Food for Fertility

An essential aspect of womanhood in the early modern period was fertility; womanhood was synonymous with motherhood. As a result of this recipe books or informational books in this period often contained knowledge on how to increase fertility or increase chances of conception. I found it interesting that one of the first primary texts we examined in the module, being The English hous-wife written by Gervase, included a recipe for women to conceive. Reading this made me curious as to what other methods were used to aid fertility. The recipe itself is as follows:

“To make a woman to conceive, let her either drink mugwort steeped in wine; or else the powder thereof mixed with wine, as shall best please her tast.” [1]

The book is not particularly detailed in regard to quantities of the solution or how frequently it should be taken, and it does not specifically state why this recipe was effective. However, it was generally thought that mugwort would encourage normal menstruation and assist in the quickening of childbirth. [2] Because of this it is typically referred to as the ‘woman’s herb’. The regular bodily functions of women, specifically menstrual flow, was seen as essential to the health of the womb and therefore the ability to procreate.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris): flowering stem. Watercolour. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Other recipes for conception include that written by Hannah Woolley in her advice book to women. This recipe is far more complex than Gervase’s, containing significantly more ingredients and specifically mentioning the times of day the concoction should be taken. There is one similarity between the recipes however, being the use of mugwort. This suggests that there was a common belief that this plant was beneficial to the fertility of women. Other ingredients include English snake-weed root, nettle-seeds, eringo-root, nutmeg, dates, pistachios, saffron, cinnamon, vervain and pineapple kernels. The specific instructions for this treatment are as follows;

Take of this Electurary the quantity of a good Nutmeg in a little Glass full of White wine, in the Morning fasting, and at 4 a Clock After-noons, and as much at night going to Bed, but be sure do no violent exercises. [3]

Humoral theory played a crucial part in what was widely believed to increase pregnancy. The theory is based on the idea that bodily health is dependent on the balance of the bodies four humors, being black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Particularly important to the bodies well-being was temperature. It could not be too hot, too cold, too wet, or too dry. Jennifer Evans talking in great detail about the particular methods used to aid in procreation. She suggests that heat, being applied through hot foods, was perceived as essential to the creation of a child. This was rooted in the idea that hot foods would increase the heat of the womb, increasing lust and pleasure gained in sex. [4] There appears to have been a belief that increased sex would eventually result in a child, suggesting that issues conceiving was thought to be based on the frigidity of the women. The hot foods were thought to act as an aphrodisiac, increasing the chance of pregnancy through increased sexual intercourse.

Evans consults the work of Jakod Rueff, author of The Expert Midwife (1637). The foods he advised to help in this area were spices, including herbs, pepper, cinnamon and ginger, which we also see present in Woolley’s list of ingredients. Other contemporary authors such as Phillip Barrough emphasised the importance of consuming hot meats, particularly pheasant, chicken, doves, capons or sparrows. [4] Wine was also commonly advised to warm the body, an ingredient we see in both Gervase’s and Woolley’s recipes.

A previous blog post entitled ‘Recipes for Life’ also discusses advice to couples attempting to conceive. The post focuses Aristotle’s Master-piece. The book, like many other informative books of the period, focuses on humoral theory and the need to heat the womb rather than identifying treatment for the specific causes of the conception issues. [5] I would be interested in investigating further the methods and recipes for improving specifically female fertility. From earlier examples, one way this was thought to be achieved was through the regulation of periods. Mugwort was one ingredient used to address this issue. However, some contended that the womb needed to be cleansed before there would be a chance of successful pregnancy. Another recipe cited by Evans can be found in the recipes of Lady Ayscough. It included parsley, hazel nuts, arch angel flowers, and “the ‘pythe’ of an oxe back”. [4] Therefore, it is apparent that improving chances of pregnancy was strongly connected to increased sex, and the cleansing of the womb (or in other words the regulation of menstruation) which could be encouraged by the consumption of hot foods and certain herbs.

By Jasmine Moran

[1] Markham, Gervase, The English hous-wife (London, 1653), p. 31.

[2] Harford, Robin, ‘Traditional and Modern Use of Mugwort’, [assessed 2nd April 2019].

[3] Woolley, Hannah, The accomplish’d ladies delight in preserving, physick beautifying, and cookery, (London, 1685), p. 43.

[4] Evans, Jennifer, ‘Gentle Purges corrected with hot Spices, whether they work or not, do vehemently provoke Venery’: Menstrual Provocation and Procreation in Early Modern England’, Social history of medicine, volume 25, no. 1, (2011).

[5] mmorgan, ‘Recipes for Life’, [assessed 2nd April 2019].

5 thoughts on “Food for Fertility

  1. As a mother, it’s really easy to understand how and why these recipes for conception became so popular and why they are still so popular, albeit in different ways and with different ingredients. I wonder, as @samwoodward already mentioned, there was a sense of blame placed upon those who these remedies originated from if the pregnancy was unsuccessful or conception did not occur.

  2. It’s interesting to see how recipes varied and that some appeared to be as part of a regime rather than a simple cure. Do you think that the increased steps, including extra ingredients and set timing, allowed for extra room for error which could be used as an excuse if a woman was unable to conceive? Or more as an act to attempt to control fertility?

    1. That’s a really intriguing question. I would personally think that it was more connected to controlling fertility rather than increasing room for error. However, it would be interesting to consider the reasons behind taking medicines at certain times was recommended, and why it was so specific.

  3. Your post reminded me of the many supplements for ‘female health’ that we see in pharmacies today, and makes me wonder how much of that is influenced by recipes like the ones mentioned here. I would not be surprised to see ‘mugwort’ in the ingredient list of supplement bottles! I also thought of how advice travels from woman to woman through word of mouth and much of it is based on personal experience or simply knowledge gained through the generations. In Chinese culture, women practise ‘confinement’ after giving birth and are fed a variety of dishes that have ‘warming’ and healing properties. These recipes are typically passed down through generations and are based on a traditional Chinese understanding of medicine, food, and the human body, akin to the humoural theory mentioned in your post. Rather interesting to observe these similarities!

    1. That’s a really great point. I imagine that different families would often have their own methods of treatment passed down though generations which are probably lost to us now due to them being unwritten. It is really compelling that ideas linking temperature to correct bodily functioning (in this case relating to fertility and childbearing) can be seen across different cultures, thanks for sharing!

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