Infertility in Samuel Pepy’s England

I recently came across a striking passage in Samuel Pepy’s diary in which he receives advice on how to get his wife Elizabeth pregnant. At the time of writing, July 1664, he and Elizabeth had been married for eight years, but they remained childless. While attending a dinner on 26th July, Samuel asked the women present if they could give him any advice on how to overcome his and his wife’s apparent infertility. The women “freely and merrily” gave the following precautions as a certain means of conceiving:

1. Do not hug my wife too hard nor too much. 2. Eat no late suppers. 3. Drink juice of sage. 4. Tent and toast. 5. Wear cool Holland-drawers. 6. Keep stomach warm and back cool. 7. Upon my query whether it was best to do it at night or morn, they answered me neither one nor another, but when we have most mind to it. 8. Wife not to go too straight-laced [with her corset]. 9. Myself to drink Mum [a kind of beer] and sugar. 10. Mrs Ward did give me to change my plate. The 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th and 10th they all did seriously declare and lay much stress upon them, as rules fit to be observed indeed, and especially the last: to lie with our head where our heels do, or at least to make the bed high at feet and low at head.

Sadly for the Pepys, Elizabeth never did get pregnant. One diary entry from September 1664 reveals that when Samuel returned home after dinner with a friend, “I find my wife not well – and she tells me she thinks she is with child; but I neither believe nor desire it”. Whether this shows genuine resignation or a display of bravado, we will probably never know.

Elizabeth Pepys
Elizabeth Pepys
Samuel Pepys in 1666
Samuel Pepys in 1666

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But how typical were the remedies suggested to Pepys in the wider context of 17th century England? The womens’ recommendation that the couple should have sex whenever they both feel like it is unsurprising, as contemporary opinion held that it was necessary for both partners to enjoy sex in order to conceive. Supposed aphrodisiacs were therefore touted as helpful in overcoming infertility. Not only did aphrodisiacs stir up lust; they were also thought to have physical effects on the body which made both men and women more fertile. Many more foods were considered aphrodisiacs than today. Aristotle’s master-piece (1684) listed:

…among such things as are inducing and stirring up thereto, are…Hen-eggs, Pheasants, Woodcocks, Gnatsappers, Thrushes, Black Birds, young Pigeons, Sparrows, Partridge, Capons, Almonds, Pine-Nuts, Raysons, Currants, all strong Wines moderately taken; especially those made of the Grapes of Italy; but Erection is chiefly caused and provoked by Satyrium Eringoes, Cresses, Erysimum, Parsnips, Artichoaks, Turnips, Rapes, Asparagus, Candid Geinger, Gallinga, Acorns buried to Powder, and drank in Muscadel, Scallions, Sea Shell-Fish, &c.

Still life with oysters ~ Osias Beert (1610). Oysters and olives were commonly believed to be aphrodisiacs in 17th century England
Still life with oysters ~ Osias Beert (1610). Oysters and olives were commonly believed to be aphrodisiacs in 17th century England

Aphrodisiacs aside, infertility treatment was strongly influenced by the reigning humoural theory. It was commonly held that all disorders proceeded from an imbalance of the four humours: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Consequently, much advice was focused on balancing the humours in the womb, by avoiding excessive cold, moisture, dryness or warmth.

Of course, medical practitioners of dubious quality peddled secret elixirs and the like, which were supposed to provide sure-fire remedies for infertility. These were frequently advertised on handbills (advertisements of one or two sides). Remedies were, however, not left to the quacks alone. Women shared knowledge amongst themselves; many recipes for concoctions to cure infertility can be found in accounts and recipe books of the period.

These remedies may seem laughable now, but apparent infertility was extremely distressing for women in 17th century England. Pepys’ experience would seem to bely the common view that infertility was always believed to be a woman’s problem; in the diary, he recognises that the problem could be his as well. Yet women often bore the brunt of the blame. If a woman failed to have children, she had failed her primary purpose in life. Seemingly infertile women risked being mocked and even shunned by their contemporaries, and some women must have at times empathised with Rebecca when she cried to her husband Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die” (Genesis 30:1).


