Fertility in the Early Modern Household

Leah Astbury

Domestic recipe books in early modern England abound with remedies to promote conception and prevent miscarriage. Frances Springatt’s recipe book, for example, contained a remedy ‘To help conception and strengthen Nature’, taken morning and night.[i] Notably, the vast majority of these receipts were explicitly for women, and in particular, intended to cleanse the womb. The Boyle family book contained a remedy for ‘Barrenness’ that opened up the womb when ‘shutt up, cleanseth the Same, Cherisheth the Seminal Vessels, Comforteth and Enliveneth the Womb & maketh it fit for Conception.’[ii]

Fig. 2. A woman seated on a obstetrical chair giving birth aided by a midwife who works beneath her skirts. Woodcut. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.
Fig. 1. A woman seated on a obstetrical chair giving birth aided by a midwife who works beneath her skirts. Woodcut. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.

The historical consensus has been, in Olwen Hufton’s words, that ‘under most conditions’ childlessness was attributed to female incapacity in early modern England. Aside from ‘brewer’s droop’ and impotence from bewitching, early modern people would have failed to consider the possibility of male impediment.[iii] Jennifer Evans’ work on fertility and aphrodisiacs has shown, however, that printed medical guides and advertisements understood problems with husbands, wives, or the couple together as causes of childlessness.[iv] So why then in domestic receipt books are remedies that target the causes of male sterility – weak seed, frail erection and lacklustre desire – so hard to find? This tension between the possibility of male infertility in printed material and absence in personal collections points to a complex system in which women were positioned as the caretakers of fertility, even if their bodies were not at ‘fault’. To revise Hufton’s claim, early modern people did know that men were responsible for childlessness but worked to minimise evidence of this. In this post I’m going to offer a few hints in domestic recipe books of the ways in which wives might labour to improve their own, and their husband’s, fertility without making male impediment or failure known. This is part of a larger book project examining the experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and afterbirth care in early modern England.

Fig. 1. Frances Springatt (& others), Collection of cookery and medical receipts: with later additions by several hands, Wellcome Library, MS 4683. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.
Fig. 2. Frances Springatt (& others), Collection of cookery and medical receipts: with later additions by several hands, Wellcome Library, MS 4683. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.

The first clue is in the prevalence of recipes that promised to reveal which party was responsible for childlessness. Such tests normally involved husband and wife each urinating on a seed or grain and observing their growth; the seed that failed to thrive indicated sterility. The inclusion of these diagnostic tests in domestic collections indicates at least a willingness to consider male impediment, even if evidence of their use is lacking.[v]

Second, the gender of the intended recipient of fertility recipes was often left unspecified or vague. Two remedies in the Jerningham family recipe book, one to ‘stir up’ lust and another to ‘causeth conception’, did not specify whether they were for a man or woman.[vi] Others were explicit that they could be useful for men and women. Frances Springatt’s remedy to help conception (Fig. 2) included the instructions that ‘man should take of it as well as the woman.’

More evidence can be found in recipes that were designed to be administered before or through the act of sex. Jane Jackson’s book instructed the user to anoint the man’s ‘yard’ with a concoction before sex in order to further chances of conceiving.[vii] Another suggested that both the ‘yard’ and the ‘womans private alsoe’ should be anointed. Then, the husband should simply ‘deale with her; and shee shall conceaue.’[viii] Such remedies configured men as the agent of cure, even if they were actually the intended recipients.

Recipe books did contain remedies to strengthen the yard, but importantly never mentioned sexual function. James Shrowl’s recipe book contained a remedy ‘To heale any Lame Member’ in which the ‘member’ was bathed for half an hour, ‘chaft’ with an ointment and then wrapped in lambskin before bed.[ix] Generation or even the ability to have sex was not mentioned. Many of these remedies were concerned with curing venereal disease and one might imagine rich fodder for the historian of fertility. And yet genital problems in men, in this context, were rarely linked to sexual performance or generative ability, further evidence to suggest that male sexual impediment was more embarrassing than childlessness understood to come from problems with the womb.

A final example from the almanac of Sarah Jinner suggests the ways in which male fertility was expected to be discretely managed by wives. The recipe section in Jinner’s almanac, which she advertised, ‘might be kept in good case and serve to the mutual comfort of man and woman’, included ‘A Confection to cause fruitfulness in Man or Woman.’ This powder, she noted, could be surreptitiously sprinkled ‘upon the parties meat’.[x]

The remedies found in domestic books skirt around the topics of weak male seed and impotence, but reading against the grain reveals the ways in which domestic practice, and in particular wives, might be able to manage male impediment without naming and shaming.


[i] Frances Springatt (& others) 1686-1824, Wellcome Library, MS 4683, fol. 92r.

[ii] Boyle Family, ‘Receipt Book’, Wellcome Library, MS 1340, recipe 312 fol. 86r.

[iii] Olwen Hufton, The Prospect Before Her. A History of Women in Western Europe, vol. 1 (London: Fontana Press, 1997), p. 174. Randolph Trumbach makes a similar argument in The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England(London: Academic Press Inc., 1978), p. 167.

