Silence, Stigma and Gaps in the Historical Record

Issues around definition cannot, however, explain the lack of sustained historical scholarship on infertility. Over the past three decades - a period coterminous with the initial deployment of IVF and the subsequent proliferation of other ARTs - two of the most vibrant and expansive fields of historical study have been the history of sexuality and the history of medicine.45 Often, infertility exists at the intersection of these areas - so why have so few historians written about it? It might be tempting to view this historical neglect as one outcome of broader tendencies, within both the social policy and feminist movements of developed nations, to conceive of reproductive rights quite narrowly in terms of contraception and abortion on the one hand, and provision for maternity care on the other. However, the long-standing and still lively tradition of scholarship on infertility and reproductive technologies from within the social sciences undermines any explanation that ties lack of interest in infertility to the wider contemporary socio-political context. Of course, infertility has been neglected partly because historians have not been asking the right questions, but it is also plausible that the lack of serious and widespread historical engagement with infertility stems at least partly from the particular challenges that its study raises for historians.

The most significant of these challenges, because it is the most difficult to overcome, is the maddeningly imperfect historical record. Historically, Western cultures have been marked by pervasive restrictions on open speech about sexual matters. Communication about sex has been heavily regulated, and perceived as reserved for certain social groups, or only permissible in certain contexts. As a consequence, sexuality and reproduction have often been experienced as private or even taboo. Sally Alexander interviewed a woman born in 1912 who recalled being slapped by her mother after asking what a fat lady she saw in the street had in her belly. Alexander reflects that public ‘silence about sex’ made it impossible ‘to articulate in a language of legitimacy, compassion or pleasure - without prurience - women’s bodily or sexual needs or wants’.46 Similarly, Kate Fisher found that her female interviewees, all married in the first half of the twentieth century, lacked verbal fluency and an adequate vocabulary to describe sexual matters. Fisher interprets this lack of articulacy as evidence of the gendered structure of sexual knowledge, practices, and forms of communication for individuals coming to maturity in this period.47

Infertility is an intimate matter, subject to any and all of the taboos surrounding sexuality and reproduction in a given culture. More than this, it is a marker of the failure of reproduction, of sexuality gone awry. Contemporary psychological and ethnographic research suggests that across societies with diverse political, economic, religious, and gender systems, infertility is experienced as a severe threat to identity (especially for women), and consequently it is often shrouded in silence.48 A Bangladeshi proverb states that, ‘Even a fox or a dog does not eat the dead body of a childless woman’, and it is believed that even seeing the face of a banja (barren) woman is unlucky.49 Although it will always be impossible to know for certain, it seems highly likely that many in the past experienced infertility as a source of shame and bewilderment, and therefore did not speak openly about it. Certainly, there is evidence that infertility has been perceived as a stigmatizing condition in diverse historical contexts, from medieval Japan to early modern England to nineteenth-century Turkey.50 These barriers to vocalization of sexual matters in the past rebound upon the historian, who is faced with the dual tasks of excavating evidence and interpreting silences.

Of course, stigma is not the only reason for gaps in the historical record. The asymmetric nature of surviving evidence is a perennial problem for all historians. It is inevitable that those with power leave more historical traces. We know more about kings and queens than peasants, politicians than voters, doctors than patients, the white middle-class than black workers, men than women. Borrowing from anthropology, historians have developed innovative techniques for reading sources produced by the powerful ‘against the grain’ to uncover evidence of the thoughts and actions of oppressed and marginalized groups.51 Reading ‘against the grain’ is necessary where we lack direct evidence. Nevertheless, it raises thorny - probably irresolvable - issues of interpretation, not least concerning the extent to which historians unwittingly refract the sources through their own mental worlds, and therefore end up treating historical actors less as witnesses, and more as ventriloquist’s dummies.52

These problems are magnified when tackling infertility, an experiential state that exists as an absence (the failure to engender pregnancy), that plays out on the bodies of women (a historically marginalized group), and that, it seems, often further stigmatizes its subjects (thus rendering them inarticulate or silent). Sometimes, historians are blessed with the serendipitous survival of direct or indirect testimony on involuntary childlessness in periods where little such evidence is available. However, even when such good fortune prevails, these sources can generate intractable problems of interpretation. We can illustrate some of these issues through discussion of historical research on two case studies of infertility, the thirteenth-century Anglo-Jewish woman Muriel of Oxford (fl.1240), and the sixteenth-century queen Elisabeth de Valois (1545-68), who married Philip II of Spain at the tender age of 13.53 The evidence of these women’s reproductive troubles survives only because of their social status. Muriel’s husband was a prominent financier, often called to the royal court, and so she too came to the attention of the most powerful in the land. Meanwhile, as a queen, responsible for producing heirs and securing the line of succession, every minor fluctuation of Elisabeth’s menstrual cycle was scrutinized. Her health mattered only because it was perceived to hold the key to the future of the Hapsburg monarchy in Spain, and to Franco- Spanish relations in a period of European turmoil.

