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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

Vol. VII

Couvade (literally a "brooding," from Fr. couver, to hatch, Lat. cubare, to lie down), a custom so called in Béarn, prevalent among several peoples in different parts of the world, requiring that the father, at and sometimes before the birth of his child, shall retire to bed and fast or abstain from certain kinds of food, receiving the attentions generally shown to women at their confinements. The existence of the custom in ancient classical times is testified to by Apollonius Rhodius, Diodorus (who refers to its existence among the Corsicans), and Strabo (who noticed it among the Spanish Basques, by whom, as well as by the Gascons, it has been said to be still observed, though the most recent researches entirely discredit this). Travellers, from the time of Marco Polo, who relates its observance in Chinese Turkestan, have found the custom to prevail in China, India, Borneo, Siam, Africa and the Americas. Even in Europe it cannot be said to have entirely disappeared. In certain of the Baltic provinces of Russia​a the husband, on the lying-in of the wife, takes to his bed and groans in mock pain. One writer believes he found traces of  p338 it in the little island of Marken in the Zuyder Zee. Even in rural England, notably in East Anglia, a curiously obstinate belief survives (the prevalence of which in earlier times is proved by references to it in Elizabethan drama) that the pregnancy of the woman affects the man, and the young husband who complains of a toothache is assailed by pleasantries as to his wife's condition. In Guiana the custom is observed in its most typical form. The woman works to within a few hours of the birth, but some days before her delivery the father leaves his occupations and abstains from certain kinds of animal food lest the child should suffer. Thus the flesh of the agouti is forbidden, lest the child should be lean, and that of the capibara or water-cavy, for fear he should inherit through his father's gluttony that creature's projecting teeth. A few hours before delivery the woman goes alone, or with one or two women-friends, into the forest, where the baby is born. She returns as soon as she can stand, to her work, and the man then takes to his hammock and becomes the invalid. He must do no work, must touch no weapons, is forbidden all meat and food, except at first a fermented liquor and after the twelfth day a weak gruel of cassava meal. He must not even smoke, or wash himself, but is waited on hand and foot by the women. So far is the comedy carried that he whines and groans as if in actual pain. Six weeks after the birth of the child he is taken in hand by his relatives, who lacerate his skin and rub him with a decoction of the pepper-plant. A banquet is then held from which the patient is excluded, for he must not leave his bed till several days later; and for six months he must eat the flesh of neither fish nor bird. Almost identical ceremonies have been noticed among the natives of California and New Mexico; while in Greenland and Kamchatka the husband may not work for some time before and after his wife's confinement. Among the Larkas of Bengal a period of isolation and uncleanness, synchronous with that compulsory on the woman, is imperative for the man, on the conclusion of which the child's parentage is publicly proclaimed.

No certain explanation can be offered for the custom. The most reasonable view is that adopted by E. B. Tylor, who traces in it the transition from the earlier matriarchal to the later patriarchal system of tribe-organization. Among primitive tribes, and probably in all ages, the former order of society, in which descent and inheritance are reckoned through the mother alone, as being the earliest form of family life, is and was very common, if not universal. The acknowledgment of a relation­ship between father and son is characteristic of the progress of society towards a true family life. It may well be that the Couvade arose in the father's desire to emphasize the bond of blood between himself and his child. It is a fact that in some countries the father has to purchase the child from its mother; and in the Roman ceremony of the husband raising the baby from the floor we may trace the savage idea that the male parent must formally proclaim his adoption of and responsibility for the offspring. Max Müller, in his Chips from a German Workshop, endeavoured to find an explanation in primitive "henpecking," asserting that the unfortunate husband was tyrannized over by "his female relatives and afterwards frightened into superstition," — that, in fact, the whole fabric of ceremony is reared on nothing but masculine hysteria; but this theory can scarcely be taken seriously. The missionary, Joseph François Lafitau, suspected a psychological reason, assuming the custom to be a dim recollection of original sin, the isolation and fast types of repentance. The explanation of the American Indians is that if the father engaged in any hard or hazardous work, e.g. hunting, or was careless in his diet, the child would suffer and inherit the physical faults and peculiarities of the animals eaten. This belief that a person becomes possessed of the nature and form of the animal he eats is widespread, being as prevalent in the Old World as in the New, but it is insufficient to account for the minute ceremonial details of La Couvade as practised in many lands. It is far more likely that so universal a practice has no trivial beginnings, but is to be considered as a mile-stone marking a great transitional epoch in human progress.

Authorities. — E. B. Tylor's Early History of Man (1865; 2nd ed. p301); F. Max Müller, Chips from a German Workshop (1868‑1875), II.271‑279;º Lord Avebury, Origin of Civilisation (1900); Brett's Indian Tribes of Guiana; Johann Baptist von Spix and Karl F. P. von Martius, Travels in Brazil (1823‑1831), II.281; J. F. Lafitau, Moeurs des sauvages américains (1st ed., 1724); W. Z. Ripley, Races of Europe (1900); A. H. Keane's Ethnology (1896), p368 and footnote; A. Giraud-Teulon, Les Origines du mariage et de la famille (Paris, 1884).

Thayer's Note:

a That is, the subjugated nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which regained their independence in the twentieth century.

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Page updated: 2 Mar 23