Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Mirabilia, 1726

The local doctor took her for a 'gloomy' sort,
a little daft, but strong. Her husband worked in cloth
and got on her three live young before this last,
most curious brood, a whole tribe of Rabbets
springing forth in groups of three or four.
Harvest in Godalming, Surrey, being nearly done,
and maybe that year only meager store,
leeks and turnips, a few thick-skinned gourds,
perhaps they’d been a little short, but rabbits
were abundant, and her boy able in getting
litters young and whole enough to plant
in Mary's lap, her roomy burrow readied
from easy passage of three prior infant
skulls. The village ready too for some miracle
of birth, even if it was just rabbits coming on
with winter's chill. By her own report, Mary took
a "longing" in the field one day, when a rabbit
sprang up like a bright idea from the dying
Queen Anne's lace and giant fennel,
so her five weeks' child afloat in the womb
fell away that night with a dream.
These blind and skinless babies curled
in the child's lost place and drank
of her waters, waited for light
and a man-midwife ready with belief.
Even after churching, more rabbits fell
from her marvelous loins in Guildford,
so the English Court brought her into town
to have a look, and though they caught
the serving boy with pockets full of blind
and slippery bunnies and trundled Mary Tofts
off to jail after her confession, the fact
remained that she had fooled at least
a half a dozen educated men by simply
being what she was, mammal, mystery,
cave and warren, unmapped womb,
a woman.

Prairie Schooner, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Summer 2005), pp. 28-29

Author Comment

"This poem draws on studies of medical practices surrounding childbirth in England in the same period. While France gave female midwives more power over childbirth, particularly in the rural areas, in England, childbirth could be a lucrative aspect of medical practices, so male midwives and surgeons largely guarded control of childbirth. But as the popular illustration ‘The Touch’ from the period shows, these medical men were rarely able to see the anatomy they were treating, let alone understand how the female body actually worked beneath all those skirts. Details for this poem, factual and fabulous, come from the account in Jacques Gélis' History of Childbirth: Fertility, Pregnancy and Birth in Early Modern Europe. Mary Toft, the woman at the center of ‘Mirabilia’ who reportedly gave birth to live rabbits, was able to convince quite a few educated men of her ‘miracle’ before a servant was caught providing her with newborn rabbits. What's more astounding to me is the idea that she was prosecuted for faking her miracle—a clear sign that she was being punished for the ignorance of the medical men around her. Had they understood female anatomy more intimately, they'd never have found her claims credible in the first place, and she might have remained a poor village woman acting out her depression over losing a child in obscurity. A popular Hogarth print of the period shows her giving birth to the rabbits in a room full of the male authority figures she supposedly duped, bunnies scattering every which way from under her skirts.

“This poem is part of a larger collection, The Resurrection Trade (Graywolf P), that explores the history of childbirth in the West through early medical images of female anatomy and the misunderstandings they represented and perpetrated in cultural constructions of women. Threats to women's freedoms and equality often lie in the very institutions invented to help them, and the generative power of the female body is a resource and a mystery that is never far from the sights of those who seek more power.”