Men’s and Women’s Responses in Other English Recipe Collections

To what extent was this range of male responses typical of English medicine in this period? In the absence of a large-scale study it is impossible to answer this definitively, but other fourteenth and fifteenth-century recipe collections include similar remedies to those described in the Liber, as well as mentioning a number of other possibilities. The bran-and-urine test to see whether the man or woman is infertile is found in other fourteenth and fifteenth-century recipe collections.45 Thus the idea of a man participating in a fertility test was likely to have been familiar to readers of medical recipes as well as readers of longer works such as the Latin Trotula or its English translations. Other fourteenth and fifteenth-century recipe collections also included recipes in which treatment was given to both the man and the woman similar to those in the Liber. For example, a fifteenth- century collection of recipes owned by one Master William Somers (about whom nothing else is known) recommends:

For default of issue of a man or woman: Take the testicles and the navel of a male pig who is the only one in the sow’s litter, and dry them and make powder, and give this powder in the evening to the man who may not engender and to the barren woman.46

However, like the Liber, Somers’s manuscript also included other remedies for the woman only. One was a remedy ‘for a woman who wants to conceive’ where all the action was taken by her, including (it seems) the initiative to have sex: ‘dry the testicles of a boar or a young male pig and make powder of them, and drink with wine, and then do her lay by her husband’.47

Several recipe manuscripts which do not mention any male response to infertility at all also confirm the impression that the man’s participation might be useful but was not essential. A collection which was probably put together in the fifteenth century by Nicholas Spalding (dates unknown), who may have been a medical practitioner, recommended bloodletting and two medicines to treat infertility caused by an excess of cold humours in the woman: ‘For a woman who may bear no child because of cold blood: Let her blood and take triasandali and diapendion [two recognized medicines composed of a variety of ingredients] and take and lay them together with honey and eat from them each day, and [she will] have blood that is both hot and good’.48

Another fifteenth-century manuscript (owner unknown) contains a highly detailed set of instructions for a religious cure which is implemented by the woman alone. She is to arrange a weekly mass in honour of St John the Baptist, at which she must be present. She must also have seven candles made in honour of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and have them burning at these masses. If she does this, she will conceive within a year. There is no mention of the man’s involvement.49

However, although women’s actions are described more often than men’s, a minority of manuscripts do include recipes for the man to use alone, without the woman’s participation. William Somers’s manuscript includes one for a man who ‘may not engender’ which imagines him administering the treatment for his own infertility or sexual dysfunction (‘may not engender’ could refer to either condition): ‘He should anoint his privy members with a bull’s gall’.50 A second collection of remedies of unknown provenance, probably copied in the fifteenth century, includes a remedy to be used by the man, even though it is implied that the woman is infertile: ‘For to make a woman conceive, take an ointment of the brains of a crane and gander’s fat and lion’s fat and anoint the man’s penis. If the woman might not before conceive, after that she shall’.51 As in Somers’s collection, however, this remedy is accompanied by other recipes to be used by the woman alone: male initiative is only one of several possible responses.

A final and more unusual possibility is suggested by a late fourteenth and early fifteenth-century collection of medical, astrological, and divinatory works of unknown provenance. This manuscript includes no conception remedies for the woman but includes one for the man which not only requires him to take the initiative, but explicitly excludes the woman from active participation: ‘So that a woman conceives: Give her mare’s milk to drink without her knowledge and at once if someone has intercourse with her she will conceive’.52 Like many recipes, this one derives from an earlier Latin source: in this case from the late thirteenth-century Marvels of the World attributed to the philosopher Albertus

Magnus (d. 1280), which discussed the wondrous properties of natural substances.53 Although the woman’s husband is not explicitly mentioned, he is probably the most likely person to be able to give her mare’s milk before sexual intercourse. Here a male reader is expected to take the initiative on his own behalf and not as part of a joint response to infertility.

A variety of medical recipe collections therefore assume that men will play a role in seeking out and using treatments to aid conception. This suggests that the Liber de Diversis Medicinis was not unique in its assumptions, and indeed it would be surprising if it were unique, since many medieval recipes drew on the same pool of earlier texts such as the Trotula. In several cases the men’s role is imagined to be a more active one than in the Liber, and they are expected to apply treatments to themselves without any equivalent treatment to be applied to the woman; but, as in most manuscripts of the Liber, these male-initiative recipes are rarely the only possibility envisaged and they are not the most common. Nevertheless, in a minority of cases (as in a minority of manuscripts of the Liber) men are given a very prominent role and women’s active participation is largely absent.

 
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