‘Fertility Troubles and Domestic Medical Knowledge’

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By | Early Medicine, Events and Visits

The next seminar in the History of Pre-Modern Medicine academic seminar series, will take place on Tuesday 22nd January.

Recipe ‘To make a woman conceive’ from MS 8097/82

Lisa Smith (University of Saskatchewan)
Fertility Troubles and Domestic Medical Knowledge in Eighteenth Century England and France

The ability to have children was a common concern for many recently married couples in early modern Europe. People avoided seeking embarrassing and painful medical assistance, unless absolutely necessary. Manuscript and print remedy collections were common in well-to-do households, offering insight into how fertility problems (venereal disease, sterility, impotence, and miscarriage) were treated at home.

Recipes for fertility problems, for example, hint at the lived experience of gender. Remedies for venereal disease presupposed male sufferers who needed to bring their bodies under control; men who failed to treat venereal disease were thought likely to become impotent, so immediate action was necessary. Recipes to increase fertility assumed a woman who was taking active measures without the aid of her husband. This tied into broader discussions of marital order, with a woman expected to take responsibility to cure the infertility, even if it was her husband’s fault, so that she did not bring shame to her husband.

Remedy collections suggest underlying cultural differences in treatments. Whereas English remedy collections often include treatments to prevent miscarriage, French collections rarely do. Such remedies tended to be more religious in France, with prayers included in remedy collections, tucked amid loose family papers or published in religious books. The use of prayers rather than remedies may also indicate a greater reliance on religious solutions in France, resulting in a continued blurring of the categories of religious and medical remedies.

The domestic treatment of fertility issues reveals much about the eighteenth-century understanding of the body, reproduction and gender.


The seminar will take place in the Wellcome Library, 2nd floor, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE. Please deposit bags and coats in the ground floor cloakroom and meet in the 2nd floor foyer. Doors at 6pm prompt, seminars will start at 6.15pm.

The seminar series is focused on pre-modern medicine, which we take to cover European and non-European history before the 20th century (antiquity, medieval and early modern history, some elements of 19th-century medicine).

Further details on the seminar series are available in a previous post.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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