A Note on the Woman who Gave Birth to Rabbits One Hundred Years Before Töpffer by Laurence Grove

17 Jul

The fait divers involving Mary Toft, the servant from Godalming who in 1726 was announced to have given birth to a litter of rabbits, is of interest not just for pre-tabloid titillation whose appeal would still do the National Enquirer proud, but also in what the telling of the story, particularly the visual versions, might indicate about the international development of the aetas emblematica.[1]

Having given birth on 27 September 1726 to what appeared to be the body of a cat, Mary Toft called upon John Howard, a leading Guildford obstetrician, who attended and presided over the subsequent ‘births’ of a variety of animal parts as well as nine dead rabbits.[2] Howard’s reaction was to seek publicity, sending letters to the country’s leading surgeons as well as to the secretary of King George I. The case was investigated, on George I’s request, by Nathaniel St. André, surgeon to the King, and by Samuel Molyneux, the Prince of Wales’s secretary. Mary Toft’s renown increased, aided by St. André’s statement that he believed the phenomenon to be genuine, an account of which was published in pamphlet form as A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets as early as December 1726, with a second edition in 1727.[3]

Toft finally confessed to staging a hoax on 7 December 1726: at the instigation of Howard, and others, and with the help of a porter to smuggle rabbits, she had inserted the bodies herself before acting out the births. The publicity continued as Toft became a prison celebrity, with St. André in particular, and the medical profession in general, now in disrepute. Numerous pamphlets followed, generally mocking in tone, as well as satirical prints, and a play, The Surrey-Wonder: An Anatomical Farce, produced, according to a contemporary print, at London’s Theatre Royal.

The affaire had social and historical ramifications in that it highlighted the general mistrust of George I’s imported court, of which St. André, as a Swiss national, was seen as a representative. From a literary and methodological viewpoint, the case of Mary Toft is an early example of history by fait divers, a precursor to cases such as that of the Papin sisters,[4] those recounted in 1988 and 1993 by Jean Teulé in Gens de France and Gens d’ailleurs,[5] or the story of Florence Rey and Audry Maupin, two disillusioned left-wing activists at the centre of a 1994 police chase that resulted in five deaths, later presented in graphic novel form by Chantal Montellier in Les Damnés de Nanterre.[6] In such cases it is the presentation through mass media that makes the difference between a national scandal and a passing incident.[7]

From an emblematic viewpoint Mary Toft is interesting in that she promotes, literally but also metaphorically, a ‘bottom up’ approach to culture. Her tale [sic], and those of the later faits divers, present history through the deeds and doings of the everyday, a method developed critically by the likes of Michel de Certeau in his L’Invention du quotidien and Michel Foucault in Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique or Surveiller et punir,[8] to be followed, in the twenty-first century, by a methodology labelled as ‘Everyday Studies’.[9] Emblem books may recount the deeds of Kings and Gods, but in the case of La Perrière and Corrozet, for example, they also portray the follies and tribulations of the common man, depictions to be appreciated four centuries on by those willing to look beyond the writings of authors canonised in the nineteenth century. Furthermore the stories in question seem often to be told through images: film for the Papin sisters, bandes dessinées by Teulé and Montellier.

Fig. 1: [Anonymous], Sections from ‘The Doctors in Labour; or a New Whim Wham from Guildford’. [1726]. Glasgow University Library Hunter Aa. 7. 20. For full sequence see:

This was indeed the case for Mary Toft. Beyond the various pamphlets that emerged from, and indeed created, the incident, for our purposes of particular interest are two visual depictions: The Doctors in Labour; or a New Whim Wham from Guildford (anonymous, 1726, Fig. 1) and William Hogarth’s Cunicularii or the Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation (1726, Fig. 2). The former consists of four rows of three images, each accompanied by a six-line verse telling the story, initially in accordance with Mary Toft’s account, whilst portraying St. André as a court jester. The Hogarth print, which would have appeared in the run up to Christmas, parodies via reference to the visit of the Wise Men. The wise men in question, indeed quite the opposite, are Samuel Molyneux (character B), John Maubray (character C, author of a treatise on the sooterkin) and St. André (character A).[10] Hogarth adds touches of bawdy humour through the dumb-struck husband (character E), Molyneux as philosopher ‘Searching into the depth of things’, and Howard (character D), here implied as being in collusion with the hoax, telling the rabbit-bringing porter ‘It’s too big’.

