Infertility and Infidelity in Early Modern England

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week’s post is contributed by Daphna Oren-Magidor and explores one of particular stigmas that was attached to fertility in the early modern period.

Infertility was associated with various stigmas in early modern England. Infertile women were described as manly, domineering, and overly sexual, while infertile men were effeminate and unable to control their wives. One recurring trope suggested that when a “barren” woman was suddenly cured of her infertility, it was the result of a dalliance with a man other than her husband. While it wasn’t the only view of infertile women, nor the most prominent one, it appeared in numerous poems, plays, ballads and other works, most of them satirical or comedic, but some also more serious.[i] While this trope was certainly used because it was entertaining, it also had more important implications. First, if a woman conceived after having sex with another man, then it was implied that her husband was “at fault” for the couple’s childlessness. Almost invariably, however, the women in these texts were described as “barren” themselves, and this was seen as an essential quality, one that might even be hereditary. By presenting infertility in this way, the authors who used this trope promoted the idea that infertile women were sexual and uncontrollable (hence their adultery), while at the same time suggesting that infertile men were unable to control their wives. But beyond the implications for early modern gender identities, the trope of the adulterous barren woman was used by authors of political and religious satire, in order to promote specific ideologies. It went beyond the discourse of reproduction, sexuality and gender, and into broader realms.

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Female Barrenness, Bodily Access and Aromatic Treatments in Seventeenth-Century England (2014) (Open Access)

Historical Research

Published August 2014 (Open Access)

Jennifer Evans, ‘Female Barrenness, Bodily Access and Aromatic Treatments in Seventeenth-Century England’, Historical Research, vol. 87, no. 237 (2014), pp 423-43.

Across the seventeenth century medical self-help manuals noted that aromatic substances were a suitable remedy for female barrenness. It has often been suggested that in the early modern period physicians did not touch their patients but instead relied upon patient narrative to diagnose and treat the sick body. This article problematizes this issue by investigating the multi-sensory approach to treating infertility, a disorder invested with concerns of gendered bodily access. It will be demonstrated that the recommendation of aromatic treatments for infertility allowed male physicians a means to negotiate the complex gender boundaries that restricted their access to women’s bodies.

This article is available to read in full via open access.