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Hopes, fears and frustrated dreams

December 1, 2014

Infertility in early modern England – by Jennifer Evans

A physician examining urine brought by a woman. Wellcome Images

A physician examining urine brought by a woman. Wellcome Images

IVF has helped many infertile couples have children since 1978. Yet, as the historian Professor Lisa Jardine recently highlighted, people seldom talk about the times when IVF treatments fail. Soon after her public statement, BBC Magazine published an article entitled ‘I wish IVF had never been invented’, which featured testimonies of people who had struggled with infertility and IVF treatments. These testimonies showed people’s hopes, fears and frustrated dreams of fertility: some spoke of being given nothing but false hope, others spoke of their devastation when the treatment failed. Several spoke of the sense of being in a raffle with no sense of how many times they should buy a ticket. This frustration was echoed by those who lamented the ‘postcode lottery’ system that means couples in one NHS area may get treatment for free, while others nearby have to pay. The search for treatments and the feelings of helplessness and frustration experienced by these couples is part of a long history of fertility medicine, and we can see that early modern men and women expressed the very same hopes and fears.

In his diary Samuel Pepys recorded that on 25 July 1664 he had been at a dinner celebrating the birth of Anthony Joyce’s newborn infant, and when everyone was merry he asked the women their opinions and advice on his “not getting of children”. Pepys had been married to his wife Elizabeth for over eight years at this point, and as his diary reveals he was full of hopes and fears about their fertility. The gossips (the women and female friends who had attended the mother during childbirth and her recovery) happily recited their best advice for promoting conception, including the suggestion that Pepys should drink the juice of sage and eat toast with Tent (a type of wine). These suggestions evidently did not work and by September Pepys appeared more despondent about his and Elizabeth’s inability to have children. He wrote in his diary that after dinner with a friend he returned home, “where I find my wife not well – and she tells me she thinks she is with child; but I neither believe nor desire it”. Pepys was not alone in feeling anxious about fertility. Another diarist, Sarah Savage, prayed to God, just two months after her own wedding, that she should be a “fruitful vine”. Her story would have been familiar to many women, as she suffered a series of miscarriages and disappointments before finally becoming a mother.

The desperation of childless women and those who struggled to conceive was also captured in 17th-century popular literature. In one pamphlet, called Fumblers-Hall, wives lamented the inability of their husbands to provide them with children and moaned about the way their neighbours treated them. One wife complained that she had tried everything to make her husband fertile but she was still taunted and jeered at by her neighbours, who called her a “Barren-Doe”. Another wife mourned that her husband was very loving but that this was not enough: “will love beget such beautiful Children
as my neighbour K. or my neighbour B. hath, no, no love will not do it alone.” Although these particular wives were fictitious, these stories were designed to resonate with popular thought, and suggest that early modern women could be scorned and ridiculed if they failed to become mothers. Pamphlets also suggest that childless women envied their more fertile neighbours. Indeed, Sarah Savage recorded in her diary that she envied her sister, who conceived very soon after marriage.

Continual disappointments could strain a couple’s relationship. William Salmon noted in Systema Medicinale (1686) that it was not uncommon for couples to quarrel over who was to blame for their infertility. This is an important point, as it has often been claimed that women were automatically and inevitably blamed for infertility in the early modern period. However, the discord that arose between couples suggests that it was common knowledge that the problem could be with either the male or the female body. To settle such disputes men and women utilised a range of diagnostic tests. Some of these only scrutinised the female body. They used scents and aromas to ascertain whether a woman’s body was free from blockages and obstructions. For example, a clove of garlic, or some other pungent substance, was placed at, or just inside, the woman’s genitals. If she could smell the fragrance in her nose, or if her breath smelled of garlic, then she was considered to be fertile; if the smell failed to travel through her body, then the test revealed that she was barren. Alternatively, the couple could use a range of urine tests to establish who was the most fertile. In this case both the man and the woman would ‘water’ (urinate on) some barley, or other grain, planted in a pot; the barley that grew first demonstrated its water-bearer’s greater fertility. Urine could also be scattered over sage, and whoever’s withered first was accounted barren.

Those couples fearful of being unable to conceive, like Pepys, tried to find remedies that would make them more fertile. Medical treatises offered a range of remedies to combat barrenness, including numerous aphrodisiacs. Sexual stimulants were believed to reinvigorate the reproductive system, improve fertility, stimulate sexual pleasure and ensure that sexual intercourse – the fundamental prerequisite to conception – occurred. Lazarus Riverius’s Practice of Physick (1658), for example, claimed that “A Woman very desirous of Children, but having no appetite to Carnal Embracements entreated me that I would kindle in her the desires of the flesh”. This woman was offered a mixture of well-known aphrodisiacs including eryngo roots, satyrion (a type of orchis) and flying pismires (ants) to reignite her lacklustre libido. Popular beliefs about aphrodisiacs were widespread and did not have to be gained from a medical book. People would happily share this knowledge with those in need, as shown by Pepys’s case. In The Ten Pleasures of Marriage (1682), a satirical commentary on matrimonial bliss, a sorrowful bride seeks the help of her neighbours. They take pity on her and advise her and her husband to eat oysters, eggs, lamb’s testicles, caviar and chocolate, all of which were recognised aphrodisiacs.

Remedies could also be purchased from a range of medical and irregular sellers. In the 17th century, handbills – one- or two-sided advertisements – suggested that practitioners had a great secret remedy for infertility that they had made use of successfully for many years. In the 18th century, remedies like the ‘Prolifix Elixir’ and the ‘Vivifying Drops’ could be purchased through the newspapers. The Vivifying Drops cost 5 shillings and came, helpfully, with directions; they promised to “rectify the languid State of all the Fluids, rouse, fortify, and increase the Spirits, invigorate the Nerves… and cause a sparkling Gladness and ardent courage to flow in the Heart”, all of which was designed to promote conception and “render both Sexes prolifick in a wonder Manner”. Although it cannot be definitely established, the frequency with which these advertisements appeared suggests that the remedies they peddled were popular and sold well. The willingness of practitioners and sellers to advertise such services and remedies suggests a great number of men and women were desperately seeking help for their fertility problems.

Women, and men, also shared with friends and acquaintances their knowledge of a range of remedies designed to improve fertility. As we have already seen, Pepys asked the advice of several women while at a social gathering. In numerous recipe books, manuscript collections kept by families, we can also glimpse this shared network of reproductive knowledge. It is apparent from the titles and notes accompanying these remedies that women could be waiting for many years before finally having a child. A recipe in the collection of Lady Asycough was accompanied by a short note saying that Mrs Horne had been married four years without having children until, “upon the taking thereof”, she conceived. A similar note in a collection from the Wellcome Library suggests that a Mrs Patrick shared her remedy with a woman who had been childless, or struggling to conceive, for nine years. These women shared their desires, hopes and frustrated dreams of childbearing and worked together to try to help each other conceive the children they longed for.

As with today, it is apparent that fertility and childbearing were not a given for all couples in the early modern period. Men and women felt peer pressure to conceive, expressed their fears and frustrations about their fertility, and went through potentially long processes of testing and treatments in the hope that they would, as Sarah Savage described, become a fruitful vine and produce offspring.

Dr Jennifer Evans is a Lecturer in History at the School of Humanities, University of Hertfordshire. She specialises in the body, medicine and gender from 1550 to 1750. Her current research focus is the understanding of infertility and its treatments in early modern England. Jennifer has published widely on these topics in Historical Research, Women’s History Review and Social History of Medicine. Do get in contact with her if you are interested in her latest findings (


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