Gender Testing in Antiquity

By Laurence Totelin

In my last post for this blog, I examined the role of rennet (in particular, seal’s rennet) in Greek and Roman medicine. As it often happens in research – or at least in mine – once I start looking into something, I can’t stop finding related texts. So over the last two months I have stumbled across quite a few recipes with rennet and/or with seal products. The following recipe caught my attention and gave me some ideas for today’s post. It comes from the Cesti, a collection of recipes and precepts, compiled by a certain Julius Africanus in the third century CE. This collection is not preserved in full, but fortunately there is an excellent recent edition with English translation of the extant fragments.[1] The fragment that interests us explains how to produce male and female horses:

A hare, from the 15th century Dialogus creaturarum, by Nicolaus, Pergamenus
A hare, from the 15th century Dialogus creaturarum, by Nicolaus, Pergamenus

But a male [horse] will be born according to technique if one smears the genitalia of the male horse with hare’s blood and rennet {which is curdled milk extracted from the stomach of a new-born hare}. But a female will be born if one smears the private parts of the female horse with goose fat together with terebinth resin for three days in succession, and positions it for impregnation by the male horse

(Cesti F28. Translation: William Adler).

In ancient theories of reproduction, male semen was thought to act as rennet in cheese making: it coagulated the blood in the female womb. It therefore made sense to choose that ingredient in order to produce a male horse. Using hare’s rennet added to the potency of the recipe, as hares are particularly fertile.

I don’t have such a good explanation for the use of oily and fatty ingredients to produce a female horse: maybe these were chosen because females were considered to be fatter, spongier than males. Gender selection was not, however, limited to horse breeding. In human reproduction too males were preferred. This is plainly clear from, among other things, gender determination tests preserved in one of the Hippocratic treatises, Barren Women (chapter 216):

Those pregnant women who have freckles on their face will give birth to a girl. Those who keep a beautiful complexion, more often than not, will give birth to a boy. If her nipples are turned upwards, she will give birth to a boy; if downwards, to a girl.

These tests simply reflect the stereotypes of the day, whereby a baby girl is less desirable, and will therefore make her pregnant mother look less desirable, with her freckles and drooping breasts. I had never paid much attention to the following tests, but they are probably even richer in meaning:

Take some of [the woman’s?] milk, knead it with flour and shape into a little loaf. Heat it up on a low heat. If it burns, she will give birth to a boy. If it opens up, she will give birth to a girl. Collect some of the same milk on leafs and expose it to the heat. If it coagulates, she will give birth to a boy; if it spreads, a girl.

These recipes draw upon the association between the womb and an oven – the ‘bun in the oven’ metaphor. When exposed to the oven/womb heat, everything that is male (and by nature hotter and more compact) will coagulate and heat up further; everything that is female (and by nature cooler and more liquid) will liquefy further. The ‘female loaf’ will also gape like a mouth (the literal translation of the verb ‘diachanēi), probably evoking the female sexual organs.

Would a family have taken action when such test indicated they were expecting a girl? It is impossible to tell. It is worth noting, however, that a pregnant woman usually only starts producing milk that can be expressed towards the end of her pregnancy, unless she is feeding an older child already. If it is indeed the milk of the pregnant woman that is needed in these recipes, the tests could only have been carried out late in the pregnancy. Any intervention at that stage would have been extremely risky.

[1] M. Wallraff, C. Scardino, L. Mecella, C. Gillar and W. Adler (2012), Iulius Africanus: Cesti. The Extant Fragments, Berlin: De Gruyter.

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