Scant Menses, Cold and Dry Testicles, and Why You Should Drink Herbal Wine in the Bath

I’m currently struggling to write a post for this blog in response to Louise Pennington’s question over on her blog, where she asks how we might interpret female infertility in theories about patriarchy. Since I’m getting absolutely nowhere with the wider question, I thought I’d share some medieval perspectives on the topic with you. Medieval medical writers talk quite a bit, as you might imagine, about infertility. Many of the medical cures for female infertility were attributed to a legendary woman doctor, Trotula of Salerno. The image below is from London, Welcome Library MS 544, p. 65.

'Trotula': London, Wellcome Library, MS 544, p. 65.
 
The collection of medical texts attributed to this shadowy female figure (she quite possibly never existed) was known, after her own name, as ‘The Trotula’. It includes a multitude of instructions:      
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
“If women have scant menses and emit them with pain, take some betony or some of its powder, some pennyroyal, sea wormwood, mugwort, of each one handful. Let them be cooked in water or wine until two parts have been consumed. Then strain through a cloth and let her drink it with the juice of fumitory. …In another fashion, take Florentine iris, lovage, catmint, colocynth, fennel, and rue. Let them be cooked in wine and let this be given to drink. … Or, let savin, wild celery root, fennel, parsley, lovage, and catmint be cooked in wine, and let this be drunk. … If she has no fever, let her eat leeks, onions, pepper, garlic, cumin, and fishes with scales. Let her drink strong wine if she has no pain in the head …” 

London, BL, MS Egerton 747. Medieval Herbal made in Salerno, c. 1280-1310. This image shows the herb 'birthwort'.
London, BL, MS Egerton 747. Medieval Herbal made in Salerno, c. 1280-1310. This image shows the herb ‘birthwort’.

Other recipes specified precisely how and where the medicine should be taken:

“take one handful each of mint, pennyroyal, and rue; three drams of rock salt, one plant of red cabbage, and three heads of leek. Let all these be cooked together in a plain pot, and let her drink it in the bath. … Likewise, take tansy, clover, mugwort, fry with butter, and place upon the navel.”

London, BL, MS Egerton 747, f. 76r Medieval Herbal made in Salerno, c. 1280-1310. Purslane and Pennyroyal.
London, BL, MS Egerton 747, f. 76r Medieval Herbal made in Salerno, c. 1280-1310. Purslane and Pennyroyal.

Admittedly, I totally love the way that the vast majority of these remedies include a good slug of booze, because let’s face it, if you’re going to be medieval and suffering from ‘scant menses,’ there’s no harm being tiddly while you do it. But, reading through the text, you can’t help noticing that women are given little indication that the fault might be anything other than their own bodies. The comments about male infertility are extremely brief, and much more absolute than the comments about women:

“Some men, indeed, have extremely cold and dry testicles. These men rarely or never generate because their seed is useless for generation.”   

Avicenna, Canon medicinae. Paris 13th century. Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 457, fol. 254v

Avicenna, Canon medicinae. Paris 13th century.
Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 457, fol. 254v

Poor menz.

In this medical literature as a whole, women’s bodies are imagined as delicately balanced, constantly in need of careful regulation in order to preserve fertility. Like the Daily Mail publishing another warning to career women about the state of their shrivelled thirty-year-old ovaries, these texts probably are rooted in genuine concern for women, but that’s overlaid by another motive: to publicize the role of those who attempt to cure recalcitrant female bodies. These texts function as records of the immense effort society expends on behalf of needy women.

The multitude of remedies for women isn’t dissimilar to the pleasant twenty-first century suggestion that all women should consider themselves ‘pre-pregnant’ – only here, the idea is that all women should consider themselves ‘pre-infertile,’ constantly alert to the possibility of reproductive disfunction. A cheerful thought.

Note

All quotations from Monica H. Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001)

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6 thoughts on “Scant Menses, Cold and Dry Testicles, and Why You Should Drink Herbal Wine in the Bath

  1. Interesting post! 🙂

    Although according to most works of medicine and natural philosophy men and women could be equally at fault for barrenness, it’s notable that the emphasis in treating sterility and in explaining underlying disorders was usually on the female’s failings. This is despite the fact that medieval concepts of human generation usually made the active party the male; even those who did not believe that the womb was merely a receptacle for male seed generally attributed the larger role in generation to the man. Galen described women’s role in generation thus: ‘the female must have smaller, less perfect testes [ovaries], and the semen generated in them must be scantier, colder, and wetter… Certainly such semen would be incapable of generating an animal.’ The implication here is that woman, weaker, colder, more imperfect than man, has only a secondary part in generation. Furthermore, Albertus Magnus described possible causes of male sterility as including ‘a failure of the seed; or from his excessive heat or fluidity or cold; or from a defect of the generative members – a long or short penis or [one that] cannot become erect, or cold testicles’. What then could be extrapolated about a man who failed to sire children? Was he weaker, colder, more flawed than the average man? Those are some questions I ask in my book 😉

    • I really need to read your book! I haven’t yet, which is bad. But I love the Galen quotation.

      I was trying to think through how it might have felt to be a woman on the receiving end of some of these ideas. What struck me was that while medieval medicine isn’t exactly pleasant on the whole, it doesn’t look as if anything done to men would have made them infertile. I’m planning a second post, but you’ll have read the same bits of Trotula as me – some of those remedies would have made women infertile, I think. Which just seems horribly sad. I suspect that, precisely because women were seen as more ‘passive’ in the process, it became more socially acceptable to tinker about with prescriptions and remedies aimed at women rather than men.

  2. I’m making a note to remind my husband of this should I ever publish a book. I can’t see him getting past page 3, but the intention will be there!

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