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Department of History - Research Seminar Series

Date: 15 May 2013 Time: 5.00 pm

Venue: Bowland North Seminar Room 23

Summer Term 2012-13

'Beyond Cultural History: Mary Toft's Experience of Giving Birth to Rabbits in 1726'

Karen Harvey, University of Sheffield


In September 1726, Mary Toft gave birth to seventeen rabbits or parts of rabbits in Godalming, Surrey. Having looked at the animals during her pregnancy, their image was imprinted on the foetus. Mary Toft was attended by at least six respected doctors, but none declared the affair a hoax until Toft confessed on 7th December 1726. The case caused a sensation and was reported widely in newspapers, popular pamphlets, poems and caricatures. Toft was portrayed as a devious woman who set out to hoodwink the doctors and make her fortune. In histories of the case Mary Toft's body functions as a cipher: for historians working within a medical, intellectual or cultural history framework, the case marks a turning point in professional medical opinion or masculine control of the female body. This paper seeks instead to refocus our attention onto Mary's body and her very real physical and emotional experiences. It also suggests that Mary was not responsible for the hoax. The paper is the first step in applying social, women's and micro history to reconstruct Mary Toft's physical, social and mental world


Karen Harvey is Reader in Cultural History at the University of Sheffield. She has previously worked on the history of the body, the home and material culture. Her books include Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century: Bodies and Gender in English Erotic Culture (CUP, 2004) and The Little Republic: Masculinity and Domestic Authority in Eighteenth-Century Britain (OUP, 2012). Forthcoming articles examine topics such as men's legs and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.

All staff and PGR students are warmly invited to History research seminars


Who can attend: Internal


Further information

Organising departments and research centres: History


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Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Graduate School, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
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