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

“The Bank of Mum and Dad”, funding students since 1200

Although European society has changed hugely since the Middle Ages, some documents and objects from the time still have the power to speak straight down the centuries and demonstrate that despite radically altered worldviews, we do have things in common with our medieval ancestors. I was reminded of this when I came across a collection of model letters dating from 1200 to 1250, which contained templates for students to send to their parents. The style may be formal and full of allusions to Christian and classical literature, but the content is strikingly similar to students’ emails to parents today. The writer tends to slyly work his way from affectionate greetings and assurances of his hard work, to earnest requests for money or other commodities. Take this early 13th century model letter as an example; my favourite part is when the student says he “cannot now specify” his expenditure:

“B. to his venerable master [father] A., greeting. 
This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with the greatest diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion, as it is now two months since I spent the last of what you sent me. The city is expensive and makes many demands; I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify. Wherefore I respectfully beg Your Paternity that by the promptings of divine piety you may assist me, so that I may be able to complete what I have well begun. For you must know that without Ceres and Bacchus, Apollo grows cold. Therefore, I hope that you will act in such a way that, by your intercession, I may finish what I have well begun. 

Students in the 2nd half of the 14th century, by Laurentius de Voltolin
Students in the 2nd half of the 14th century, by Laurentius de Voltolin

Clearly the desired response to such a missive would be affectionate, containing liberal promises of monetary aid. However, medieval writers seem to have taken delight in composing parental reproofs full of withering put-downs. In one model answer from a collection in Franche-Comté, an exasperated father writes:

“To his son G. residing at Orl
éans P. of Besançon sends greetings with paternal zeal. It is written, ‘He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster’. I have recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies, whence it happens that you have read but one volume of law while your more industrious companions have read several. Wherefore I have decided to exhort you herewith to repent utterly of your dissolute and careless ways, that you may no longer be called a waster and your shame may be turned to good repute.”

Although these are model letters, we find their content replicated over and over in the following centuries in individually composed letters. Take, for instance, a 1762 letter from Jeremy Bentham to his father, written whilst he was a student at Queen’s College, Oxford. It is startlingly similar, except that he asks to be sent some tea and sugar, not money. Bentham reasons that these commodities are much cheaper in London, thus presenting his request in the light of economical living, although a cynic might view this as a mere ploy for a free home care package!

Bentham's letter of February 5th 1762 to his father
Bentham’s letter of February 5th 1762 to his father

Dear Papa
Queen’s. February 5th 1762.
I hoped to have had the pleasure of hearing from you before now; but as that could not be, I flatter myself I shall not be disappointed of an Answer to this, when it comes to hand. I have the Satisfaction of telling you that I go on briskly in Homer, doing generally a book in two days, which is no very inconsiderable thing, to do exclusive of the College-business. – You cannot expect a long letter from a place so destitute of Novelty as this is, all the news there is here is that the College is not only as full as it can hold but even fuller, there having come 3 or 4 in the little time that I was absent, one of whom his name is Piers; whose father is a wholesale grocer in London; which puts me in mind of my wants, which I hope you will supply; you may guess I mean Tea and Sugar; or else I must be forced to get some here at half as much again as you can get it me for; I have been forced to live upon my Friends these 2 or 3 days. Pray give my duty to Grandmama and love to brother Sammy, and fulfill the expectations of
Your dutiful and affectionate Son
J. Bentham”


Censoring Shakespeare


Shakespeare’s plays have been censored ever since they were first performed. Some, particularly the history plays, were censored in his own time because they were considered unwise, or even treasonous, in the contemporary political climate. In the 19th century, Shakespeare plays were also often censored, though for their occasionally racy and ‘indecent’ matter rather than their political content. Most famously the English physician and philanthropist Thomas Bowdler produced a sanitised edition of 20 of the plays in 1807, called The Family Shakespeare. 

Bowdler Family Shakespeare 1818
1818 edition of ‘The Family Shakespeare’

The Family Shakespeare was essentially a family-friendly edition of Shakespeare’s plays with the ‘naughty bits’ taken out. As one contemporary advertisement boasted, it omitted ‘those words and expressions…which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a Family’. Bowdler was inspired by personal example. In childhood, his father had entertained him with readings from Shakespeare, and it was only as he read them later that Bowdler realised his father had been leaving out or changing passages which he thought unsuitable for the ears of his wife and children.

