Rabbits, Whigs, and Hunters: Cultural History and Protest in Mary Toft’s Monstrous Births of 1726

Thursday, January 12, 2017
4:00 pm PST

6275 Bunche Hall, UCLA
315 Portola Plaza

—a lecture by Karen Harvey, University of Sheffield

co-sponsored by European History Colloquium and Center for 17th- & 18th-Century Studies

In the autumn of 1726, Mary Toft—a poor woman from the Surrey town of Godalming—began giving birth to rabbits. Learned gentlemen and leading physicians heralded the case as a medical wonder, and the case has been studied most often by medical historians. More recently, Mary Toft and her rabbit births have become an exemplary case in cultural history. This lecture reassesses cultural history and the renewed emphasis on its relationship with the study of social and material relations of power. Karen Harvey approaches Mary Toft and her rabbits not just as a medical and cultural curiosity but instead as a social and political event. She engages questions about the continuum of social disaffection to political protest and the possibilities and challenges of identifiying women’s roles in the process.

Karen Harvey is a cultural historian of the British long eighteenth century, with a special interest in gender. She has ongoing research interests in masculinity, print culture (both visual and textual), material culture, and what might be termed the rather more “impolite” aspects of the eighteenth century. Harvey read politics and modern history at Manchester University, before moving to Royal Holloway, University of London, where she gained an M.A. in women’s history and later her Ph.D. She subsequently worked on the project “Women, Work, and the Industrial Revolution, 1760–1840” at Manchester University, was then appointed to the AHRB Centre for the Study of the Domestic Interior (at the Royal College of Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Royal Holloway), before joining The University of Sheffield’s history department in 2003. Karen Harvey has held fellowships at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA; Huntington Library; and Australian Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Her research on eighteenth-century Britain has been funded by the AHRC, British Academy, Wellcome Trust, and Pasold Research Fund.

Mary Tofts Duping Several Distinguished Surgeons, Physicians, and Male-Midwives into Believing That She Is Giving Birth to a Litter of Rabbits
Etching by W. Hogarth, 1726
Wellcome Library, London