Sunday, August 22, 2010

Impressions Upon Maternal Impression

There had been a farmer’s boy in our village who’d had a crimson stain across his brow and down one side of his face. The marked skin was raised and rough, its surface studded all over with little yellow pimples. His ear on that side was always scarlet, as though mortified to be appended to so unsightly a blemish. We had tormented him and called him names, but my mother had always been kind to him. “Its hardly the poor child’s fault,” she said and sighed, shaking her head. “The mother of his, she’s been a greedy lass her whole life. Longing for strawberries in February? She must have known it would mark the boy.” A responsible mother, she told me firmly, controlled her appetites or if she could not, made sure to satisfy them. Otherwise, they grew so powerful that they took her over, burning themselves into the flesh of her unborn child.

A large portion of this novel The Nature of Monsters, by Clare Clark, includes the superstitious beliefs about the nature of humanity, and in particularly the origin of disfigurements.  The passage above touches upon maternal impressions, which was a a reigning belief of the day. This theory centered on the emotional stimulation experienced by a pregnant woman could influence the development of the fetus, thus resulting in birth defects and congenital disorders. 

Lists of the perils of the maternal imagination taught to me in childhood. If an expectant mother urinated in a churchyard or crossed  water-filled ditch, her child would be a bed-wetter; if she peeped through a key-hole, he would squint; if she helped to shroud a corpse, he would be pale and sickly; if she spilled beer on her clothing, he would turn out a drunkard; if she ate speckled bird eggs, his skin would be thickly freckled.

As exemplified in the passage above, dangers were ever present for a pregnant woman and she had to be vigilant to avoid anything that could harm the child she carried. If she were to encounter any of these innumerable elements, there were a variety of remedies for her to turn to: 

Lists of remedies for the cures of the mother’s imagination: If a hare should cross your path, tear your dress; think upon gods and heroes; baptise the unborn child with holy water. Avert your eyes from cripples and felons hanging from the neck. 

What is also significant of this theory is that a mother's imagination in addition to her behavior could also harm the developing child. The mother is seen as responsible for the physical and psychological development of the child. Her cravings and needs are impressed upon the unborn child, thus causing the child when it is born to either look, behavior, feel, or think in a particular way that was a direct result of the mother's actions, feelings, and thoughts. 

Maternal impressions is explored in the study of teratology, which is the scientific study of congenital abnormalities and formations. Though not directly mentioned in Nature of Monsters, this area of study is a driving force for one of the main characters. This area of study has a long history, dating back to the Egyptians and Greeks, as method to explore and understand the nature of this area of human development. 

In my online research for this post, I found two fascinating sources: 
  1. Maternal Impressions: The History of Teratology - I encourage you to explore this entire page as it is quite a fascination overview of many different historical theories. 
  2. A passage on maternal impressions from the journal of English philology, Anglia, which was founded in 1878 and is the oldest journal of English studies. (Anglia - Zeitschrift für englische Philologie. Volume 1926, Issue 50, Pages 287–290, ISSN (Online) 1865-8938, ISSN (Print) 0340-5222, //1926)