Further Reading

Anonymous, Aristotle’s Masterpiece (1684)
Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Coffee-houses of London

Stretching from the West End to the City, the coffee-houses of 17th and 18th century London formed the capital’s intellectual and social heartbeat. Coffee, a relatively new and exotic import, was only half the attraction: coffee-houses were forums for intellectual discussion, havens for dirty business deals and places where lords and sharpers won and lost enormous fortunes.

When coffee-houses first appeared in London in the mid-17th century they were largely indistinguishable from one another. However, as they faced ever-stiffer competition over time, each coffee-house developed its own character, playing host to diverse clienteles and catering to different needs. Some coffee-houses became so closely identified with specific groups or interests that Tatler, an early newspaper-journal, decided to group its stories under the names of coffee-houses. The first issue, in 1709, proclaimed that “all accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White’s Chocolate-house; Poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee-house; Learning, under the title of Graecian; Foreign and Domestick News, you will have from St James’ Coffee-house”.

 

17th-century London coffee-house
17th-century London coffee-house

Literature
There were many coffee-houses frequented by literary men, the first famous one being Will’s Coffee House in Covent Garden. John Dryden and his literary circle, known as the ‘Wits’, gathered there to discuss and review the latest plays and poems, and to read out their own work. As well as serious literary criticism, much amusement was to be had over the latest scurrilous pamphlets. Samuel Pepys records having heard a “very witty and pleasant discourse” at Will’s, though whether this was about weighty matters of allegory and hexameters, or gossip about Charles II’s latest mistress, he doesn’t say.  After Dryden’s death, Will’s began to decline: in April 1709, Steele lamented in Tatler that “this place is very much altered since Mr. Dryden frequented it; where you used to see Songs, Epigrams, and Satires, in the Hands of every Man you met, you have only now a Pack of Cards, and instead of the Cavils about the Turn of the Expression, the Elegance of the Style, and the like, the Learned now dispute only about the Truth of the Game”.

With Will’s now falling out of fashion, the literary focus of London shifted to Button’s Coffee House, just up the street. This was frequented by the next generation of writers and satirists: Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift among others. Pope’s satirical poem “The Rape of the Lock” was based on coffee-house gossip he heard at Button’s. Addison was particularly influential in raising Button’s status as a literary meeting-place. He advertised it heavily in his newspaper The Guardian; ultimately, it earned its fame from the quirky letterbox which Addison had built next to the front door. It was in the shape of a lion’s head, inspired by those Addison had seen in Venice. The idea was that writers could deposit their writings in the lion’s mouth, and these would then get discussed in the coffee-house by leading literary men.

 

An illustration of the lion's head letterbox at Button's Coffee House, into which aspiring writers put their works in to be discussed and reviewed
An illustration of the lion’s head letterbox at Button’s Coffee House, into which aspiring writers put their works in to be discussed and reviewed
Trio of notables at Button's Coffee House. ~ William Hogarth, 1730
Trio of notables at Button’s Coffee House. ~ William Hogarth, 1730


Science

Other coffee-houses branched out from literature into learned fields such as arts and sciences. Quite a few scientific institutions which are still around today had their beginnings in coffee houses. The Grecian, for instance, was particularly associated with science as it was the preferred meeting place of the Royal Society, Britain’s pioneering scientific institution. You would go to the Grecian to hear lectures and witness novel experiments; on one memorable occasion, several scientists, including Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley, dissected a dolphin on the premises. The walls of Don Saltero’s Coffeehouse in Chelsea, a favourite haunt of scientists such as Isaac Newton and Sir Hans Sloane, were covered with stuffed animals which included rattlesnakes, turtles and crocodiles.

