Despite an expansive historiography related to early modern pregnancy and childbirth, scholars have been less interested in the history of infertility. Accounts of illicit sex, unwanted pregnancies, and infanticide abound, but our knowledge of how couples responded to an inability to conceive a child is much less complete. Daphna Oren-Magidor argues that, “scholars have downplayed the significance of infertility in early modern English society” (3) even though, “the centrality of childbearing to the early modern social order meant that the idea of failed reproduction was destabilizing” (2). Her excellent and welcome study corrects this scholarly omission and reveals the multiple levels on which infertility registered: “infertility was not solely a personal misfortune, but…a source of social and cultural anxiety” (2). Noting that many early modern couples experienced fertility problems at some point but ultimately had children, or had children with another spouse, Oren-Magidor encourages a re-historicization of our modern, medicalized conception of infertility. Instead, the book defines ‘infertility’ broadly as “any condition that hindered a couple from having viable children who could survive outside the womb” (5-6). Among the conclusions that Oren-Magidor draws is that early modern men, as well as women, were concerned about and struggled with infertility. Patriarchal society was invested in men’s demonstrations of virility and potency as much as it was women’s sexual honor and maternity. On an individual level, however, there were gendered differences in the experience of infertility. While the suffering a childless woman might experience was tied to the centrality of motherhood for early modern women’s social identity, men generally expressed distress over inheritance and the survival of the family name. Oren-Magidor also argues that whether experienced as a personal hardship or as cultural metaphor, early modern infertility was understood and mediated through religion. Fertility problems were often seen as a sign of personal failing or divine disfavor. These religious undertones allowed infertility to serve as a trenchant cultural metaphor signaling right and wrong behavior in an early modern society obsessed with order and hierarchy. Oren-Magidor’s investigation of popular sources such as ballads, plays, and literature, for instance, reveals that figures who transgressed the social or gender order might be punished with fertility problems. Chronologically, the study extends from 1540 to about 1714, when the end of Queen Anne’s reign concluded a series of highly public royal fertility problems. This period encompasses the religious upheavals of the Reformation as well as the increasing intervention of male medical practitioners in the realm of reproduction. As scholars have noted, the Reformation had a significant impact on reproductive practices. Protestantism disavowed a monastic path for women, heightening the centrality of motherhood to women’s social identity. At the same time, the possibilities for divine intervention in reproductive matters was narrowed, as a range of religious rituals related to pregnancy and fertility, especially those that relied on saintly assistance, were rendered invalid and charged as papist. After an introductory first chapter, the book’s four body chapters move thematically outward from the personal to the societal. Chapter two uses diaries and other personal accounts to consider the individual experiences of men and women who struggled with fertility issues. While these accounts expressed deep emotional suffering over infertility, Oren-Magidor notes that fertility problems were rarely a secret. Kin and neighbors watched for a newly married couple to become pregnant and used gossip and other means to police couples who failed to produce children. Chapter three surveys a number of midwifery manuals and related medical texts to understand how contemporaries perceived infertility in a physiological sense. A humoral understanding of the body defined infertility as the product of imbalance, particularly of excess and immoderation in diet, exercise, or sexual behavior. In this way, medical and moral failings were considered deeply connected. Chapter four extends beyond individual experiences to explore how infertility served as a larger cultural metaphor for sexual and social transgression. Oren-Magidor asserts that across “medical writing, religious guidebooks, ‘popular’ and ‘high’ literature, political polemic, and more” (87), there was a shared insistence on infertility as a mark of transgressive behavior by both men and women. These sources depict infertility as a punishment for sin, particularly the sins of adulterous, outspoken, or promiscuous women, but also those of effeminate and emasculated men. Chapter five turns to early modern treatments for infertility, highlighting the ways religion and medicine informed and responded to one another. Popular therapies often involved prayer and sympathetic magic, even as they addressed humoral imbalances. Oren-Magidor’s most important contribution may be that infertility upset the social order as much as sexual transgression or illegitimacy. Failed reproduction, like reproduction out of the confines of marriage, represented a threat to the carefully guarded hierarchy and order of an early modern community. This study also illuminates the extent to which medicine and religion were intertwined in early modern society. Men and women used both prayer and physic to confront fertility problems they understood as simultaneously physiological and moral conditions. Unfortunately, reliance on the writings of royal and elite women does not always allow Oren-Magidor to capture the experiences of common folk dealing with infertility. Although this lacuna may be impossible to fill with surviving sources, Oren-Magidor might have benefitted from some additional references to Continental material. For instance, Oren-Magidor briefly discusses men’s experiences with impotency, but fails to note the wide interest at the time in Viagra-like natural remedies, the search for which sent more than one naturalist to the New World. Furthermore, Oren-Magidor’s decision to organize her book thematically rather than chronologically because, “there was no dramatic shift in how infertility was understood, treated, or experienced between 1540-1714” (8), seems curious given her own acknowledgement of both the upheavals wrought by English society’s experience of religious reformation and the greater intervention of medical practitioners in reproduction across this period. Apart from these relatively minor criticisms, Oren-Magidor has produced a finely crafted study that provides a much needed re-centering of infertility and the struggles men and women confronted in order to have children in discussions of early modern reproductive practices. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 24, 2018
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