Even for these high-ranking women, evidence of their intimate lives survives purely through the vagaries of chance. Muriel’s husband divorced her because she was childless. As this was considered sufficient grounds for divorce under Jewish law, countless women across Europe must have suffered the same fate. We know about Muriel only because she initially contested the divorce, and her husband had enough social sway to successfully appeal to the king’s council (the curia regis) for support. We are permitted a ‘glimpse’ of Muriel’s situation - the word chosen by her biographer Charlotte Newman Goldy - only through the Latin documents generated by the court.54 The source of our knowledge of Elisabeth’s reproductive health is quite different: an extensive corpus of correspondence that passed between Elisabeth’s mother, Catherine de’ Medici, Elisabeth’s attendant ladies-in-waiting, and the French ambassadors in Spain. As Susan Broomhall underlines in her analysis of this correspondence, in an era when women were expected to display reticence concerning sexuality and reproduction, this extensive documentation of discussion on bodily matters between women is extremely unusual. However, it only exists at all because Elisabeth was living in Spain and her mother was in France, and so ‘discussion of her reproductive life, which might otherwise have occurred by word of mouth’, had to be written down. There is virtually no extant correspondence between Catherine and another daughter who remained in France after marriage.55

In both these cases, then, historians might count themselves lucky to have evidence of otherwise neglected or untraceable female experiences. Yet there is still an important absence at the centre of the historical picture: the thoughts and feelings of Muriel and Elisabeth themselves. Goldy conducts a masterclass in informed speculation and reconstruction, locating Muriel within a broader milieu of involuntary childlessness in England (a milieu assumed on the basis that several prominent English families disappeared because they could not produce legitimate heirs), using contemporary medical texts and works of Jewish law to meditate on the steps Muriel might have taken to resolve her fertility problems, and wondering how she might have responded to stories from the Torah, read aloud in the synagogue on holidays, of barren women, or to the Marian cult that flourished in England and Europe at this time.56 Ultimately, however, we can never know what Muriel thought or felt about her childless state; her experiences are irrecoverable.

Susan Broomhall makes a similar point regarding the dissection of Elisabeth’s reproductive health in the letters that flew between Spain and France in the 1560s. The correspondence provides a rich resource for historians of gender, reproduction, and the body in early modern Europe but it does not tell us how Elisabeth understood her difficulties in conceiving: she was always the object of this correspondence, never its author. Broomhall suggests that Elisabeth was ‘the most powerless participant in the treatment of her own body’:

She appears as a blank slate upon whom the medical will of physicians, or the community of matrons, can be written. Male physicians devalued her corporeal sensations as subjective and unreliable, arguing that their medical knowledge and techniques enabled them to read the female body in pregnancy objectively [... ] Elisabeth’s mother, Catherine de’ Medici, and her ladies-in-waiting seem to have ignored Elisabeth as too young and too inexperienced to understand her own body as they did. Both the men and the women surrounding Elisabeth saw her as unable to articulate her bodily signs in either appropriate medical or traditional female discourse.57

Elisabeth was a queen, but she was also a young girl, caught up in political and professional power struggles not of her making and most likely beyond her ken. In turn, our understandings of her experiences can only be fragmented and speculative, based on incomplete sources and inexact reconstructions of the historical world in which she lived and died.

The gaps and deficiencies in the extant historical sources, which reflect very real asymmetries of power in past societies, mean that we are always likely to know more about those with power and status, and those who were most active in seeking help for reproductive problems (or perhaps, as in Elisabeth’s case, having such attentions thrust upon them). Even when dealing with the more recent past, when we have a mass of print documentation on popular responses to infertility, and it is possible to gather oral histories about the experiences of infertile men and women, these problems do not entirely disappear. It requires some skill to negotiate these challenges, but at least recognition of bias in the record helps us to avoid assuming that the sources we can most readily access speak for all those who suffered infertility in the past, and therefore to remain alive to other potential approaches to their history. Infertility has a history, even if it is sometimes difficult to find. This volume demonstrates the diverse possibilities and the plentiful rewards for scholars who are willing to embark on this search.

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