Medieval medical text

Medieval Men With ‘Unsuitable Seed’ Prescribed Ground Up Pig Testicals

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A recent study of medical and religious texts suggests that men were diagnosed with infertility as far back as Medieval times, and indeed may be held responsible for the inability to have children. Treatment regimes, at times bizarre and unpalatable, included eating ground up pig testicles.

A Medieval Medical Text (Wellcome Library Collection)

A Medieval Medical Text (Wellcome Library Collection)

New Study Shows that Men Were Blamed for Infertility too  

For medieval men, success meant succession. Heredity was at the center of law and order, from the king down through the ranks of society. As a result, the moment children reached marriageable age everyone’s focus was on their fertility. Even though it is believed that women in medieval England were blamed for childlessness most of the time, a new analysis of popular medical and religious books by the University of Exeter shows that from the 13th century, many of these medical texts acknowledged the possibility of male infertility, including sterility and “unsuitable seed” as Phys Org reports .

The Medieval manuscript of Paris, dedicated to wellness. Bibliothe`que nationale de France

The Medieval manuscript of Paris, dedicated to wellness. Bibliothe`que nationale de France

Surprisingly, a 12th century gynecological book called The Trotula , describes a urine test which determined if it was the man or woman that was to blame for the “defect.” The book detailed that both the man and the woman should each urinate in a pot of bran, and the pots should be left for nine or ten days. If worms appeared in one of the pots, then that person was considered the infertile partner.

Catherine Rider, senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Exeter and expert on medieval magic, medicine, religion and marriage, has studied many popular texts from the period and shared her knowledge, as Phys Org reports , “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, and this information may have been used on occasion when treating childless couples. These books show people had accepted long ago that male reproductive disorders were not just about problems that occurred during sex."

The Strange Medieval Treatments For Infertility

But what kind of treatments did a man who couldn’t impregnate his wife have to go through? The first and most common solution was prayer. When prayers didn’t work (and usually didn’t), there were more “drastic” treatments. For example, The Liber de Diversis Medicinis , a collection of medical recipes from the 15th century, mentions among others, “If a man wishes that a woman will conceive a child soon take catmint 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 medieval book, located in the Wellcome Library in London, suggested that in order to stop sterility, a person should take pigs’ testicles, dry and grind them, and drink them with wine for three days.

Medieval illustration of a man being given medicine

Medieval illustration of a man being given medicine ( University of Aberdeen )

As for Dr. Rider’s conclusions? She said as Org Phys reports , “We can't fully understand what attitudes were like towards male infertility in the Middle Ages because we have so few records which describe the experiences of people who had reproductive disorders. It is hard to know whether men or women were more likely to seek treatment for infertility in practice. Most of our evidence comes from doctors who discussed what might happen and how to treat these problems.” And continues, “It is hard to know whether men or women were more likely to seek treatment for infertility in practice.  Most of our evidence comes from doctors who discussed what might happen and how to treat these problems,” implying that further research and more information is needed so we can decisively know more details about male infertility in Medieval England.

Top image: Medieval medical text ( public domain )

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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