Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Question from Elizabeth M - Identical twins

How were identical twins viewed in medieval and Tudor times? Was there a fear of the supernatural attached to them?


Anonymous PhD Historian said...

What a wonderful question! And it makes me realize that in all my many years of studying English history and reading thousands of sixteenth century documents, I have never once come across a reference to identical twins. There must have been some, surely. I will be curious to see if any other regular contributors know if any.

February 17, 2009 12:21 PM  
Anonymous Nikki said...

ooh, good question!

February 17, 2009 12:52 PM  
Blogger Lara said...

I thought this was a great question too! I vaguely recall reading somewhere that there was a thought that if a woman gave birth to twins, she must have had sex with two men. Obviously identical twins would throw a wrench in that theory.

(That is assuming that was truly a medieval belief, and not one of those things that has been repeated many times but turns out to have no real basis...)

February 17, 2009 2:04 PM  
Blogger Bearded Lady said...

What a great question! I remember reading Ambroise Pare attributed multiple births to the fertilization of one ovum by two spermatozoa, but I don’t think it was viewed as a monstrosity unless they were conjoined. Conjoined twins and parasitic twins were definitely viewed as monsters. John Stow recorded some of these supposed monstrous births within Elizabeth’s reign in his Annales. There are also some interesting woodcuts of conjoined twins in the National Library of Medicine.


Catherine de Medici gave birth to twins (they didn’t survive) and I don’t recall anyone viewing them as monsters or a bad omen. But the birth did almost kill her! I think part of the reason why this is such a tough question to answer is because it was so rare for twins to survive and identical twins are even rarer.

February 17, 2009 2:35 PM  
Blogger Bearded Lady said...

oh one more thing to add – can you imagine the succession problems identical twins would have caused? 16th century doctors believed a baby was full formed at something like 9 weeks (I forget the exact number...but it was early!) I have to wonder if a queen gave birth to twin sons if both would be allowed to survive? Who would be the successor?

February 17, 2009 2:42 PM  
Blogger Foose said...

I recall reading that Mary Queen of Scots miscarried of twins by Bothwell during her imprisonment. I don't know if the fetuses were identical or fraternal, and I don't recall any contemporary remarks attaching to the birth as casting particular obloquy on the mother's sexual conduct -- although her reputation at that point was so much in shreds already that not much more could damage it.

I think the dangerous political confusion that might be posed by identical twin heirs formed the basis for Alexandre Dumas' "The Man in the Iron Mask." Louis XIV's successor, Louis XV, had twin daughters who appear to be fraternal -- there's no reference to their identical appearance causing confusion among the courtiers and the French sources don't use the term "vrai jumelle" (true twin, identical twin).

February 17, 2009 3:12 PM  
Blogger Foose said...

In 1545, the Emperor's illegitimate daughter Margaret, who had married the Pope's illegitimate son the Duke of Camerino and later Parma, was "delivered of two boys at a birth." Again, no word of whether the boys were fraternal or identical twins.

The survivor of the pair was Alessandro Farnese (named for his grandfather the Pope; I would hazard a guess that his brother Charles was the elder, since he was named for his grandfather the Emperor, but I don't really know), who grew up to be a fair military genius as Philip II's generalissimo in the Netherlands, and also the heir to Parma. If his brother Charles had lived, there might have the issues that Bearded Lady describes.

I also recall a poor woman being brought to see Queen Mary when she was allegedly pregnant, according to the Venetian envoy Michiel:

"To comfort the queen and give her heart and courage, three most beautiful infants were brought last week for her Majesty to see, they having been born a few days previously at one birth, of a woman of low stature and great age like the Queen ..."

February 17, 2009 3:44 PM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

Lara - I don't know if this belief lasted up to medieval/Renaissance times, but I know it was present in Greek mythology. For example, this was how Leda of Sparta had Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor and Polydeuces at the same time. Helen and Polydeuces were Zeus' children (he had come to Leda as a swan and had hatched from eggs, and Clytemnestra and Castor were her husband, Tyndareus' children.

February 17, 2009 6:46 PM  
Blogger kb said...

Good question.