Trade and finance
The 18th century saw a great rise in trade and commerce in Britain, with the development of a consumer society and the expansion of global exchange networks. London’s coffee-houses were central to how business was done, as they were frequent meeting places for merchants and traders. The very first stocks and shares were traded in Jonathan’s Coffee House, hard by the Royal Exchange. Some businesses even started operating out of coffee-houses. The most famous example is Lloyd’s Coffee House, which became the place to go for naval officers and merchants, who would gather to hear the latest maritime news and attend auctions of ships and their cargoes. Lloyd’s continued as the focal point for all matters maritime for the best part of a century, and in 1771 a group of 79 underwriters (men who insured ships) formed the Society of Lloyd’s, now known as the famous insurance market, Lloyd’s of London.

Lloyds of London insurance market, which started out as a Lloyds Coffee House
Lloyds of London insurance market, which started out as a Lloyds Coffee House

Politics
The streets around Westminster were also full of coffee-houses, frequented by politicians and observers interested in current affairs. Westminster coffee-houses, which were often divided up on party lines, functioned as political rumour-mills, making and breaking reputations. Richard Steele collected a lot of the political news for Tatler at these coffee-houses: “I appear on Sunday Nights at St. James’ Coffee-house, and sometimes join the little Committee of Politicks in the Inner-Roome, as one who comes there to hear and improve”.

 

Sociability
Other coffee-houses had purely social functions, such as White’s Chocolate House. White’s was founded in 1693 by an Italian, Francis White. It was increasingly known as a haven for gentlemen gamblers of the highest rank and fashion. Jonathan Swift called White’s the “bane of half the English nobility”, referring to how aristocrats could gamble away their patrimony in a matter of minutes. It managed to outlive most of its coffee-house rivals by turning into a private member’s club, thus enabling it to keep the air of exclusivity which still remains today.

 

Eccentricity
Some coffee-houses were altogether more quirky. At Moll King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden (an area notorious for brothels) you could flick through a directory of local prostitutes which listed their age, appearance, personality and area of expertise. At Lunt’s Coffee House in Clerkenwell Green the proprietor would cut your hair while you enjoyed your coffee. Hoxton Square Coffee House was renowned for its inquisitions of insanity, where suspected lunatics were tied up and wheeled into the room, awaiting the judgement of the patrons as to whether they should be locked up in an asylum. In an example of how not to be successful, William Hogarth’s father set up the Latin Coffee House in which the patrons were only allowed to speak Latin; perhaps this reminded people too much of dreary school-days spent declining Latin adjectives, as it was a miserable failure.
White's Chocolate House. In this painting, a man has just lost his fortune in the gaming room. ~ From William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress, 1735
White’s Chocolate House. In this painting, a man has just lost his fortune in the gaming room. ~ From William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, 1735

I have superimposed some of the most famous London coffee-houses, along with brief descriptions, onto a modern map of London. They only represent a tiny fraction of the thousands of coffee-houses which London boasted in its 17th and 18th century heyday, but the map also includes coffee-houses I have not mentioned.

“Teaching marble to lie”: Remembering the dead in early modern monuments

“For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten”. Ecclesiastes 9:5

How will we be remembered we die? Will we be remembered at all? These are questions which occupied minds in early modern England just as much as now. Wealthy men and women in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were very concerned about how they would go down to posterity. Although most of them probably believed in a Christian afterlife, they also hoped to prove the above Ecclesiastes verse wrong by ensuring that their memory lived on after death, thus ensuring an earthly quasi-immortality. This could be achieved most obviously through fame as a statesman, soldier or scholar, but one could also hope to secure remembrance via charitable endowments, building and portraiture, as well as through one’s offspring.

