Thursday, July 19, 2018

Infertility in the 17th Century – Reasons and Remedies

By Kate Braithwaite

Take a handful of barley or any other fast growing corn. Soak half in a husband’s urine and half in his wife’s urine for twenty-four hours. Dry each pile on some earth and then water daily with more of the urine of each person. The corn that grows first belongs to the person who is more fertile. If one does not grow at all, that person is barren and will not bear children.

At a time when barrenness, or infertility, was commonly perceived to be a fault of the woman, rather than her male partner, the suggestion – from midwife Jane Sharp - that men as well as women might have fertility problems, is unusual. Her method of determining where the fault lies, however, seems less than reliable.

But then in the 17th century, people had rather different ideas about the human body. Belief in the need to maintain balance ‘humors’- blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm - a theory developed by Hippocrates in Ancient Greece – was still predominant in all medical thinking. Not surprisingly, people’s understanding about how conception was achieved was also rather different than it is today. Both men and women were believed to have ‘seeds’ which were released during orgasm and mingled in the womb before taking root and growing into a child.

The London preacher, Samuel Hieron, firmly believed that “barrenness in grace” and “fruitlessness in holy things” would result a “want of outward increase” or infertility. It was commonly held to be a woman’s duty to bear children and in doing so, make reparations for the sins of Eve. If she could not do so, she was a failure as a woman and lacked God’s grace. For a strongly religious woman like Catherine de Braganza, wife of Charles II, her failure to bear children while Charles fathered upwards of twelve children with his numerous mistresses, must have been a torment. Another famously childless 17th century woman, Elizabeth Pepys, wife of the diarist Samuel, was surely equally saddened, but it is notable that her husband, also a man who had several extra-marital relationships, had no children with any other woman either.

Portrait of Catherine de Braganza

Jane Sharp, writing in The Midwife Book, published in 1671, certainly believed that conception was determined by God’s will and permission, but she also had some other ideas about why some women conceived and others could not. She dismissed one common theory - that some couples are barren because they have “too much likeness and similitude in their complexions,” - and suggested instead that “some disproportion of Organs or some impediment not easily perceived,” may be the cause. Hatred between married people, she explained, was a legitimate problem however, particularly where children were forced into marriage by their parents. She also cautioned against blood-letting in the arms of girls before their first ‘courses’ or period, preferring such girls be bled from the foot to insure that blood was not ‘drawn down’ from their bodies before nature intended it. She talked of problems of the womb, ill health and disease as possible causes of infertility before setting out her last reason, ‘barrenness by inchantment.’ In cases where it is suspected that a charm may be making a husband unable to lie with his wife, Sharp recommended that he “piss through his wives Wedding ring and not to spill a drop and then he shall be perfectly cured.”

Given the importance of having children and growing a family, couples that struggled to conceive in the seventeenth century, could easily find advice on how to cure their difficulties.

Dining with friends on July 26th 1664, Samuel Pepys asked the ladies for their advice on he and his wife’s childless state. He recorded ten pieces of advice in his diary:

1. Do not hug my wife too hard nor too much
2. Eat no late suppers
3. Drink juyce of sage;
4. Tent and toast
5. Wear cool Holland drawers
6. Keep stomach warm and back cool
7. Upon query whether it was best to do at night or morn, they answered me neither one nor other, but when we had most mind to it
8. Wife not to go too straight laced;
9. Myself to drink mum (ale) and sugar
10. To change my place. 
Of these, he wrote, “the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, and 10th they all did seriously declare, and lay much stress upon them as rules fit to be observed indeed, and especially the last, to lie with our heads where our heels do, or at least to make the bed high at feet and low at head.”

Portrait of Elizabeth Pepys

Other recorded remedies – these from William Sermon, author of The Ladies Companion in 1671 – vary in degrees of outlandishness. He suggests the woman try taking white ginger in a powdered form or sitting over a bath of water used to boil yarn and mixed with ash, or even bathing in water “in which ale-hoof, oaten and pease straw have been boiled together” before drying off and letting her husband “do his best endeavour.”

Valentine Greatrakes, pictured above, an Irish healer who was famous in England in the 1660s, offered guidance more like the list given to Samuel Pepys than any of William Sermon's suggestions.

Further reading:

The Midwives Book, Jane Sharp 1671
The Weaker Vessel, Antonia Fraser, 1984
The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Kate Braithwaite was born and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her first novel, Charlatan, was longlisted for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Novel Award in 2015. The Road to Newgate, a story of love, lies and the Popish Plot, was published by Crooked Cat in 2018.  In the novel, Kate's character, Anne, seeks advice on conceiving from Valentine Greatrakes and is thankful to receive advice more in line with that given to Pepys than that suggested by Sermon.
Kate lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and three children.

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1 comment:

  1. I found it interesting that Pepys wasn't reminded to pleasure his wife, because -- since men and women functioned the same -- in previous times it was believed the woman also had to ejaculate. But perhaps this quaint belief was gone by then, as so many women must have conceived independently of any pleasure.


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