[iv] Jennifer Evans, Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England (Boydell & Brewer, 2014).

[v] As Catherine Rider has shown on this blog, these tests were not new to the early modern period and can be found as early as the twelfth century. https://recipes.hypotheses.org/2017

[vi] Jerningham family recipe book, Staffordshire Record Office D641/3/H/1, p. 63 and p. 67.

[vii] Jane Jackson, ‘Her Booke’, 1642, Wellcome Library, MS 373, fol. 82v.

[viii] Jane Jackson, ‘Her Booke’, 1642, Wellcome Library, MS 373, fol. 83r.

[ix] James Shrowl, 1625-c.1750, Wellcome Library, MS749, unfoliated.

[x] Sarah Jinner, An Almanack and Prognostication for the Year of Our Lord 1659 (London: 1659), sig.B8r.

Heat and Women’s Fertility in Medieval Recipes

It seems rather ironic to be writing about ‘heat’ in the middle of a heatwave. I’m not sure anyone in Britain at the moment is keen to increase their level of heat any further! However, according to humoral theory, which underpinned many medical recipes throughout the medieval and early modern periods, heat could be a very good thing when men and women wanted to reproduce.  Heat, in the humoral sense, was believed to aid both sexual performance and fertility, and ‘hot’ foods and medicines were recommended as aphrodisiacs and fertility aids in many ancient, medieval and early modern medical texts.  Jennifer Evans has set this out very nicely for the early modern period – see her book and her post on the Recipes blog from 2013.  But heat wasn’t always a good thing: in some circumstances too much heat could also be a problem for fertility, and in that situation ‘cold’ foods and medicines might be suggested.

In my own work on the medical recipe books of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, then, I would expect to find a range of recipes to aid conception which include ingredients designed to raise or reduce a person’s heat. Although recipes were written in less complex language than Latin medical texts, and focused on treatment rather than theory, the recipes in these collections were often drawn from longer Latin medical works and so were often based on humoral theory even when this was not made explicit.  Nevertheless, my initial survey of recipe manuscripts in the Wellcome Library, British Library and Cambridge University Library suggests that the picture was more diverse than this.  I haven’t made a comprehensive search – and, given the number of unpublished medieval recipe manuscripts, I probably won’t be able to – but the recipes to aid conception that I’ve found so far work on a variety of principles.

Some do seek to adjust a person’s heat in order to correct a perceived humoral imbalance. For example, a series of recipes in Latin in Wellcome Library MS 541, a fifteenth-century medical miscellany of unknown provenance, is explicit about this.

A page from Wellcome Library MS 541. Credit: Wellcome Library.

In a chapter on ‘Impediment of Conception’ it includes recipes for:

If the sterility is because of cold humours… (Si sterilitas fuerit propter humores frigidos…)

If conception is impeded because of too much moisture… (Quod si propter nimiam humiditatem conceptio impediatur…)

If there is a distemper of heat or dryness in the woman which impedes conception… (Quod si caliditate aut siccitate fuerit distemperancia in muliere impediens conceptionem…)

In each case the first stage is to purge the excess humours, and then a selection of baths, plant remedies and suppositories is recommended. (Wellcome Library MS 541, ff. 137r-v)

The whole manuscript is digitized on the Wellcome Library website here.

Similarly British Library MS Harley 2378, quoted by Henslow in an edition of fourteenth-century medical recipes, also mentioned lack of heat as a cause of women’s infertility and suggested a cure to raise her heat:

‘For a womman þat may not bere no chyld for colde blode: Take and let hire blode, and take trisandali and diapendion, and take and ley þem to-gedere with hony, and ete iche day þer-of, and haue blode bothe hote and gode.’ (G. Henslow, Medical Works of the Fourteenth Century (London, 1899). p. 104.)

However, in many other cases the recipes found in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts are not obviously heat-related. Instead many of them require the man, woman or both to ingest animal parts, particularly genitalia.  These recipes work on another theoretical framework with a long history going back to the ancient world: the idea that certain substances were able to stimulate the reproductive organs because of a certain sympathy with them.  For example several fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts of the Liber de Diversis Medicinis, a collection of recipes in English, include a series of recipes involving animal genitalia. To help a woman conceive a male child, ingredients such as the womb and vagina of a hare; the testicles of a hare; and the liver and eyes of a pig (see Catherine Rider, ‘Men’s Responses to Infertility in Late Medieval England’, in The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, ed. Gayle Davis and Tracey Loughran (Basingstoke, 2017), p. 281).

All of these recipes derive – directly or indirectly – from the Trotula, the twelfth-century Latin compendium of women’s medicine edited by Monica Green, although there were some changes in the process of transmission: the Trotula recommends the liver and testicles of the pig, rather than liver and eyes (see p. 77 in Green).  These recipes from the Trotula appear frequently in recipe collections from medieval England: the pig’s testicles appear again in Wellcome Library MS 407 (f. 61r), ‘Against sterility’.

