Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

‘It Seems She Was Born First’: The Persistence of Twinship in the Broken Heart and the Duchess of Malfi

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

‘It Seems She Was Born First’: The Persistence of Twinship in the Broken Heart and the Duchess of Malfi

Article excerpt

Although the seventeenth-century physician and author Nicholas Culpeper is referring to classical medical practitioners when he comments that 'Authors make fome flutter about the Conception of Twins', his observation can also be extended to his contemporaries.1 A number of seventeenth-century midwifery manuals devoted chapters to how to detect and safely deliver unborn twins, but their attention on such figures ends at birth. Whilst the medical works imply that being a twin is only a mark of distinction at birth, however, some of the drama that was written and performed at this time suggests otherwise. Indeed, the fact that Penthea and Ithocles in John Ford's The Broken Heart (1628-9), and the Duchess and Ferdinand in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (1614) once shared a womb with each other is suggested to be so influential that it affects them not only as adults, but also beyond death. For Penthea and Ithocles, their status as twins produces a constant reminder of the type of behaviour that they are unable to display, whilst the Duchess and Ferdinand suggest that twinship is such a key component of identity that there is no peace for either when one is alive and the other is dead. Whilst the strictly medical view of twins seemed to be that they were only different from the general populace at birth, then, Ford's and Webster's plays both present the idea that such difference persisted well into adult life, and could even exist beyond it.

I.Twinship Before, During, and After Birth: Early Seventeenth-Century Medical Ideas

Considering the risks which a twin pregnancy and birth could pose at a time of high maternal and infant mortality, it is hardly surprising that seventeenth-century medical works would devote a number of chapters to the detection and delivery of two children. Such texts as Jacques Guillemeau's Child-birth or, The happy deliuerie of vvomen (1612) and Thomas Chamberlayne's The compleat midwife 's practice (1656) outline the main physical symptoms which a woman carrying twins could expect to feel, and offer practical advice on how to ensure a safe birth for twins who occupy a number of uterine positions. The texts therefore suggest that there is a period of time during which twins are distinctive from other people, beginning from whenever they are first able to move about in the womb, and ending when they have been born.

One key indicator of the presence of unborn twins was held to be movement in the womb 'on the right and on the left side, at the same instant'.2 Whilst a woman who was carrying a single child could still expect to feel movement, it is the synchronicity of the motions which made the presence of two children evident. As well as making their mother experience a distinctive inner sensation, twins were also thought to be able to cause her to exhibit external signs of their presence. Guillemeau explains how, on the mother's abdomen, 'from the navell downeward there appeare [...] a line or separation betweene both sides', whilst Chamberlayne writes of 'a line of devision from the navel to the groine'.3 Once twins had developed sufficiently enough to move around in the womb, then, they were considered to be able to make their mother's body feel and look different from that of a woman who was carrying only one child.

Whilst unborn twins were considered able to reveal their difference from sole occupants of the womb from a very early point, this distinction became most evident at birth. Guillemeau's and Chamberlayne's midwifery manuals show an acute awareness of the fact that twins could occupy a number of uterine positions, for they both offer advice on how to deliver twins who came head-first, feet-first, or a mixture of the two. Physicians and midwives were advised to insert a hand into the womb, to distinguish the twins from each other, and to then decide which to guide first to the birth canal. In an age before ultrasound, however, there was the fear that the physician or midwife would accidentally try to deliver both twins at once, and so 'tear them both asunder'. …

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