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  • Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England by Jennifer Evans
  • Jane Bitomsky
Evans, Jennifer, Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England (Royal Historical Society Studies in History), Woodbridge, Boydell, 2014; hardback; pp. 225; 3 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £50.00; ISBN 9780861933242.

Oysters, artichokes, and new-laid eggs: provokers of venery or medicaments for infertility? Jennifer Evans explores the role of aphrodisiacs in early modern England. According to early modern medical and popular understandings, various consumables could both stimulate lust and enhance the generative body. Evans’s study focuses on how the consumption of aphrodisiacs was considered one of the viable treatments for infertility, with others including soft beds and hot baths, from 1550 to 1780. Through the analysis of printed and manuscript sources, the author argues that, though restricted within the sphere of marriage, early modern England had both a knowledge of what constituted ‘provoker[s] of lust’, and a belief that such foods and other substances affected the body’s reproductive processes.

Early modern knowledge of the sexual body and generation was disseminated through a diverse range of literary genres, from erotic literature to household recipe collections. The author asserts that an understanding of how views on sexual and reproductive bodies were inextricably intertwined is essential to historicising aphrodisiacs. In a statement alluding to Galen’s two-seed theory of sex and humoral theory, early modern theologian, Isbrand van Diemerbroeck, observed that ‘there is in the Seed of all Creatures, that which renders the Seed fruitful, and is called Heat’ (pp. 56–57). Without an initial sexual desire ‘heating’ the body and thereby stimulating the sexual organs, it was believed that conception would be unsuccessful. While the use of aphrodisiacs did not neatly conform to either Galen’s two-seed or Aristotle’s one-seed theory of reproduction, the practice did highlight the continuity of humoral theory in early modern England.

Medical writers in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries believed that a failure to conceive could be largely attributed to a loss of heat, a deprivation of seed, or a loss of sexual pleasure. Evans asserts that aphrodisiacs constituted a clearly delineated category of medications in the early modern period, with one of their key functions being to ameliorate the suspected causes of infertility. Irrespective of whether the cause of infertility was believed to be natural or magical, the ingestion of natural substances, such as aphrodisiacs, was consistently proffered as an effective treatment. Indeed, scepticism as to the reality of witchcraft in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to medical writers identifying other causes of infertility, such as anaphrodisiacs, rather than enchanted objects or ligature spells. Curiously, the author also draws a link between aphrodisiacs and emmenagogues, indicating that aphrodisiacs were believed to play a role in improving fertility even outside of the act of sexual intercourse. [End Page 293]

Aphrodisiacs were grouped into four main types: hot foods and heating herbs (e.g., rocket, mustard, pepper); nourishing foods and seed provokers (e.g., parsnips, crab, quail); windy meats and flatulent foods (e.g., beans, peas, pine nuts); and sympathetic stimulation and the doctrine of signatures (e.g., satyrion, carrots, acorns). The author observes that many of the grouped aphrodisiacs were thought to have multiple properties, and could fall into more than one of the above classes. It should be noted that windy meats were a contested category, and ultimately discarded upon the late seventeenth-century medical finding that the male erection was driven by a series of blood vessels, as opposed to wind.

Ideas about aphrodisiacs in the early modern period were ubiquitous and dynamic. Anatomical discoveries led to shifts in which substances were considered effective. An initial belief in the ability of aphrodisiacs to also prevent miscarriage had faded by the eighteenth century. The author attributes this particular shift to an emerging sense of food and medicine as distinct entities. Similarly, while aphrodisiacs were initially considered to have universal application, by the eighteenth century, they were increasingly becoming gendered.

Evans offers an engaging and thorough analysis of the changing role of aphrodisiacs in early modern England. This text presents an integrated view of early modern sexual health practices...


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pp. 293-294
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