As Green has shown, numerous manuscripts of the Trotula circulated in England, and the treatise had several Middle English translations, so perhaps it is not surprising that its remedies turn up frequently in recipe collections. Recipes based on animal parts have also featured on the recipes blog before: to take just one example, Laurence Totelin mentioned the use of a deer’s penis as an aphrodisiac in ancient Greece back in 2015.  The Trotula did also discuss the ways in which too much or too little heat might make men or women infertile (see Green’s translation, pp. 85-7). Nevertheless, its influence and the popularity of its genitalia-related remedies means that treatments based on heat and humoral theory were not the only fertility aids available to readers of medieval English recipe collections.  In the future I’m hoping to look in more detail at which aids to conception were particularly popular in English medical texts, and what that might tell us about the transmission of information from earlier Latin medical works.  But at the moment the picture – as regards heat – is looking rather diverse.

Cold, dry and bald

By Laurence Totelin

A few months ago, I read with fascination – and surprise – a post by Jennifer Evans on the treatment of baldness in the early modern period. According to one of her sources (William Drage, a physician and apothecary from Hitchin) anything drying, and in particular sexual intercourse, would be detrimental to he who is thinning on top; women and eunuchs, for their part, rarely went bald because of their moist nature.

I was fascinated to find that the early-modern recipes and remedies listed by Jennifer were very similar to those preserved in texts from Graeco-Roman antiquity. Thus recommendations to cut the hair short; to use a laudanum unguent; to anoint the head with juice of onions/leeks, or with radish oil are all to be found in one of the earliest medical treatises preserved in Greek: the Hippocratic Diseases of Women 2 (chapter 189, 8.370 Littré). Some early modern treatments of baldness that presented, such as Mary Glover’s recipe involving cow’s piss and stinking old shoes, were rather unsavoury, but they pale in comparison with pigeon dung (also listed in Diseases of Women 2.189) or the following recipe, excerpted from Cleopatra’s Cosmetics by Galen:

Deer hunt on a fourth-century BCE mosaic from Pella. Source: Wikipedia
Deer hunt on a fourth-century BCE mosaic from Pella. Source: Wikipedia

Another [remedy against alopecia]. The power of this [remedy] is better than that of all the others, as it works also against falling hair and, mixed with oil or perfume, against incipient baldness and baldness of the crown; and it works wonders. One part of burnt domestic mice, one part of burnt remnants of vine, one part of burnt horse teeth, one part of bear fat, one part of deer marrow, one part of reed bark. Pound them dry, then add a sufficient amount of honey until the thickness of the honey is convenient, and then dissolve the fat and the marrow, knead and mix them. Place the remedy in a copper box. Rub the alopecia until new hair grows back. Similarly, falling hair should be anointed everyday. [Galen, Composition of Medicines according to Places 1.2, 12.404 Kühn]

So how is this supposed to work? Ancient recipes do not come with explanation as to their functioning. One must turn to more theoretical texts to find out more. The philosopher Aristotle devoted a long passage of his treatise Generation of Animals to baldness, stating that this affliction is linked to sexual intercourse:

The reason is that the effect of sexual intercourse is to cool, as it is the excretion of some of the pure, natural heat, and the brain is by its nature the coldest part of the body; thus, as we should expect, it is the first part to feel the effect. [Aristotle, Generation of Animals 5.3, 734b. Translation: A.L. Peck]

He went on to explain that children and women do not go bold because they are incapable of producing seminal secretion. Thus, for Aristotle, the cause of baldness is a loss of vital heat through sexual intercourse. Galen, for his part, sees dryness as the cause of the affliction, explaining that women and eunuchs have moist heads, while bald people have dry ones [Galen, Commentary on Hippocrates’ Sixth Book of Epidemies, 17b.5  Kühn]. The physician’s explanation is closer to that found in early-modern treatises: it is through loss of moisture that the hair thins on top.

Wounded bear. Mosaic from Pompeii. Source: Wikipedia
Wounded bear. Mosaic from Pompeii. Source: Wikipedia

Where do remedies fit within shifting systems of explanation? The burnt ingredients in the Cleopatra remedy could be interpreted as both warming and drying, while deer marrow and bear fat would have been emollient (moistening). But I would argue that these explanations are too simplistic. One needs to go further and look at what brings cold, dry and baldness together.

In ancient humoural theory, cold and dry were associated with the Autumn season. (Clearly the theory was not devised in the UK!) It is in the Autumn of life that man loses his hair. There is no real solution to the problem, but ‘fertilising’ ingredients such as ashes could perhaps help. Fats from animals born in the spring and hunted in the autumn might also add to the efficacy of the remedy.

Sounds too far-fetched and less ‘rational’ than humoural explanations? Consider the following: Aristotle himself compared hair loss to shedding of leaves, and poets sometimes drew an analogy between lush greenery and animal hair (see for instance Columella, On Agriculture 10.71).  Ancient recipes can always be read in many different ways!