Medieval Infertility Treatments Were Totally Insane

Coitus Liber Tacuina sanitatis (XIV century), Ububchasym Baldach, s. XIV-XV, Bibliotheca Casanatense Roma. Italia. Public Domain

Back in medieval Europe, the solution to difficulty conceiving was a concoction of ground pig testicles sprinkled in wine. Failing that, you could then try some catnip-infused wine and drink it down on an empty stomach.

Dr Catherine Rider, a medieval historian at the University of Exeter in the UK, has recently been rummaging through a series of medical and religious texts from the 12th-15th centuries that shed light on a whole host of strange (and totally unscientific) remedies for infertility. Many were written in Latin, the language of the elites, but some of the texts were then translated into English or French and modified for people from a slightly less educated background.

According to The Liber de Diversis Medicinis, a collection of medical “recipes” from the 15th century, "If a man wishes that a woman will conceive a child soon take catmint [catnip] and boil it with wine until it is reduced to a third of its original volume, and give it to him to drink on an empty stomach for three days."

Another text advises to "Take a pig's testicles, dry and grind them, and give them to drink with wine for three days". It is not clear whether the man or the woman was supposed to drink the potion.

One of the earlier texts is a 12th-century treatise about "Gynecology" called Trotula. The anonymous author describes an off the wall theory of how to tell if you or your partner is infertile. The aim of the game is to both pee in a pot then leave it nine or 10 days. If worms appeared in the pot, you were deemed to be infertile.

This text also states that “conception is impeded as much by the fault of the man as by the fault of the women," which is unexpected. After all, the Middle Ages were known for gender equality as much as they were for scientific prowess.

The records also showed that male infertility was recognized by medieval marriage law and could even be grounds to annul a marriage. 

“Although medical texts tended to devote most space to female infertility, male infertility was nonetheless regularly discussed as a possible cause of childlessness in academic texts and by educated medieval medical practitioners,” Dr Rider explained in a statement.

The study suggests that even back then people recognized that male reproductive disorders were more than just dysfunction during sex.

"It is hard to know whether men or women were more likely to seek treatment for infertility in practice," Dr Rider added. "Most of our evidence comes from doctors who discussed what 'might' happen and how to treat these problems."

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