During the Middle Ages, paying for the singing of masses had been used by wealthy people as a means of shortening a soul’s stay in Purgatory, and also as a way of remembering and honouring their deceased kin. In post-Reformation England, however, paying for masses was no longer an option, so people had to venerate their family in more tangible ways. Robert Burton (author of The Anatomy of Melancholy) listed the things which well-off people did in the 16th and 17th centuries to commemorate their memory and the memory of their kin. They would dedicate “tombstones and monuments…epitaphs, elegies, inscriptions, pyramids, obelisks, statues, images, pictures, histories, poems, annals, feasts, anniversaries” and would “omit no good office that may tend to the preservation of their names, honours, and eternal memory”.

Memorial to Charles Wolfran Cornwall, a prominent 18th century politician © Caecilia Dance
Memorial to Charles Wolfran Cornwall,
a prominent 18th century politician. © Caecilia Dance
Late 16th century monument in York Minster showing the deceased man at his prayers © Allan Harris
Late 16th century monument in York Minster showing the deceased man at his prayers. © Allan Harris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One notable development in post-Reformation England was the enormous proliferation of funerary monuments both inside and outside churches. Medieval kings and queens had, it is true, merited elaborate tombs, and some nobles and wealthy merchants had also built themselves funerary monuments, but it was really only in the 16th century that the building of monuments and memorial inscriptions great and small took off, cluttering up England’s churches in the attempt to obtain a lasting remembrance on Earth.

Building a memorial for oneself or a family member was, as well as a means of remembering the dead, a sign of piety and worldly status. Only the gentry and wealthy merchants had the money and the social standing necessary to go about erecting memorials in church. The antiquary John Weever wrote that “every man…desires a perpetuity after death, by these monuments”, and a Jacobean antiquary remarked that a man could “perpetuate the reverend memory of his honourable parents, ancestors, and much beloved friends departed” by building them funerary monuments.

It has been estimated that between 1530 and 1600, around five thousand carved stone monuments were set up in churches across England; there were also innumerable cheaper panels of engraved stone, brass or wood for those who were not quite important or wealthy enough to merit the elaborate stone memorials. In the later 17th and 18th centuries, funerary sculpture grew ever more ambitious, featuring portrait medallions, pictorial reliefs and dramatic figural groupings.  One Jacobean antiquary described the “lively counterfeiting resemblance[s], effigies [and] pyramids” with which people decorated their memorials. A common “counterfeiting resemblance” seen on 16th and 17th century monuments is the depiction of the dead and their family, with children dutifully kneeling in a row at the bottom of the monument.
The Denny Monument at Waltham Abbey. Sir and Lady Denny with their 10 children. © Richard Croft
The Denny Monument at Waltham Abbey. Sir and Lady Denny with their 10 children. ©Richard Croft
A memorial to John and Grissell St Barbe of Romsey, also depicting their "fower sonns" © Caecilia Dance
A memorial to John and Grissell St Barbe of Romsey, also depicting their “fower sonns”. © Caecilia Dance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post-Reformation memorial inscriptions frequently contained a moral message, though it was less often a memento mori than a stern exhortation to lead a virtuous life. One 17th century Berkshire monument, after enumerating the qualities of the various members of the Yate family, ended with “Reader, depart, imitate”. Reading about the supposed merits of the deceased was intended to edify the onlooker and encourage them to better behaviour. Archbishop Matthew Parker (1502-75) admitted that the eulogistic epitaph which he wrote for his own tomb had less to do with his actual merits than a desire to make readers aspire to the virtues attributed to him.

Not everyone approved of this: Alexander Pope had no time for such ideas and condemned much of what was written didactically on funerary monuments as “sepulchral lies” (his own epitaph read “[Here] lies one who ne’er cared, and still cares not a pin/ What they said, or may say, of the mortal within”). The poet Matthew Prior wrote in 1714 of memorial inscriptions, “Yet credit but lightly what more may be said/ For we flatter ourselves and teach marble to lie”.

“Sepulchral lies” or not, the past few centuries have bequeathed us a rich collection of funerary monuments in churches across the country, both large and small. On a recent trip to Winchester Cathedral and the nearby Romsey Abbey I was able to see many excellent examples of early modern memorial inscriptions, ranging from the dull to the witty, from the pompous to the pithy.

