Whose Your Daddy?

The Strange Science Behind Virgin Births

Turns out that nun who gave birth to a child named after the Pope is in good company in the long history of virgin births. Professor Candida Moss on all the strange excuses given when there’s no father.


Last week a nun in Italy gave birth to a baby boy after being rushed to hospital with stomach pains. She named the boy Francesco, or Francis, and nuns at her convent are said to be “very surprised” by the news. No one more so than the woman herself who remarked—in what could be a direct quote from the hit Discovery Channel TV show—“I didn’t know I was pregnant.” Still, while few details are available, she presumably knows how she got that way.

But not everyone does, apparently. According to recently released study from North Carolina, in recent years there have been no less than 45 self-reported sexless pregnancies in the US alone. Virgin births—evidently not as unusual as you’d think.

It is clear that these cases contain a lot of biologically determined and socially perpetuated gender inequities. When it comes to scandalous sexual relations women are more readily exposed and eagerly shamed than their male counterparts. For women attempting to hide the consequences of illicit congress from the world, shapeless dresses only go so far. So, even if (theologically speaking) the conception of Jesus is supposed to be unique, why not give the “Mary defense” a whirl?

It seems utterly ridiculous. But some women have been able to pull it off.

In 1637 in Grenoble, France, the aristocrat Madeleine d’Auvermont was put on trial for adultery. Despite the fact that her husband had left France four years earlier, Madeleine had recently given birth to a healthy baby boy. In the face of what seemed like damning evidence she protested her innocence, claiming that she had thought—ahem—intensely about her husband at night and had conceived through the power of imagination.

Various physicians and theologians were consulted on the case and declared that this was theoretically possible. (You’d think that the theologians maybe spoke a little more forcefully than the physicians.) The child was named the legal offspring of her husband and heir to the de Montleon fortune.

The inspired Madeleine d’Auvermont is not the only one to use science to her advantage. According to legend, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, testified in the case of a woman accused of adultery. The woman had given birth to an infant described as “black as a Moor” despite the fact that both she and her husband were pale-skinned.

She was absolved of the charge because a portrait of a Moor hung above her bed. Hippocrates testified that in the throes of passion the woman had looked at the portrait and the skin color and form of the man in the picture had been seared on her child at the moment of conception. Women can be very impressionable, you see.

Thanks to Hippocrates, the woman was vindicated on all charges, free to indulge in her love of swarthy men, in artwork and in the flesh. Although, in all likelihood, her husband quickly redecorated.

While this is the kind of thing that Maury Povich could clear up in half an hour, these judgments were rendered on the basis of (at the time) credible science. In particular the theory of “maternal impressions”—in which the physical characteristics of a child are shaped by the day-to-day experiences of a woman during pregnancy—remained in vogue from the ancient world until the twentieth century.

People have always been able to see the funny side of female impressionability. The notoriously ugly tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse purportedly ordered his queen to look at him as little as possible during her pregnancy, instead encouraging her to look at a statue of the hero Jason, in the hopes that she would produce attractive offspring. Similarly, a satirical review of the impressionist Cezanne’s work in 1877 cautioned pregnant women to stay away, lest the painter’s fondness for ochre tones afflict their children with yellow fever even before they were born.

Madeleine d’Auvermont’s case was a little more complicated, though grounded in the same assumptions about impressionable women’s bodies. Her miracle child was conceived through a twist on the wonders of telegony, the belief that a child could be influenced by an earlier conception. According to this theory a remarried woman might give birth to a child that was the biological offspring of his first husband.

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As if it wasn’t hard enough for women to find partners after 40.

Famous advocates of telegony include Charles Darwin, who mentions it in his Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication, and the philosopher Schopenhauer. In fact some scientists today wonder—on a minute scale that would be utterly unpersuasive in couple’s therapy—if there isn’t something to it.

Telegony might seem like an adulteress’s best friend. But it’s also the foundation of some unabashedly racist science. From the late 1800s onward German racial theorists developed the idea that a woman who had had a child with a man of an “inferior race” would never be able to able to bear a pure Aryan child again.

Despite its association with racist genetic theories, telegony has not been driven out of the modern world entirely, especially when it comes to religious scare tactics. In 2004 the Russian Orthodox Church sponsored the publication of “Virginity and Telegony.” The book went further and argued that only a woman’s first sexual partner influenced subsequent issue. As the publication Pravda wryly observed, the entire theory appears designed to keep young women on the straight and narrow.

Today telegonics persists in fringe racial purity groups and traditional religious organizations. It makes sense only in cultural contexts in which women breed and men inherit. In other words, you might be able to pull off the telegony excuse, but a partner who buys it is likely to be harboring some pretty old-fashioned views about women.

If you’re hoping to sell others on your story, take a leaf out of Madeleine d’Auvermont’s book and really commit to it. She named her child Emmanuel, one of the names for Jesus. And why not? Once you’ve claimed you thought a child into existence you might as well name it after the Son of God. In for a penny, in for 7lb 5oz.