Recipes as a Source for Infertility in Medieval England

A large number of sources from medieval England discuss infertility, but they do not come from the infertile men or women themselves. There are no known letters or diaries which discuss the subject, for example. The absence of personal accounts means that it is difficult to explore the emotional impact of childlessness on individuals in the ways that historians have done for later periods.12 Instead, scholars must approach responses to infertility indirectly, and one way to do this is through medical texts which offer advice on how to conceive. These survive from across medieval Europe and they take many different forms but, in order to get as close as possible to what may have been expected in medical practice, this chapter will focus on manuscripts containing collections of medical recipes. These collections list treatments for a wide range of conditions, sometimes combined with short treatises on practical medicine. Generally they do not mention ‘infertility’ or ‘sterility’ as a defined medical condition, but they often include recipes to aid conception. In most cases these recipes say little about why pregnancy may not occur, and focus instead on giving instructions to achieve the desired result, under headings such as ‘If a woman will conceive’.

Very large numbers ofmedical recipes survive from fourteenth and fifteenth- century England, making them a useful source for the common assumptions made by medical writers. To give an indication of the volume of material, the database of Middle English medical and scientific texts compiled by Linda Voigts and Patricia Deery Kurtz contains over 2,500 entries for recipes surviving in groups of three or more, and although that heading includes culinary and other recipes as well as medical ones it does not include material in languages other than English.13 The format and length of these collections is very variable. Some are comparatively standardized and survive in multiple copies, while others are unique compilations; some are carefully organized, others more haphazard in structure. Their language also varies. Until the late fourteenth century most medical recipes written in England were recorded in Latin (the language of universities) or Anglo-Norman French (the primary language of the English aristocracy), but from around 1375 we see a substantial growth in the use of English, stimulated by rising levels of literacy among laypeople who could not read Latin, and by the increasing use of English among the aristocracy.14

In many cases there is little indication of who owned and read the surviving manuscripts of recipe collections, but where owners can be identified, they are often male medical practitioners. This category included men from a variety of backgrounds, such as university-educated physicians, other literate physicians, surgeons, barber-surgeons, and apothecaries.15 Recipe manuscripts were not only confined to those who made a living from medicine, however, and some were also owned by clergy and educated laymen who may have practised medicine on a smaller scale.16 Two examples of these readers will be discussed later in the chapter: Robert Thornton (fl. 1418-56), a Yorkshire landowner who copied a recipe collection alongside a series of romances and religious works in the mid-fifteenth century, and John Rede (dates unknown), a parson based in Yorkshire who copied the same recipe collection in 1529 and noted how he had used some of the recipes in practice.17 Women are found as owners of recipe books occasionally, but in small numbers, compared to later centuries.18

Although they were sometimes owned by individuals who practised medicine, recipe collections do not give us unmediated reflections of most medieval people’s experiences of infertility, or indeed of any other condition. Literacy and access to educated medical practitioners were both restricted so it is difficult to tell how often the recipes in these manuscripts were used, or for what kinds of patients. Moreover, they are not records of treatments derived from popular culture: instead, they drew heavily on earlier Latin medical texts. They are therefore likely to tell us as much about the expectations of their educated and mostly male readers as about widespread medical practice. Nevertheless, they tell us about the kinds of information that were deemed useful for practitioners in those circles, about possible treatments, and about who was expected to administer them. Their focus on treatment rather than theory also suggests that recipes were designed to inform medical practice even if not every recipe was used. This is hard to prove, but a few manuscripts like John Rede’s include cures which the compilers claimed to have used on named individuals.19

The high number of surviving medical recipes from medieval England means that a comprehensive survey of treatments to aid conception is beyond the scope of a single paper. This chapter will therefore use as a case study the manuscripts of a single collection, the Liber de Diversis Medicinis or ‘Book of Diverse Medicines’. This is one of the more common collections, surviving in 17 manuscripts which were copied between the early fourteenth and early sixteenth centuries and which have been listed and discussed by George R. Keiser.20 We know two of the people who copied this collection: Robert Thornton and John Rede, mentioned above. The manuscripts of the Liber contain several remedies to help a woman conceive or a man to beget a child; to help a woman conceive a boy; or to test whether the ‘default of conception’ lies in the man or the woman. They are found alongside a few other recipes connected to the reproductive organs: for men there is a remedy for a sore penis, while for women there are several remedies to facilitate childbirth.21 Remedies for childbirth or a sore penis were designed to treat conditions which clearly afflicted one spouse or the other, but the remedies to aid conception that form the focus of this chapter are less closely tied to a single individual. These recipes were not necessarily only for cases when couples could not have any child at all, over a long period. They could equally be used when a couple simply wanted to increase their chances ofconceiving, or when they wanted a boy in particular, but references in one recipe quoted below to ‘barren’ women and the ‘man who may get no child’ suggest that longer-term infertility was one possibility envisaged by the anonymous compiler of the Liber.

The text of these recipes varies substantially between different manuscripts of the Liber as scribes omitted sections, added new material, and altered details. This level of variation is not uncommon in medieval recipe collections and the ways in which scribes adapted the collection tell us much about what they anticipated would interest the users of these manuscripts.22 By tracing these variations in how the conception remedies were copied and worded, we can uncover several different assumptions relating to who might seek and administer treatments to aid conception and cure infertility. In order to explore how representative the Liber de Diversis Medicinis was, I will also compare it with several other collections copied in England in the same period, to gain an impression of how far the same assumptions about men’s role in treatments to enhance fertility can be found more widely, and to see what other possibilities existed.

The recipes in the Liber de Diversis Medicinis and other medieval and early modern recipe manuscripts make use of spices, plants, and parts of animals, all of which may be taken orally, worn, or used to make ointments. Their use was based on two common assumptions made by pre-modern medical theory. Many remedies which used spices or plants were based on the theory of the humours. This was the dominant theory in learned medicine from ancient Greece until at least the seventeenth century, and it held that the body contained four substances called humours: phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile. Each humour had its own balance of four qualities - heat, cold, moisture and dryness - and if these qualities became unbalanced then illness resulted. Reproductive disorders in both men and women were often linked to a lack of heat in particular, and so treatment for both sexes involved the use of ‘hot’ plants which were believed to raise a person’s level of heat such as pepper or catmint. These substances were believed to aid sexual intercourse, promote conception, and even promote the conception of male children, and they could have that effect on either men or women.23 The use of animal parts was based on another assumption: that the sexual organs of animals - especially animals associated with sexual prowess or fertility, such as hares or cocks - could stimulate the reproductive organs of the men and women who ate them.24 Thus, although they seem outlandish to modern eyes, these plant-based and animal remedies were grounded in ancient and well-respected medical theories and were often drawn from earlier medical texts, and this is likely to have enhanced their authority for medieval readers.

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