About the project

Conceiving Histories is a project about ‘un-pregnancy’ in the past. ‘Un-pregnancy’ is the word we’re using for the time before diagnosis, either of pregnancy or infertility, a time which is characterised by waiting, disappointment and the unknown. We are looking at the very ordinary experience of not being pregnant, for month on month, indefinitely; of not knowing whether you are or you aren’t; of losing a pregnancy so early that you barely knew; of fantasising and dreaming, of feigning, imagining and misidentifying pregnancy in the past.

How can something that doesn’t happen have a history? How can there be a material trace of unpregnancy in the archives? This project explores this paradox, finding and re-imagining a material history of pregnancy feigned, imagined, hidden and difficult to diagnose. Whilst reproductive medicine is at the front of scientific modernity, there are some things with which science cannot help us. People in the past were used to thinking about the difficulty of diagnosis and of getting an objective ‘fix’ on the body. History offers, then, a new space, beyond the self from which to reflect on and, who knows, perhaps even tolerate, the difficulties of unpregnancy today.

Conceiving Histories is an interdisciplinary collaboration between literary academic, Isabel Davis, and visual artist, Anna Burel. It received funding from Birkbeck, University of London and the Wellcome Trust (October 2016-December 2017).


Isabel Davis is a Reader in Medieval Literature and Culture in the Department of English and Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on medieval literature, gender, temporality and the body.

Anna Burel is an artist based at the Bow Arts Trust in London. She works in a range of different media – photography, drawing, costume and performance art – to think about the body, and particularly the female body, under medical scrutiny. Her work meditates on the properties of skin and viscera, anatomy, surgical examination and pharmacopoeia.

Many of the images on this site are original artwork by Anna Burel. Please contact us if you wish to use any images of Anna’s work.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The image featured at the top of this page: Icon mulieris Selenetidis, from Ulyssis Aldrovandi, Monstrorum historia (1642), p. 36.