I only know of one set of twins; Frances Howard Seymour countess of Hertford and her sister Martha Howard. I don't know if they were identical. They were the daughters of William Howard 1st baron of Howard of Effingham and his wife Margaret Gamage Howard. The girls were born in 1554. Both died in 1598. They may even have died on the same day - May 14.

They both served Queen Elizabeth. They may have been fraternal twins as I am unaware of any sources commenting on their likeness. Certainly no suspicions of the supernatural seem to have followed them into the archives.

hmmm....good question

February 17, 2009 7:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know that William Shakespeare's wife gave birth to twins , boy and girl I think both lived and grew up.As an NICU nurse I sometimes wonder how premature infants were treated , kept warm by fire etc till they could grow?

February 18, 2009 11:02 PM  
Blogger Tamise said...

Not idential twins but there is a legend mentioned by Chris Skidmore, Susan Brigden and Richard Davey that siamese twins were born during the summer of 1553and were thought to represent the two Queens Jane and Mary.

February 19, 2009 2:10 AM  
Anonymous kate said...

Shakespeare and his wife did have twins, Judith and Hamnet. Hamnet died when he was about eleven. Twins pop up in literature; Shakespeare himself featured two sets of identical twins separated at birth in The Comedy of Errors. I think that there are fraternal twins in Twelfth Night. Also, in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, we learn later that the Duchess and her brother were twins. None of these twins are regarded as bad because of their twin status. Those are just some examples off the top of my head; I will try and think of more.

February 19, 2009 8:11 AM  
Blogger Foose said...

Shakespeare also wrote "The Comedy of Errors," which focuses on two pairs of identical twins, separated at birth, and the hilarity that ensues due to mistaken identities when the pairs meet up later on.

Rooting through Letters & Papers, there are casual references to "Geo. Irwin the Twin" and "Robin the Twin." Twins seemed to have been common enough not to be alarming, yet uncommon enough to have a certain mystique.

February 19, 2009 11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an amazing question! I've never even concidered it before! I do not know about identical twins, but twins in genral were not concidered evil, Mary QoS miscarried twins, nad Catherine de Medici's ninth and tenth children were twins Joan and Vcitoria who died soon after and during birth. Catherine of Aragon wa slaso at one time thought to be carrying twins, but it turned out to be just an infection. But never have I ever come across anything on identical twins! But I agree with PHD Historian, there must have been at least some identical twins in Tudor England, I did a quick google search and the only things that came up were your post and info about Mark Twain's the Prince and the Pauper! Im afraid I have no books that cover this sort of thing so Im sorry not to be of much help!

February 20, 2009 3:43 PM  
Blogger Samantha said...

This is a wonderful question and I'm sorry to reactivate a dead thread. I'm not sure historically, but I know there's very little folklore at all for twins in England. I'm heavily interested in folklore in general and twin folklore especially. The only folklore reference I came across was recorded in 1878 in the "Folk-Lore Record". I found the reference in Oxford's Dictionary of Superstitions by Opie and Tatem. Not Tudor, but there's no way of knowing just how old the folklore is.

The reference refers to a surviving twin. It says: "The child that has out-lived its fellow twin is always called a left twin, and... it's faith that works the cure. A young woman...had the black thrush so bad she could neither eat nor drink, but a young man, which was a left twin, came and blew into her mouth three times, and the thrush left her. It must be one of the males sex that blows into the mouth of a woman and the female into that of a man."

Again, not from the Tudor era, but exclusively English and interesting enough. On the other hand, from the same book there is another reference saying that a farmer's cow had birthed healthy twin calves. The mother and the calves were sold. Apparently the farmer felt that it was considered an omen of great misfortune for the owner and/or the family. The folklorist who made the entry said the superstition was very general and common.

It wouldn't be surprising to learn that the common people had some sort of belief that identical twins brought misfortune, especially with the belief on animal twin births as a bad omen. If twins were given supernatural tendencies in the 1800s, it stands to reason there was a belief in earlier eras. Of course, this is folklore and has no historical basis and certainly can't be dated.

I hope the little reference I could find helps a little bit. I'm sorry I couldn't help a little more.

October 14, 2009 12:55 AM  

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