Infertility in History

As far as we know, infertility is as old as humanity itself. It is certainly as old as recorded history. Ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian medical texts include fertility tests and guidance on how to ensure conception.10 These texts formed an important source of knowledge for ancient Greek physicians, including Hippocrates (460-370 bce).11 The earliest extant Greek medical writings include ‘extensive and elaborate discussion of reproductive failure and its treatment’.12 Via the Hippocratic Corpus, ancient conceptions of infertility influenced Western medicine for nearly 2,000 years.13

Of course, medical texts are not our only sources for understanding involuntary childlessness in past societies. Myth and literature are also replete with tales of infertility.14 The entire Judaeo-Christian tradition, and the civilizations that have been built on it, begins with a story of infertility.15 The Old Testament is littered with stories of barren women who conceive through divine aid; the voices of biblical matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel echo through Judaeo-Christian tradition.16 In pagan mythologies, female goddesses often presided over matters of reproduction, which could include interceding on behalf of infertile couples, as Frigga does in the much later thirteenth- century Icelandic Saga of the Volsungs.17 However, divine intervention could be for ill as well as good: in the Indian epic narrative Mahabharata, which reached its final form sometime in the fourth century BCE, Pandu, King of Hastinapur, is cursed with childlessness (because he will die if he attempts to make love to his wives), and consequently has to find creative ways of attaining fatherhood.18

Indeed, once we start looking, it can seem that infertility is almost everywhere in history, often unrecognized even though it is in full view. In an innovative reading, Rachel Bowlby unpicks Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (c.429 bce) as a play about ‘a second family, a problem of infertility and an adoption - and a transnational adoption at that’:

Baby Oedipus, born in Thebes to Jocasta and Laius and abandoned to die because of the oracle saying he will kill his father, is adopted across the borders to parents in Corinth, Polybus and Merope; linked to this is their situation of childlessness. The second family is Jocasta’s four children with Oedipus, following the death of the husband with whom she had had one child.19

Although rarely noted by commentators, the theme of childlessness threads through the play. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Bowlby’s reading, however, is the implication that it is possible to unpack, Russian doll-like, childlessness as a hidden presence in contemporary life: Western culture is ‘saturated by psychoanalysis’20; the Oedipus complex is possibly the most important aspect of child development in Freudian psychoanalytic theory; and Oedipus Rex is the source text for the theory. Although Freud does not discuss childlessness in relation to this text (it is barely mentioned throughout his corpus),21 the absence of children haunts Sophocles’ play, and therefore psychoanalysis too - and, by implication, all those shadowy half-understandings of our minds and motivations, ultimately derived from Freud, that constitute how we explain ourselves to ourselves.

Infertility has a history, and it leaves traces on the record, even when it is as the ‘presence of absence’, in Jill Allison’s evocative phrase.22 Yet, for the most part, this history remains unwritten. In 1993, Naomi Pfeffer lamented that modern histories of sexuality and reproduction were full of ‘women conceiving, contracepting, aborting, pregnant, in labour, breastfeeding, looking after and even abandoning children’, but that those who remained involuntarily childless were ‘almost never talked about’.23 This assessment largely holds true more than two decades later. Pfeffer’s own ‘political history of reproductive medicine’, an excoriating analysis of political and medical failures since the mid-nineteenth century, remains the most sustained history of infertility in modern Britain. North America is also well served, with two full-length historical studies of the topic in Elaine Tyler May’s Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness (1995), and Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner’s The Empty Cradle: Infertility in America from Colonial Times to the Present (1996). However, there is no comparable English- language monograph on the history of infertility for any European, Asian, or African country in any period.

Yet the picture is not entirely bleak. Not all research is published in monographs. In recent years there has been a substantial increase in historical interest in infertility, evidenced especially in a flurry of article-length publications on the medieval and early modern periods.24 Indeed, without a growing body of historical scholarship on the topic, the volume you are reading now could not exist. Nevertheless, students curious about the experiences of involuntarily childless women and men in past societies could be forgiven for not knowing where to look. Infertility is still most often discussed in a roundabout kind of fashion, in the midst of examinations of related topics such as reproduction, motherhood, or the family, rather than accorded sustained attention in its own right.25 It is also still underprivileged in histories of sexuality, reproduction, and medicine.

To take a recent example, in Kate Fisher and Sarah Toulalan’s superlative edited collection The Routledge History of Sex and the Body: 1500 to the Present (2013), a 28-chapter, 500-plus page work, there are ten references to ‘infertility’. These appear in chapters on ‘bodies, sex and the life cycle’, ‘reproduction’, and ‘sexual diseases since 1750’, and most are mere mentions rather than longer accounts.26 Conversely, in another excellent edited volume, Roger Cooter and John Pickstone’s Companion to Medicine in the Twentieth Century (2003), neither ‘infertility’ nor related terms such as ‘involuntary childlessness’, ‘sterility’, or ‘in vitro fertilization’ appear in the index, even though there is a relatively indepth discussion of the topic in at least one of the chapters.27 In short, histories of infertility exist, but it can take some digging to find them, and it might even be said that, for the most part, these histories offer clues, not answers.

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