Bowdler saw the need for an edition which might be used in a family where the father wasn’t a sufficiently ‘judicious reader’ to do this himself. He regarded the ‘coarse’ parts of Shakespeare as ‘defects which diminish [the literary] value’; he thought he actually did a favour to Shakespeare, whom he acknowledged as ‘the world’s greatest dramatic poet’, in taking away ‘obscenities’ and exposing the true genius of the text. Thus, the plays could be a more proper aid for the instruction of youth. They could now safely be put in the hands of innocent women and children.

'Lady reading by a window' ~ Thomas Benjamin Kennington, c. 1900
‘Lady reading by a window’ ~ Thomas Benjamin Kennington, c. 1900

So how did Bowdler decide what to take out? According to him, ‘if any word or expression is of such a nature that the first impression it excites is an impression of obscenity, that word ought not to be spoken nor written or printed; and if printed, it ought to be erased’. This ranged from minor text alterations to larger plot and character changes. Thus Ophelia’s death in Hamlet was depicted as an accidental drowning, to avoid any suggestion that she may have committed suicide, and the prostitute Doll Tearsheet was entirely left out of Henry IV, Part 1. Lady Macbeth’s famous ‘out, damned spot!’ became ‘out, crimson spot!; any exclamation of ‘God!’ was replaced by ‘heavens!’; Juliet’s cry ‘spread thy close curtain, love performing night’ was replaced with ‘spread thy close curtain, and come civil night’; and Mercutio’s ‘the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon’ was changed to ‘the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon’.

Some of the unfortunate victims of Bowdler’s expurgation:
Lady Macbeth (by John Singer Sargent, 1889)
Lady Macbeth (by John Singer Sargent, 1889)
Juliet (by Philip H Calderon, 1888)
Juliet (by Philip H Calderon, 1888)
Ophelia 1851-2
Ophelia (by John Everett Millais, 1851-2)

Although Thomas Bowdler published the work and had considerable influence on it, it was actually his sister, Henrietta Maria Bowdler, who was instrumental in preparing the first edition. Henrietta made a moderately successful career out of religious writing. She was the author of the best-selling devotional Poems and Essays, and she anonymously published Sermons on the Doctrines and Duties of Christianity, which went through nearly 50 editions. Amusingly, the Bishop of London himself believed the Sermons to be the work of a clergyman, and offered the anonymous ‘clergyman’ a living in his diocese!By all accounts, Henrietta seems to have lived in strict accordance with the moral principles laid out in these works. Gilbert Elliot, the Earl of Minto, said of Henrietta as a young woman, ‘she is, I believe, a blue-stocking, but what the colour of that part of her dress is must be mere conjecture, as you will easily believe when I tell you that…she said she never looked at [the dancers in operas] but always kept her eyes shut the whole time, and when I asked her why, she said it was so indelicate she could not bear to look’.

The gullible Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, who unwittingly offered a clerical living to Henrietta
The gullible Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, who unwittingly offered a clerical living to Henrietta

We shouldn’t be too quick to judge the Bowdlers harshly for their expurgation. Because they made Shakespeare’s plays suitable for family reading (according to contemporary standards), the plays continued to be read by women and children throughout the 19th century, whereas they might have been shunned for their perceived coarseness had no such family-friendly edition been available. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne defended The Family Shakespeare in this respect, saying, ‘no man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children’ Many Victorians did truly find Shakespeare too racy: in 1859 Queen Victoria wrote to her eldest daughter saying ‘by the by, you went to see the Merry Wives [of Windsor]…I have never had the courage to go to see it – having always been told how very coarse it was – for your adored Shakespeare is dreadful in that respect, and many things have to be left out in many plays’.

In fact, Bowdler inspired similar projects – Lewis Carroll once thought about creating a Girl’s Own Shakespeare, saying ‘I have a dream of bowdlerising Bowdler, i.e., of editing a Shakespeare which shall be absolutely fit for girls’. Unfortunately, Carroll never went ahead with the project so we’ll never know what a Victorian girls-only Shakespeare edition would have looked like! Bowdler went on to produce family-friendly versions of parts of the Old Testament and Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,though his greatest legacy has undoubtedly been the invention of the term ‘bowdlerisation’, defined (with good reason) in the Oxford English Dictionary as the act of removing ‘material that is considered improper or offensive from a text or account, especially with the result that the text becomes weaker or less effective’.