Last month I wrote an Op-Ed for the Washington Post’s Made by History section addressing the crisis in maternal mortality in the United States. Drawing from ancient, medieval, and Renaissance reproductive recipes, I argued that pre-modern gynecological practice frequently emphasized the mother’s health over that of her fetus, in part because pre-moderns recognized that pregnancy and childbirth could be quite dangerous, and in part because fetal development was little understood and medical intervention in-utero was impossible. This attention to maternal health, I contend, is missing within the American culture of pregnancy, too often focused on the well-being of a fetus instead of its mother.
The kernel of the OpEd emerged when I began tracking occurrences of reproductive recipes in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English recipe books. As I encountered numerous recipes to aid conception, to bring about menstruation, to halt menstruation, to aid in childbirth, as well as numerous versions of recipes to deliver a deceased fetus, I found myself surprised by their straightforward, immensely practical tone. I think I expected something more ideological, more representative of misogynistc medical theories on reproduction that insisted on the toxicity of women’s bodies, expressed suspicion about women’s “secret” power of generation, or worried over the undue (and dangerous) influence women had on fetal development. These anti-woman sentiments were common to pre-modern medicine, yet in large part I found little evidence of these attitudes in late medieval recipe books.
Instead, in at least forty different manuscripts, I found recipes that offered women some control over their reproductive health, addressing the same range of concerns voiced by women today. For example, British Library MS Additional 34210, an early fifteenth-century medical manuscript, contains recipes for “Medicine to delivere a woman of a dede child” (f. 19r), for “Helpyng to conceive a chylde,” (f. 45r), “For to make a woman dolyver the hedde of a childe” (f. 45v), “For to sese a womanys flowris” (f. 47r), and one “For a woman that has lost her flowres”:
For a woman that has lost hur flowres when þay be destryed. This medicine faylis neuer but looke that sche be not with chylde. Take rote of gladon and sethe hit in vinegre or in wyne when hit is well sodyn set hit in to þe grounde and let hir stryd on so that þer may noone eyre a way but evyn up in to hur privite. (BL MS Additional 34210, f. 47r)
For a woman that has lost her flowers [menstrual flow] when it is destroyed. This medicine never fails but be sure that she is not with child. Take root of gladdon [acorus calamus, or sweet flag] and seeth it in vinegar or wine; when it is well sodden set it in the ground and let her sit on it so that no air escapes but goes only up in to her privates.
Like most vernacular recipes, these have their roots in much older medical traditions. For example, while at first I was surprised to see that recipes to “deliver a woman of a dead child” often outnumber other childbirth-related recipes in late medieval miscellanies, the prevalence of these directives makes sense given their prominence in ancient and earlier medieval gynecological writings. From RP Editor Laurence Totelin’s Hippocratic Recipes and Ann Ellis Hanson’s translations of the Hippocratic “Diseases of Women I ,” I learned that recipes to expel a dead fetus were not uncommon within ancient Greek medicine. From Monica Green’s translation of the Trotula, gynecological writings in Latin from twelfth-century Salerno, Italy, I found recipes instructing women to drink rue and mugwort steeped in wine if they need to deliver a dead fetus—the same ingredients listed in two different English recipes for stillbirth from BL Additional 34210.
These recurrences within reproductive recipes—many of which span centuries—indicate that while learned medical theory may have emphasized female weakness or toxicity, often the everyday practice of reproductive healthcare was responsive to women’s needs. Those needs remained much the same from ancient Greece to medieval England, and so, too, did elements of many of these recipes.
At the same time, ancient Greece, medieval Italy, and early modern England were still intensely misogynistic societies. The reproductive recipes common to late medieval English recipe books, no matter how attentive to women’s needs, are not evidence for some bygone era of egalitarian healthcare. Far from it. Even so, the prevalence of practical and relatively woman-centered reproductive recipes in late medieval miscellanies shows that even within a culture that was steeped in misogynistic medical theory, when push came to shove (or perhaps simply when it came time to push), pre-modern people needed remedies that set aside ideology and instead attempted to address women’s needs. If there is a lesson to be taken from pre-modern reproductive recipes, perhaps it is just that.