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Perhaps the most famous conjoined twins of the pre-medical era were Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst, the so-called Biddenden Maids, born in 1100 to a wealthy family in the little village of Biddenden, Kent. The actual birthdate of the twins remains unknown, and the year itself is questionable because it is also the year of the assassination of King William Rufus. Many unusual occurrences and prodigious births in England were said to precede his death, and it's possible that the Biddenden Maids were born either slightly before or slightly after this date.

Also questionable is the anatomy of the twins, who are depicted in many period engravings and on so-called "Biddenden cakes". They are shown connected at the hips and at the shoulder. Although there have been several recorded cases of twins sharing multiple points of juncture, it is exceedingly rare, and these infants are always too malformed to survive. Much more probable is that Mary and Eliza were pygopagus twins, joined at the lower spine and pelvis, but perhaps rotated laterally so that they appeared side-by-side. J.W. Ballantyne (1861-1923), writing in 1895 and quoted by Gould and Pyle, postulates that "the Maids had four separate arms, and were in the habit of going about with their contiguous arms round each other's necks, and that this gave rise to the notion that these limbs were united. If this be so, then the teratologic difficulty is removed, for the case becomes perfectly comfortable with the well-known but rare type of double terata known as the pygopagous twins[.]" (Gould & Pyle, pg. 146).

The Biddenden Maids gained much notoriety as not only curiosities but philanthropists as well. When one sister died, at the age of 34, it was proposed that they be separated to save the other. She refused, stating, "As we came together, we will also go together." Six hours later she, too, expired. The twins bequeathed their estate of some 20 acres to the parish church, and instructed that their money be spent distributing bread and cheese to the poor of their village every Easter Sunday. The will also directed that tiny cakes of flour and water, measuring about two inches by four inches and bearing an image of the twins, be given out along with the bread and cheese. It's not quite clear whether these "Biddenden cakes" were intended as food or as souvenirs, but as the Easter tradition progressed into the later centuries, the cakes were "much sought-after as curiosities". Today, although the Easter charity no longer persists, the Maids are still remembered and celebrated Biddenden and a beautiful painted sign depicting the pair stands in the village green.

Picture: From a printed postcard by Young & Cooper, Maidstone, Kent. Postmarked August 14, 1939. (Paul Colston Collection)

Updated 4.2.2006.