Days and months

Days and months
1628. Book frontispiece of ‘Disputatio de vera humani partus naturalis et legitimi designatione’. Alphonsi a Carranza, Madrid (Spain)

Days and months

III Intrauterine life


How much time can pass between conception and birth?

The length of pregnancy is of interest, of course, because it is directly related to the development and health of the baby.  But the number of months also carried a symbolic message, as the month of birth –seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth– and its respective planet were believed to determine a child’s character. These concepts lived on well into the 19th century: Benito Pérez Galdós uses sevenmonthling as an insult in Fortunata y Jacinta

What is more, prosecutors and judges counted days and months to judge the degree of guilt in an abortion caused by «potions, […], beating, burdens, hard work and any other means». According to the doctor Juan Ruices de Fontecha, it was homicide if the child was animated, that is, if it had been conceived more than forty days before abortion in the case of boys, and ninety days in the case of girls, as per the old concept attributed to Aristotle. If it had not passed that threshold, commoners interrupting a pregnancy were punished with forced labour in metal mines, whilst nobles were exiled and had part of their wealth confiscated. Law always abides by the current anthropology, by what is considered fully human or not. The debate takes off in a mother’s womb.

Furthermore, the jurisprudent juggles with deadlines to clarify uncertain family bonds: When, say, a husband returns from war or a diplomatic mission after ten months and finds a child in the cradle: Should he become suspicious of his wife? –Or: A child declared posthumous by the mother, born some 11 months after his purported father’s death, can it be heir to titles and estates, or is it all to be judged a set-up and deceit?

Much as male experts tried to monitor female cycles, they could not impose punctuality nor precise timing on birth. The secret calculations of expecting women (and their accomplices: go-betweens, midwives, grandmothers) –often more influenced by the moon than by the solar calendar– caused permanent headaches to men; the question of times and intervals not properly revealed might have been one reason for witch-hunts. On the other hand, the time-problem conferred importance to the witness of midwives, because they were considered the foremost experts in the degree of foetal development. [Wolfram Aichinger]