Review of Jennifer Evans, Aphrodisiacs, fertility and medicine in early modern England, by Dr. Elaine Farrell, Queen’s University Belfast

Jennifer Evans, Aphrodisiacs, fertility and medicine in early modern England (2014), x + 215 (Royal Historical Society: The Boydell Press) £50 h/b 9780861933242

By Dr. Elaine Farrell, Queen’s University Belfast, International Secretary for the WHAI

Jennifer Evans’ recent monograph provides a fascinating glimpse of the sexual and reproductive concerns of men and women in sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth-century England through an analysis of aphrodisiacs. This intriguing study reveals as much about contemporary views of sexual pleasure as it does about male and female fertility and impotence, given the perceived connections between them. Using contemporary writings such as medical texts, advertisements and erotic literature, Evans conveys how sexual difficulties and reproductive challenges were understood across the centuries and how various types of aphrodisiacs were utilised in response.  She showcases treatments to address or to promote sexual health, such as remedies gleaned from medical texts and recipe books, sexually stimulating foodstuffs, and ritualistic solutions to combat supernatural infertility or impotence invocations.

Chapter 1 focuses on the consumption and use of medical texts, whose prices could be high particularly if they included images (a couple of which are dotted throughout this monograph), and domestic recipe books. Readers’ annotations and additions to printed and manuscript texts, sometimes written in multiple hands, indicate active engagement with ideas about health and well-being. The desire to record personal successes and failures with particular remedies also demonstrates an awareness of the value of first-hand medical information and experience. It is thus unsurprising that recipe books were often passed down through generations (39). In recent years scholars have used these personalised books to consider women’s roles in maintaining the health of their families, particularly their children. Evans interrogates references to infertility remedies and aphrodisiacs in these medical texts and recipe books, illustrating their far-reaching use and influence. Such sources are skilfully considered alongside ballads, erotic literature and early modern pornography, all of which were consumed by women as well as men.

Infertility, the author makes clear, ‘threatened the microcosm of the home’ (25). However, she argues, women were not blamed for failure to conceive, and indeed barrenness was not grounds for marital separation in England (75). Given that it justified an annulment, however, impotence caused significant concern. Aphrodisiacs, ‘most commonly understood within the framework of marriage and procreation’ (2), were thought to arouse sexual desire and pleasure, and could thus promote reproduction. Chapter 3 focuses on foods that were thought to sexually stimulate. Contemporary writers advocated the heating of foods, such as cloves, cinnamon, mustard, pepper, ginger, saffron, and warm, juicy meats, to promote sexual lust.  Other foodstuffs, which changed across the centuries, were recommended to aid conception. The vague ‘nourishing food’ recommendations of the sixteenth century had been identified as soft eggs, game, and seafood such as oysters and crabs by the seventeenth century. Plants and vegetables that resembled male and female genitalia also feature. Although, Evans argues, aphrodisiacs tended not to be sex-specific, foodstuffs which were thought to introduce wind to the body were recommended for male impotence on the grounds that they ‘better enabled men to have an erection’ (109). Aphrodisiacs were also prescribed for supernaturally-induced infertility, sexual performance and lack of sexual desire, which are considered in chapter 4.  The analysis of ritualistic remedies, mixtures or aphrodisiacs prescribed by cunning folk, prayers, and charms indicates the multitude of interwoven suggestions that existed during this period.

The final of the five chapters focuses predominantly on women in its consideration of menstruation and miscarriage. The link between regular menstruation and fertility was made in early medical treatises: ‘While authors could be divided about the purpose of menstrual blood, it was consistently acknowledged that a complete lack of this blood, or the retention of this blood within the body, causing an internal excess, was damaging to the delicate humoural balance of the reproductive system’ (166). Unsurprisingly, therefore, remedies for the regulation or restoration of menstruation were common, some of which were similar to those prescribed as sexual stimulants. Desires to regulate menstruation and remove obstructions also appealed to women who found themselves unwantedly pregnant. Evans concludes that remedies often did not specify quantities, suggesting that a woman would use her knowledge of plants and herbs to determine the requirements for her particular goal (171). She advocates for the study of infertility in conjunction with pregnancy prevention or termination given that the same individual may have wanted to both stimulate and restrict her fertility at different stages of her lifecycle. Aphrodisiacs could also be utilised during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage but, Evans makes clear, seventeenth-century medical writers did not consistently or explicitly advocate their regular use because sexual activity was thought to pose a risk to the foetus and such remedies became even less common in eighteenth-century medical texts (180).

Evans highlights the dearth of evidence of magically-induced infertility, and the difficulties faced by scholars in interpreting details of enchantments and spells due to the vagaries of surviving texts. The nature of the sources means that there are few first-hand accounts from the men and women who resorted to medicines and foods to aid conception.  We know little about how the individual felt about resorting to recipes for impotence, the extent to which women used herbal remedies to regulate menstruation, where such practitioners may have been in their life-cycles, or levels of success with particular medicines. Similarly, the degree to which writers of medical treatises were consulted in private about sexual pleasure or reproductive issues remains unknown. While Evans makes clear efforts to highlight change over time, little attention is given to regional variations or practices in urban versus rural areas, likely due to the limitations of the sources. The analysis is flanked by a useful glossary at one end and a surprisingly short index at the other.

Aphrodisiacs, fertility and medicine in early modern England is effective at separating the complex strands of sexual pleasure, infertility and impotence, while at the same time demonstrating the commonalities and inextricable overlaps between them. Evans tells a fascinating story of sexual awareness, loss of libido, and ‘poorly concocted seed’ (78), while making clear the contemporary view that sexual pleasure was an important factor in promoting fertility. An impressively close reading of contemporary texts ‘demonstrates that the pleasurable nature of sex was fundamental to people’s expectations of sexual activity’ (194). This very readable and engaging monograph, which would interest scholars of gender, sexuality, and medicine, and those with a general interest in social history, offers an intriguing glimpse of the sexual knowledge and sexual concerns of England’s early modern inhabitants.