Some were poignant testimonies of the unpredictability of life in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. I found many memorials dedicated to women who died in childbirth, sometimes just a year after getting married, along with inscriptions which reveal a high rate of infant and child mortality.

Near this place are interred
the remains of Mrs Ann Moody:
She Died January 14th 1780,
Aged 19 Years;
Also her infant Son,
aged 9 Weeks.
Look on this Monument,
Ye Gay and Careless,
think of its date,
and boast no more of to-morrow.

                       *    *    *

In Memory of Mary the Wife of John May
who died the 29th November 1781.
Also in Memory of all her children
Mary died in her Infancy
Ann died the 1st of May 1787 aged 17 Years
Mary died in June the same Year aged 11 Years
and Elizabeth died the 20th August 1791 aged 18 Years.

“If e’er the offspring of thy virtuous love bloom’d to thy wish, or to thy soul was Dear, this plaintive Marble asks thee for a tear”. 

Although one always expects to find a certain amount of eulogising on the larger memorials, I was surprised by the very secular character of several inscriptions. They seemed more fit for the description of a heroine in an 18th century sentimental novel than for the remembrance of a dead lady, however highborn she might have been. Take, for instance, the memorial inscriptions for Frances Viscount Palmerston and Elizabeth Montagu:

In Memory of Frances Palmerston:

Her Sense was Strong her Judgement accurate,
Her Wit engaging and her Taste refined,
While the Elegance of her Form,
The Graces of her Manners,
And the natural Propriety
That ever accompanied her Words and Actions,
Made her Virtues doubly attractive,
And taught her equally to command
Respect and Love.

*    *    *

Elizabeth Montagu
Daughter of Matthew Robinson Esquire
who possessing the united advantages
of Beauty, Wit, Judgement, Reputation and Riches
and employing her talents more uniformly
for the benefit of Mankind
might justly be deem’d an ornament
to her Sex, and Country.

Other epitaphs were simple yet touching; a welcome respite from the monuments which listed every last detail of a distinguished career, or eulogised the apparently endless Christian virtues of the dead. Romsey Abbey had an unusual memorial inscription commissioned by someone for a deceased family servant, “Honest Caspar”, and Winchester Cathedral featured a plaque dedicated to a charitable physician:

HONEST CASPAR,

Whose Remains are near
this Place deposited under a black Marble Slab.
His many good Qualities, and
long and faithful Service in the Family he lived,
during Sixty Years,
Justly claim this Act of grateful remembrance
from his surviving Master
as also hereby to commemorate
to the rising Generation,
in his Line of Life, to
imitate his worthy Example
He dyed the 26th May 1785
Aged 72 Years.

*    *    *

To the Memory of William Widmore,
He was (which is most rare)
A friend without guile,
An Apothecary without Ostentation.
His extensive Charity in his profession
Entitles him to be call’d
The Physician of the Poor.
Let other inscriptions boast
Honours, Pedigree, and Riches,
Here lies an honest Englishman.
Who died the 19th Day of June 1756

Although unusual in the early modern period, witty epitaphs and inscriptions were not unheard of. A famous example is the epitaph of the judge John Strange (1696-1754), which reads “Here lies an honest lawyer – that is Strange”. I found a humorous inscription on a gravestone just outside Winchester Cathedral, erected in memory of Thomas Thetcher, a young soldier who died of a fever contracted by drinking small beer on a hot day:

Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer
Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall
And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all.

Thomas Thetcher's gravestone in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral. © Supertechguy
Thomas Thetcher’s gravestone in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral. ©Supertechguy
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Further Reading
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Nigel Llewellyn, Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England (2009)
Nigel Saul, English Church Monuments in the Middle Ages: History and Representation (2011)
Peter Sherlock, Monuments and Memory in Early Modern England (2008)
Keith Thomas, The Ends of Life. Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England (2009)