Lustful looks: Signs of Venery in John Ward’s Diaries

By Alanna Skuse

Engraving by Martin de Vos showing the ‘Sanguine’ temperament as a man woos a woman in a garden. 16th century. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
Engraving by Martin de Vos showing the ‘Sanguine’ temperament as a man woos a woman in a garden. 16th century. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

John Ward, of Stratford-on-Avon, was a vicar, not a doctor. His notebooks, housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, were acquired by that institution largely on account of three references to Shakespeare and his plays therein (12 of the volumes are reproduced here). However, the Reverend’s writings are also a rich and largely untapped resource for early modern medical historians. In 17 volumes, they span the years 1646 to 1668 , though not in strict chronological order (Robert G. Frank’s 1974 article details the periods covered by each volume).

While Ward ultimately chose an ecclesiastical life, his interest in medicine and science was intense, and omnivorous. As a student, he attended Oxford and rubbed shoulders with Thomas Willis, Robert Hooke, and Richard Lower. During his later residences in London, Oxford and Stratford, he remained fascinated by physic and surgery. He practised physic on his parishioners – though to what extent is unclear – corresponded with other doctors, conducted experiments, and read widely from the latest medical texts. His notebooks are stuffed with snippets of information from all these sources, as well as history, geography, and gossip. One of Ward’s favourite topics, upon which he collected hundreds of snippets of information, was sex. He wrote widely on sexual dysfunction and diseases, generation and childbirth. He also took careful note of the ways in which a tendency to excess venery could be predicted in either sex.

Sexual appetite was believed to be directly influenced by the humours. It therefore made sense that a hot complexion, with larger amounts of choler and blood, would produce a lusty individual. These people could be identified by the other tokens of their complexion. Ward recorded that

Albertus Magnus gives ye Characters of such women as are potent venerie: as such as have Loud shrile voices: 2ly : such as have blacke or red hair: (vol. 7, f.26v)

Red hair was clearly linked to the heat of the humors, and a ‘loud shrile’ voice indicated both a (literally) hot temper and an unwillingness to conform to the subservient female ideal. Other signs of lustfulness were less straightforward. Though paleness and thinness were often associated with a melancholic complexion, Ward thought them likely to indicate too many ‘goatish (i.e., lascivious) late nights:

A blew Circle about ye eyes of some lean persons is a peculiar signe of a goatish extenuation or signifies yt leanes to proceed from too much venerie:’ (vol. 11, f.49r)

In fact, just about any physical trait could be indexed to sexual appetite by a determined writer, since ‘hot’ symptoms indicated a complexion fit for lustfulness, and ‘cold’ ones could be read as the subject having used up their vital heat in lustful acts. Even chapped lips ‘in women is a sign of their prones to venerie, because itt discovers ye heat of ye Matrix:’ (v7, 13r). These readings were clearly motivated by a desire to regulate female sexuality as well as by scientific curiosity. However, signs of lustfulness could also be detected in men. In a lengthy section on male sexuality, Ward observed:

The left veine in ye preparing vessels hath this prapentia to draw from ye emulgent ye more serous and less pure blood to ye intent yt ye serous humour might stirre up venery by its soft substance and therfore itt is observed yt such as have ye left stone bigger are most full of seed and most prone to vennerie :/ (vol. 7, f.15v)

What did Ward want with this information? The Reverend’s notebooks show a fairly laid-back attitude toward sexual morality. Hearing of a Scottish bachelor who had 22 sons, he coolly observed that ‘itt seems hee was none of the chastest.’ (vol. 16/ 1179). On another occasion, he recollected –with a certain degree of admiration – that ‘My Lady Wick was in a Seraglio at Constantinople and then shee thought to have seen all but was found out by search by the Eunuch being unshaven for itt seems the custome of the Turkish women in the Seraglio is to be all shaven on their Genitals’ (vol. 12, f.53r). The notebooks also contain many cases of and cures for sexually transmitted diseases, so Ward might have used these signs to help him judge whether a disease was likely to be related to venery. It seems most likely, however, that he collected these snippets of information as part and parcel of his overwhelming lust for knowledge. As my second post on this topic will explore, Ward studied his fellow men with a curiosity that was part medical, part anthropological, and partly motivated by the straightforward love of gossip.

Alanna Skuse is a Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Reading, where she works on early modern surgery and disability. Her first book, ‘Constructions of Cancer in Early Modern England: Ravenous Natures’ is available open access via Palgrave Macmillan.


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