Tag Archives: Fertility

Fertility and the Future Generation

Previously, I had generally understood the basics behind the ideology of humorism. I thought it was only used as a way to identify the composition of the human body, which consisted of four bodily fluids; black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. However, after reading  Aristotle’s Master-piece Completed, in Two Parts and ‘Medicine, Marriage and Human Degeneration in the French Enlightenment’ by Michael Winston, my simplistic understanding of the system changed. Once I found out about the ideologies that had emerged based on this, it gave me a new insight into the mentality and desires of the early modern family. For instance, during the early modern and Enlightenment period, these humors were considered to affect fertility and thereby the degradation of future generations

.                          aristotle

I came across in my reading that many things were considered in the early modern day to affect a woman’s fertility. One them was the lifestyle of the higher class. It was notable that the rural or laboring, poor did not encounter the same issues with their fecundity as the middling or elite class. I guess when you consider the idea that rural class needed children to help work, whereas the elite class didn’t and there was less pressure to produce a sizable family, it is logical.

However, I found it oddly interesting that although sex was considered a ‘cold’ act, and only men had the ‘juice’, if a female wanted to encourage her fecundity, it was ideal that her body should be hot during love-making. Many methods and sexual practices were suggested such as eating spicy foods and taking hot baths. For instance, Aristotle suggests that couples who desire to have children should drink some wine moderately, to’set the mood’ lift their spirits. This was important

“… for if their spirits flag on either part, they will fall short of what Nature requires; and the woman either miss of conception, or else the Children prove weak in their bodies, or defective in their understandings.” p.93

Moreover, Aristotle’s advice indicates that getting pregnant wasn’t the major issue but the precautions that had to be taken to avoid a miscarriage and have healthy children with a higher mortality rate was.

“…for anything of sadness, trouble and sorrow, are enemies to the Delights of Venus; and if at such times of coition there should be conception, it would have a malevolent effect upon the children.” p.92

Although I could understand to some extent why they would have thought this could work and be effective, I can’t help but find it amusing. Considering the 16th century up until the 18th century was characterised by stagnant population growth and reduced fertility [1] it is understandable how finding remedies for this problem were desired by many in early modern society. In the wider context, the growth in self help literature and even home-made recipes of a similar nature made it easier to provide this.

The pressure on people in the early modern Europe to be married and fufill the true ideal goal of marriage, which was the production of healthy children, was immense. Children were considered to be the foundation of a loving family. Texts such as Venette’s Tableau de l’amour conjugal, suggests that marriage and family is the basis of social order.

“marriage is life’s most pleasant bond, the support of society” [2]

Notably, the idea that family is central to a functional society still exists today. The only slight difference is in the early modern era they believed the health of a child was due to the temperaments and body temperature of the parents, whereas in today’s society, many cases have argued that genetics or the upbringing of an individual is what can predetermine their behaviour and actions. After reading various articles, I found that though a lot of beliefs of earlier societies appear foreign at face value, the more you find out, the more you can see how the values and beliefs we have in today’s society had emerged and developed up until now.


[1] Evans, J. ‘‘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 25, 1 (2012) p.5

[2] quoted in Michael Winston, Medicine, Marriage, and Human Degeneration in the French Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 38, No. 2 (2005) p.268