Tests are a familiar part of modern pregnancy. There are tests to show if a woman is pregnant and track the progress of the pregnancy, often revealing in the process whether she is expecting a boy or a girl. If a woman does not conceive after several months of unprotected sex, there are also tests which aim to find out if anything is wrong. These tests are based on modern technological advances and medical understandings of how the body works, but the desire to understand, predict and test matters concerning pregnancy and fertility is not new and tests for many of the same purposes appear frequently in medieval and early modern recipe books.
Recipe books contain numerous tests to show whether a pregnant woman is expecting a boy or a girl – for example, place a drop of milk from her breasts in water, and if it sinks then the child is a boy, but if it floats, the child is a girl. However, the majority of tests were for when pregnancy did not happen. They claimed to tell the reader whether a woman could conceive, or whether the ‘fault’ lay with the man or the woman. The most popular was a test that had to be performed by both partners. As one anonymous fifteenth-century English recipe collection explained:
Knowing the default of conception, whether it belong to the man or the woman. Take two new earthen pots, each by itself; and let the woman make water in the one, and the man in the other; and put in each of them a quantity of wheat-bran, and not too much, that it be not thick, but be liquid or running; and mark well the pots for identification, and let them stand ten days and ten nights, and thou shalt see in the water that is in default small live worms; and if there appear no worms in either water, then they be likely to have children in process of time when God will.
Physician examining a flask of a woman’s urine, c. 1300, © Wellcome Library, London
This test had a long history. It can be found as early as the twelfth century, in a southern Italian gynaecological treatise that was attributed to a female physician named Trota. Along with other fertility tests, it continued to appear in medical textbooks throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, and was often copied into recipe books.
I’m interested in what this and similar fertility tests can tell us about medieval understandings of infertility. For example, the bran-and-urine test shows medieval and early modern medicine recognised that men as well as women could be infertile. This was certainly true in longer, more academic medical texts which often contained numerous recipes for medicines to cure infertility in either sex. In the recipe books, remedies for male infertility are much rarer, but the fertility tests show that many recipe collectors acknowledged it as a possibility – in theory at least.
But how exactly were these tests intended to be used? It is very difficult to know. The recipe collections do not tell us who used these tests, or under what circumstances, or even if they were used at all. So far I haven’t found any references to them in other sources that might shed light on these questions. In theory it is possible that they were used to test the fertility of a prospective husband or wife before marriage. This would be an attractive (and logical!) idea because in pre-modern society having children was important for both men and women, but infertility was not recognised as a ground for divorce. Once you were married to an infertile partner, you were stuck with him or her. However, if the tests were used in this way it has left no trace in the sources.
Another possibility is suggested by the last line of the recipe: ‘if there appear no worms in either water, then they be likely to have children in process of time when God will.’ An alternative version of the same recipe, copied in the fifteenth century by an educated layman named Robert Thornton, gave a different interpretation: if no worms appeared in the water, ‘then may men help them to have children with medicines.’ It was possible that the test would show neither partner to be infertile. In these cases, the tests may have been designed not primarily to lay blame, but to offer reassurance that conception was possible and that the couple would conceive in time. It was worthwhile seeking medical treatment or praying in the hope of attracting God’s favour.
A final reason why pregnancy and fertility tests may have been so popular in medieval and early modern recipe books is perhaps the simplest of all. They promised clear answers about the mysteries of conception and pregnancy for men and women going through a process which was – and still is – fraught with as much uncertainty and anxiety as excitement.
 The Liber de Diversis Medicinis in the Thornton Manuscript (MS Lincoln Cathedral A.5.2)¸ ed. Margaret Sinclair Ogden, Early English Texts Society original series. 207 (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 56.
 Warren R. Dawson, ed., A Leechbook or Collection of Medical Recipes of the 15th Century (London: Macmillan, 1934), p. 171.
 The Trotula: a Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine, ed. and trans. Monica H. Green (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 76-7.
 Liber de diversis medicinis, ed. Ogden, p. 56.
13 thoughts on “Medieval Fertility and Pregnancy Tests”
An interesting post, thanks for sharing! I discuss infertility a little bit in my forthcoming book, though mostly from a literary rather than a medical perspective. In Middle English narratives, infertility seems to be used as a metaphor for social and political impotence. In my briefer readings on medical views on infertility it struck me that it seems a much more complicated topic than historians have so far depicted it to be, so I shall look forward to the results of your research!
Thanks! I don’t work much on literary sources so it’s great to hear that you’re exploring these issues there. I’ll look out for the book!