Jennifer Evans

Women in early modern England were partly defined by their work, for example spinsters and midwives. Their position in the community was also established by bearing children and becoming a mother. The gathering of women around the birthing room was an opportunity to share reproductive knowledge and to become fully integrated into the circle of married women in their neighbourhood.

But not all women achieved motherhood easily. Sarah Savage recorded in her diary on the 25 October 1687 that she worried God would ‘delay or totally deny ye mercy of children to me’ and two months after her wedding she prayed to God to make her a fruitful vine. Sarah’s story was familiar enough that ephemeral literature such as pamphlets and ballads played upon the theme of barrenness and childlessness. A wife in the pamphlet Fumbles-Hall (1675) complained that her neighbours mocked her as a ‘Barren-Doe’. The ballad The Mistaken Midwife (c.1674) also considered ‘the scandal of Barrenness’ and told the tale of a midwife’s use of deceit and lies to hide her infertility: firstly using a cushion to mimic the swelling of the pregnant stomach and then stealing a still born child to imitate parturition. The ballad was suffused with a sense of pity for the ‘wretch’ whose job was so closely connected to reproduction and childbirth but who could not be like other women.

L0006501 Lying in room with attendant, child and midwife, 1616

Jacob Reuff, Lying in room (1616) Wellcome Library London

Infertility was also discussed extensively early modern medical literature. Such works, like ballads and personal literature, emphasised the pain and desperation women, and men, felt in this situation. The English translation of François Mauriceau’s midwifery treatise lamented the ‘great passion which many have, who complain of nothing with greater regret than to [be] without Children’. Many authors related the despair women felt to biblical precedents. Jane Sharp, who wrote the first female authored midwifery treatise, noted that barren women followed in the footsteps of Rachel who cried out ‘Give me Children or else I die’.

Infertility was not always blamed on women, it was acknowledged by physicians, surgeons and other medical writers that the male reproductive body could fail and lead to a couple’s barrenness. It was also believed that couples could be incompatible. The treatise The Practice of Physick (1665) explained that there was ‘a certain disproportion or unsutableness between the Mans and the Womans’ seed, which meant that even though there was no ‘sensible defect, either in the Man or Wife’ they would live ‘together in the married estate barren’, but ‘the same man can have a child by another woman, and the same woman by another man’.

Yet, in part because of the biblical connection, barrenness was often construed as a particularly female ailment. Numerous treatises thus offered means of testing female fertility. The same medical text, The Practice of Physick, explained that female infertility/fertility could be established in several ways: ‘that it may be known whether a woman be fruitful or not, by putting a head of scraped and peeled Garlick into her Womb; for if the next day the smel shall come into her mouth, she is apt to conceive; if not she is barren.’ Alternatively the author suggested ‘you put a little Balsom mingled with Water, and received in Cotton, into the Womb, binding it with a string to her Thigh; for if the womb do draw it inwards, it is a most approved sign of fruitfulness.’

Women who could not conceive were not simply left to despair having attempted to understand their reproductive abilities. Medical texts offered a wealth of advice for those trying to conceive. Much of this advice followed the principles of humoural medicine and so sought to balance the complexion of the womb – tempering excessive heat, dryness, moisture and cold, all of which were believed to disrupt fertility. Other remedies contained ingredients designed to stimulate sexual desire and pleasure which were considered essential for reproduction. John Pechey’s The Compleat Midwife’s Practice (1698) included several remedies ‘against barrenness’, one of which contained pine-nuts, sweet almonds, the famous aphrodisiac satyrion, prunes, coriander and cinnamon, amongst other ingredients. Another set of medicines were labelled to ‘increase Lust, and to help Conception’, one of which contained ‘Pine-Apples’, filberds (hazelnuts), the brains of a cock sparrow, satyrion and the stones of a Ram roasted.

Wellcome Boyle

Wellcome Library London MS 1340 Boyle Family recipe collection.

Women, and men, themselves shared and recorded their favoured remedies for promoting fertility in domestic remedy collections. The recipe collection of the Boyle family included a set of remedies to remove barrenness and suggested that an infertile woman should wear the Carlina root around her neck and walk ‘with a strong lusty fruitfull Woman in Sun-Shing days & treads & goes in her shaddow which se casts, the Party so treading will attract the strength and fruitfulness from the other whose shadow she treadeth upon.’ The collection attributed to Johanna Saint John included a set of remedies for infertility and the accompanying notation suggests that the remedy was used successfully: ‘To Cause Conception Mrs Patricke Conceived Twice together with it & she advised it to one that had been 9 years marryed on whom it had the same effect’.

The history of pregnancy and childbirth has long been a topic of discussion for amongst historians of women’s history and feminist historians. It has provided a stories of female reproductive agency by revealing the use of family limitation strategies and contraceptives. The current surge of interest in infertility amongst historians, of both the medieval and early modern world, is adding nuance to these stories by unravelling how women, and men, acted to enhance, as well as limit, their fertility. These histories are demonstrating the hopes and fears of women, the reactions of the community to those who failed to become mothers, and the steps many took to avoid the ‘scandal of barrenness’. 


University of Hertfordshire Humanities Staff Photography 2014 © by Pete StevensDr Jennifer Evans is a lecturer in history at the University of Hertfordshire. She researches the history of infertility and sexual health in early modern England. Her first monographAphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in early modern England was published as part of the Royal History Society’s Studies in History Series in October 2014. She is founding editor and tweets from @historianjen