When prescribing curatives for a wandering womb, early modern medical practitioners regularly propose pungent materials to return the womb to its rightful place in the abdomen. Medical manuals from the period are rife with tales of the womb becoming dislodged and wandering throughout the body. Monthly shedding and regular intercourse were often recommended for women to release gratuitous female seed and prevent humoral clogging. Without shedding this excess, the womb could travel throughout the body, sometimes as far north as the throat, or as far south as the knees. If its “ligaments are loose, and it falls down by its own weight,” English physician Nicholas Culpeper warned, or it could wander north, producing a choking sensation and syncope, aptly labeled suffocation of the mother. Once the womb was out of place, reeking elements were often recommended by medical practitioners to coax the womb back to its proper location in the body.
Renowned French surgeon Ambroise Paré suggests physicians apply “fetid and rank smells” to the nostrils, such as the “snuff of a tallow candle when it is blown out, with the fume of bird’s feathers, especially partridges or woodcocks, of man’ hair, or goat’s hair, of old leather, of horse-hoofs, and such like things burned, whose noisome or offensive savor the womb avoiding, doth return unto its own place or seat again.” The Compleat Midwives Practice proposes “fomentations are also very necessary, made with the decorations of broom, wild cucumbers, flowers of chamomile, melilla, with origin, cumin, fennel, [and] anise-seed.” A Rich Closet of Physical Secrets swears by “a bath made of mugwort, flea-bane, juniper, camphire, and wormwood, boiled in water,” and physician James Rüff advises “castoreum, galbanum dissolved in vinegar, of each half an ounce; brimstone one ounce” to apply to the nose and the woman’s genitals. This is merely a sampling of the recipes prescribed for the wandering womb, but offers a microcosm for popular treatments as most call for aromatic materials amongst the ingredients.
Specifically, herbal remedies were often administered via a pessary, or suppository, at the neck of the vagina to fumigate any menstrual or humoral excess, causing the womb to shift locations. Paré recommends a pessary full of “sweet and aromatic fumigations” using cinnamon, aloes, labdanum, benzoin, thyme, pepper, cloves, lavender, calamint, mugwort, penny-royal, nutmeg, musk, and amber. This image from 1559 (fig. 1) shows a practitioner placing a pomegranate shaped pessary on a woman with a prolapsed uterus. An apple-shaped pessary can also be seen amongst French surgeon Jacques Guillemeau’s medical tools (fig. 2). Pessaries were often shaped like pears, apples, or pomegranates and could be administered by a medical practitioner or the woman herself. Herbal remedies such as those placed in pessaries were thought to offer a purgative heat to release excess phlegmatic humors, returning the womb to its original place by humoral fumigation.
Why use smelly materials to cajole the womb back to its original location within the body? Why not entice it by other means? The womb, early modern medicine tells us, “will in a manner descend or arise unto any sweet smell and from any thing that is noisome.” Able to detect smells and determine their quality, the womb garnered a sympathy with the nose unlike that of other organs. It adopted the nose’s olfactory role in discerning scents as curatives or miasmas. The porous humoral body was susceptible to shifts in the Galenic non-naturals—air, sleep, diet, exercise, the passions, and excretion—and the womb was considered one of the body’s orifices through which it interacted with the larger world. Odorous plants could purge disproportionate humors in the womb, allowing it to return to its rightful place because of its sympathy with the nose. According to early modern medicine, the womb could smell the scents administered externally because of its porous nature and olfactory ability.
Amy Kenny is a Visiting Assistant Professor at University California, Riverside. She is currently working on a book on wombs, entitled, Humoral Wombs on the Shakespearean Stage, under contract with Palgrave Literature, Science, and Medicine series.
Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives (London: Peter Cole, 1662), 50.
Paré, Ambroise. The Works of that Famous Chirurgeon Ambrose Parey, trans. T. H. Johnson (London: Mary Clark, 1678), 574.
R. C., I. D., M. S., T. B., The Compleat Midwife’s Practice Enlarged (Angel in Cornhill: Nathaniel Brookes, 1659), 216.
Anonymous, A Rich Closet of Physical Secrets (Gartrude Dawson: London, 1653), 24.
Rüff, Jacob. The Expert Midwife, or An Excellent and Most Necessary Treatise of the Generation and Birth of Man (London: E. Griffin for S. Burton, 1637), 67.
Paré, Ambrose. The Works of that Famous Chirurgeon Ambrose Parey, trans. T. H. Johnson (London: Mary Clark, 1678), 574.
Crook, Helkiah. Mikrokosmographia, A Description of the Body of Man (Barbican: W. Jaggard, 1616), 223