Fig. 2: William Hogarth, ‘Canicularii or the Wise Men of Godliman in Contemplation’. [1726]. Glasgow University Library Hunter Aa. 7. 20. See also:

Both prints can be labelled as emblematic in that they mix text and image so as to put forward a moral lesson, in this case that of the corruption and stupidity of the medical profession in George I’s England. In format, as well as in irreverent tone, the Doctors in Labour has much in common with the Emblesmes sus les actions & mœurs du seignor espagnol, available as a broadsheet dated 1609 within the BnF’s Série Qb1: Histoire de France en estampes, as well as published in book format with editions from 1608 to 1650.[11]

These pieces are also examples of Early Modern image narrative, essentially pre-industrial comics.[12] The role of Hogarth in such developments is an interesting one: despite the view that the aetas emblematica had waned by the time of his influence, he was nonetheless producing prints, of which The Rake’s Progress and The Harlot’s Progress are probably best known,[13] that were to mix text with image so as to convey a general moral message. In some cases, such as Before and After, two prints telling of an amorous conquest, the emblematic reference is direct: here we see a Cupid in the style of Van Veen letting off a metaphorical rocket in a background illustration.[14]

Hogarth is also a key figure in the search for an inventor of the comic strip, with his candidacy supported by the use of speech bubbles, his grotesque caricatures and their biting satire, and the portrayal of narrative through images. This is despite Hogarth being active some one hundred years prior to Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846), the Swiss schoolmaster whom French-language critics have crowned ‘inventeur de la bande dessinée’ by dint of the adventures of M. Pencil, M. Cryptogame and others penned for the amusement of his pupils.[15] The plot thickens if we throw in Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), a fellow countryman and near contemporary of Hogarth (1697-1764), whose caricatures were much appreciated in France, and whose The Tour of Dr Syntax (1812) is likely to have had a direct influence on Töpffer, a fact seldom noted by critics.[16]

The prints from the Mary Toft case are therefore interesting in that they predate the most commonly cited Hogarth pieces, such as The Rake’s Progress, by half a decade, and those by Töpffer by over a century. From the angle that they take on the scandal, one that did have serious repercussions, they remind us that at this time ‘comics’ were indeed generally comic. They are also indicative of a crossover point between the waning, or the realignment, of the emblematic age and the embryonic stages of a new form of popular visual narrative. It is a crossover in terms of production format, mentality and style, but also with respect to national developments: as the emblem was turning from French dominance—at least in terms of publication numbers—to a later Victorian revival in England, so the caricatures of Hogarth and Rowlandson were to feed into those of Nadar, Cham, J.-J. Grandville, Gustave Doré and indeed Töpffer that would boost the French illustrated press and the early days of the post-industrial Ninth Art.

Laurence Grove is Reader and Director of Programmes in French and Director of the Stirling Maxwell Centre for the Study of Text/Image Cultures at the University of Glasgow.  His research focuses on historical aspects of text/image forms, and in particular bande dessinée.  He is President of the International Bande Dessinée Society (  As well as serving on the consultative committees of a number of journals, he is general editor of Glasgow Emblem Studies, and co-editor of European Comic Art.  Laurence Grove has authored (in full, jointly or as editor) nine books and approximately forty chapters or articles.

[1] – This article has appeared as “A Note on the Emblematic Woman who Gave Birth to Rabbits”, ed. Alison Adams and Philip Ford, in ‘Le Livre demeure’: Studies in Book History in Honour of Alison Saunders (Geneva: Droz, 2011), pp. 147-156.

[2] – Documents relating to the Mary Toft affaire have been brought together in Glasgow University Library’s Hunterian collection, in particular Aa 7. 20. Their provenance is via James Douglas, a doctor on the periphery of the case. For an overview of events, illustrations of documents, and extensive secondary bibliography, see Glasgow University Library’s Special Collections August 2009 Book of the Month page, composed by Niki Pollock:

[3] – The edition consulted is Nathaniel St. André, A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets, Perform’d by Mr. John Howard Surgeon at Guilford (London: John Clarke, 1727). St. André dates his account 28 November 1726, with an additional note by Molyneux dated 29 November 1726. The fact that the second edition postdates Mary’s confession, and St. André’s subsequent published retraction (dated 8 December 1726), suggests that public interest lay in primarily in enjoying the demise of St. André’s reputation.

