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Sooterkin

25 Oct 2016

Ah, Halloween. When children dress as monsters, adults dress like children, and everyone over the age of 30 dreads the sound of their own doorbell. But as it’s the scariest day of the year (and not just because of that doorbell thing), this week on YouTube we looked at the names of 10 little-known ghosts, ghouls and goblins:

 

 

One misshapen beast that didn’t quite make our top 10, however, has behind it one of the most bizarre stories the folklore books has to offer: the sooterkin

 

From an etymological point of view, that’s not the most remarkable of words: the sooterkin myth is thought to have originated in the Netherlands sometime around the mid seventeenth century, meaning that the word itself is probably a corruption of either the Dutch word zoet, meaning “sweet”, or else an older Middle Dutch word, suyger, meaning “to suck” or “suckle” (the ancestor of the modern Dutch zuigen). Its English name represents a corruption of either one of those Dutch roots, no doubt inspired by the creature’s supposed sooty appearance; indeed the word sooterkin could be said to literally mean “little sooty thing”. 

 

According to the legend, the sooterkin is a monstrous mouse- or rat-like creature supposedly borne by young pregnant women who like to warm their nether regions on hot stovetops. As you do. Supposedly this habit was once so widespread (and, we can presume, so widely disapproved of) that a myth eventually emerged claiming that the heat and ash of the stove could cause the expectant mother to develop a grotesque, soot-covered monster inside of her along with (or else instead of) her baby.

 

The legend of  the sooterkin was, unsurprisingly, little more than that: a grim bit of folklore essentially intended to discourage young women from sitting atop kitchen appliances. But to the doctors and physicians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and to one notorious British physician in particular—not only was the sooterkin a very real creature, but giving birth to one was a very real threat: 

 

[The sooterkin is] a monstrous little animal, the likeness of any thing in shape and size to a moodiwarp [a mole], having a hooked snout, fiery sparkling eyes, a long round neck and acuminated short tail, of an extraordinary agility of feet. At first sight of the world’s light, it commonly yells and shrieks fearfully; and seeking for a hole runs up and down like a little demon, which indeed I took it for, the first time I saw it.

That description—including its bizarre account of a first-hand experience, supposedly aboard a ferry from Harbingen to Amsterdam in the early 1700s—comes from The Female Physician (1724), a work by an entirely male physician named John Maubray. (Shameless plug: there’s more about this, should you want to hear about it, in the HH factbook, Word Drops.

 

Maubray was a Scottish-born doctor of midwifery, whose Female Physician was for a long time considered a landmark work of medical reference—despite it for the most part being wholly unreliable.

For one thing, Maubray believed that men made better doctors than women because they were men. He also believed that men knew more about the anatomies of women than women because—well, because they were men. Closely following the advice of a “man-midwife”, or an “andro-Boethogynist” as he also called them, was a woman’s best chance of having a healthy baby. As he put it:

 

Being better versed in anatomy, better acquainted with physical helps, and commonly endued with greater presence of mind, [men] have been always found readier or discreeter, to devise something new, and to give quicker relief in cases if difficult or preternatural births, than common midwives generally understand.

 

It could be argued that Maubray wasn’t quite right about all that. He also wasn’t right when he decided to vouch for the fact that a woman from Godalming had given birth to a litter of seventeen rabbits. And he also wasn’t right when he argued the case, in The Female Physician, for a bizarre medical theory called “maternal impression”. 

 

More rabbit than Sainsburys: Mary Toft defies science, 1726 (Image credit: Public domain)  

 

According to Maubray, and others like him, everything that a woman saw, felt and experienced while pregnant could affect the physical appearance of her child when it was born:

 

Whence is it that we have so many derform’d persons, crooked bodies, ugly aspects, distorted mouths, wry noses and the like, in all Countries; but from the IMAGINATION of the mother… Wherefore it is very wrong, and highly imprudent in women who have conceived, to please themselves so much in playing with dogs, squirrels, apes, &c. carrying them in their Laps or Bosoms, and feeding, kissing, or hugging them. 

 

And as well as playing with apes and kissing squirrels, Maubray’s curious theory of maternal impression apparently supported the notion that sitting on a stovetop could lead to a woman giving birth to a grotesque sooterkin. 

 

Maubray’s ideas certainly weren’t correct, but he was nothing if not a product of his time—in the days before hereditary science, theories like maternal impression were really the best theories on offer. And for all of his shortcomings and reputation as an overly credulous quack, Maubray had moments of great perspicacity and forward-thinking: he argued against the use of invasive obstetric equipment, and advocated the foundation of a hospital in London providing antenatal care for impoverished women. 

 

Unfortunately for him, however, it’s his belief in some very peculiar ideas—as well as the even more peculiar sooterkin—that Maubray has secured his place in medical history. 

 

 

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