then she talks a lot to her mother, complaining about her aunt-mother-in-law.  Ludovika, upset and a little terrorised by Sophia, advises patience.  The ladies-in-waiting are alarmed to see dogs everywhere, even invading the dining-room.  They pale when the Duke invites the high-ranking people in Sissi’s suite for a game of billiards…  with his gamekeeper.  The only concession to etiquette is that Sissi, to please Franz-Josef, writes three times a week to the Archduchess.

The couple’s meeting in Bad Ischl is marvellous and tender.  Soon, Sissi is again pregnant.

Back in Vienna, they learn that Sebastopol has at last fallen, on 11 September, three days after General MacMahon took the Malakoff Tower.  At midday, with his sabre raised, the General had ignored the mines – forty thousand kilos of powder – and declared:

“J’y suis, j’y reste  [I’m here and I’m staying here]”,

thereby entering into History.  The Russians evacuate the great port and sink their fleet.  The Crimean War had made, in total, nearly two hundred and forty thousand victims, one third by cholera.  The repatriation of the exhausted troops provokes an epidemic right into Vienna, where a few cases are signalled.  Franz-Josef fears for Sissi and their daughter, for the Court remembers the 1831 epidemic which had made ravages.  The epidemic fears fade.  However, on 14 December, the Empress goes to Schonbrunn, accompanied by one of her ladies-in-waiting, Countess Bellegarde.  Her carriage is harnessed with four horses that she knows well.  Once on the Mariahilferstrasse, a long artery which leads to Schonbrunn, a horse takes the bit between its teeth, the three others get tangled in the reins and, in a few instants, they have all bolted.  The coachman is ejected.  Seeing the danger, a carter pushes his cart across a street and stops the horses.  The carriage rocks, the shaft breaks, but the two women are unhurt.  Even paler than usual, Sissi and the lady-in-waiting, trembling, return to the Hofburg in a fiacre.  She recounts the accident to a frightened Franz-Josef.  Called in haste, Doctor Seeburger notes that the Empress, three months pregnant, has only suffered fear.  Sissi had escaped death.

On 16 January 1856, during a ball, Franz-Josef officially announces that the Tsar at last accepts to negotiate a peace treaty.  He is happy about this result which, according to him, has reinforced Austria’s role beside the Anglo-French triumph.  On 25 February, the Peace Congress opens in Paris, a choice which reinforces Napoleon III’s prestige even more.  The Conference unfolds in the Clock Room, at the Quai d’Orsay.  The treaty, signed on 30 March, constrains Russia to cede a southern part of its territories, from Bessarabia to Moldavia, a clause judged to be very harsh at Saint Petersburg.  It also allows for free circulation on the Danube, and the neutrality of the Black Sea.  The Middle-Eastern dream of the Tsars remains a chimera.  Franz-Josef considers that peace, through his non-armed intervention, is partly imputable to him.  In reality, he receives hate from Russia.

To be continued.

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