[4] – Christine and Léa Papin, housemaids from Le Mans, murdered their employer and her daughter in 1933. The case inspired books, television documentaries, films by Claude Chabrol, Jean-Pierre Denis and others, and Jean Genet’s 1947 play Les Bonnes. On the case and its repercussions see Rachel Edwards and Keith Reader, The Papin Sisters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[5] – Jean Teulé, Gens de France (Tournai: Casterman, 1988) and Gens d’ailleurs (Tournai: Casterman, 1993). Both volumes mix photo-montage, cases and speech bubbles to create a series of short bandes dessinées recounting various unusual faits divers. These include, for example, the Papin sisters, but also the case of Jean-Claude who built a flying saucer in his back garden, or that of Zhora Diouani, whose suicide came as a result of her being caught stealing a 52FF bra from a hypermarket. The two volumes have been republished as Gens de France et ailleurs (Angoulême: Ego Comme X, 2005).

[6] – Chantal Montellier, Les Damnés de Nanterre (Paris: Denoël, 2005). The work was shortlisted for the 2006 Meilleur Album award at the Angoulême festival.

[7] – On approaches to the fait divers, see Roland Barthes’s ‘Structure du fait divers’ in which he suggests that a faits divers is apolitical. In our cases, however, the interest lies in the way in which seemingly apolitical incidents are read in the social context of their time and then seen as a reflection thereof. Barthes’s piece first appeared in Méditations in 1962, then in Essais critiques in 1964. We have consulted the text of the Oeuvres completes, ed. Éric Marty, 3 vols. (Paris: Seuil, 1993-1995), vol. 1 pp. 1309-1316.

[8] – Michel de Certeau, L’Invention du quotidian: Volume 1: Arts de faire (Paris: Union Générale d’Éditions, 1980); Michel Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Paris: Gallimard, 1992; first published 1961); Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).

[9] – For an example of how ‘Everyday Studies’ can be applied to the graphic novel, see Greice Schneider, ‘Comics and Everyday Life: From Ennui to Contemplation’, European Comic Art 3.1 (2010), 37-63.

[10] – For these identifications and further description of the print, see the Wellcome Library of London’s catalogue entry:

[11] – See Alison Adams, Stephen Rawles and Alison Saunders, A Bibliography of French Emblem Books, 2 vols. (Genève, Droz, 1999-2002), vol. 1 pp. 445-451.

[12] – David Kunzle in his The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c. 1450 to 1825: History of the Comic Strip Volume 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973) cites and reproduces both prints (pages 299 and 301-302), but gives little more than a few lines of description.

[13] – The Rake’s Progress, telling the tale of the demise of Tom Rakewell, consists of eight prints from 1735 (with original paintings from 1732-1733, now in Sir John Soane’s Museum, London). The Harlot’s Progress is a series of six prints from 1732. On these, and on Hogarth more generally, see Ronald Paulson, Hogarth’s Graphic Works, 2 vols. (New Have: Yale University Press, 1965).

[14] – Before and After date from 1736. See Paulson, Hogarth’s Graphic Works, op. cit., entries 141 and 142 (vol. 1, pages 171-172; vol. 2, plates 152-153).

[15] – See, for example, Thierry Groensteen and Benoît Peeters, Töpffer: L’Invention de la bande dessinée (Paris: Hermann, 1994); Thierry Groensteen, ed., Les Origines de la bande dessinée, Le Collectionneur de Bandes Dessinées hors série (no. 79, 1996); David Kunzle, Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2007).

[16] – The edition consulted is that of Nattali and Bond of London, 1817. This is a three-volume version of the eight-part serialisation, also of 1817. The first Dr Syntax volume appeared in 1812, although the London publisher Rudolph Ackermann had used Rowlandson’s Dr Syntax plates in his Poetical Magazine as early as 1809. Groensteen and Peeters refer to Dr Syntax in Töpffer: L’Invention de la bande dessinée, op. cit., and Paul Gravett discusses Hogarth and Rowlandson in ‘The Cartoonist’s Progress: The Inventors of Comics in Great Britain’, Forging a New Medium: The Comic Strip in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Pascal Lefèvre and Charles Dierick (Brussels: VUP University Press, 2000; first published 1998), pp. 79-103. See also my Comics in French: The European Bande Dessinée in Context (Oxford: Berghahn, 2010), chapters 4 and 5 (pages 59-116).

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Posted by on 2012/07/17 in Guest Writers


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