17th century Pregnancy Test

17th century Pregnancy Test

Today’s pregnancy test involves peeing on a stick and waiting for the result to be revealed. Back in the day, a Dutch woman might have peed in a urinal flask and waited for the result to be revealed to the piskijker (literally piss-looker) who was looking for either a vision of a baby or for the sediments in the urine to form the shape of a baby. Of course, this was 100% quackery, you cannot tell if a person is pregnant by looking at (or scrying) their urine– and these piskijkers were suspect even in their own time.

In the painting, a “doctor” sees a baby in the flask of the young -unmarried- woman’s urine. Her father looks at her in rage, while the younger boy (an a-hole younger brother perhaps?) looks at the viewer while laughing and making an obscene hand gesture.

Whiteley, 2017

The flask was an allegory for the uterus in Birth Figures (diagrams of fetal positioning), as well as for this kind of pseudo-urinalysis to determine pregnancy and for alchemy. Alchemists considered the flask a kind of womb where alchemical reactions converted materials into new forms. In the actual womb, male and female seed combined with humoral heat to created a baby. Some alchemists were certain that if they could just find the right equation they could create artificial life. 


Main image: The Doctor’s Examination by Godfried Schalken, c1690, Dutch. From the Mauritshuis Musem in The Hague in the Netherlands.

Whiteley, Rebecca. 2017. “Roy Porter Student Prize Essay Figuring Pictures and Picturing Figures: Images of the Pregnant Body and the Unborn Child in England, 1540–c.1680.Social History of Medicine, Vol. 32(2), 241–266.

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