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

Quack medicine: the “Grape Cure”

The number of quack cures peddled by doctors and salesmen over the ages never ceases to amaze. Most of the mixtures marketed were at best ineffective, and at worst poisonous enough that prolonged use could prove fatal (lead, arsenic and mercury all spring to mind). In order to make their product more attractive, producers would often advertise it as a cure-all solution.

Quack medicine: an 1890 advert for 'Hamlin's Wizard Oil', claiming to cure rheumatism, neuralgia, toothache, headache and diphtheria
1890 cure-all for rheumatism, neuralgia, toothache, headache and diphtheria

I recently came across one such cure which, whilst probably not harmful, seems dubious at best. Whilst browsing an 1892 copy of the Baedeker guide to the Rhine, I was intrigued by the mention of something called the ‘Grape Cure’. Considering the region’s longstanding reputation as a wine-growing area, I assumed that it involved the time-honoured ritual of drinking of large quantities of wine in order to miraculously cure one of all ailments, both mental and physical (at least temporarily). However, it turned out that the Grape Cure literally involved gorging on a prodigious quantity of grapes. Here is what the guide’s editor has to say about it:

Grapes when eaten in moderate quantity (1-2 lbs. daily) have a soothing effect on the mucous membrane, and in conjunction with a generous diet contribute materially to restore the strength of convalescents. When eaten in greater quantities (3-8 lbs. daily), the vegetable acid and salts produce an effect similar to that of mineral waters containing Glauber’s or common salt.

The grapes of the Rhenish Palatinate (‘Gutedel’ or ‘Junker’, and ‘Oesterreicher’ or ‘Sylvaner’) are large, thick-skinned, and well-flavoured, and hence this district is the centre of the ‘Cure’…good dessert-grapes may be procured almost everywhere on the Rhine, and the grape-cure may be undergone at Honnef, the Laubbach, Boppard, St. Goarshausen, Ruedesheim, Wiesbaden, Badenweiler, and numerous other summer resorts.

View towards the Marksburg, Rhineland-Palatinate. c.1890-1895
View towards the Marksburg, Rhineland-Palatinate. c.1890-1895

The Grape Cure, which was according to the Baedeker guide a “very popular Continental institution”, spread to America in an altered, more readily marketable form. In 1892, William Kelsey, the owner of a printing press in Connecticut, began marketing a patent remedy called ‘Dr. Baker’s Grape Cure’. He maintained that several “fat and jolly Germans” had discovered that eating nothing but grapes cleaned out their digestive system, made their liver healthy, and substantially improved their general health. The advertisement went on to claim that “our own Dr. Baker studied this wonderful medicine, and reduced it to an extract” which Kelsey sold for $1 a bottle. The formula contained water, fortified wine, glycerin, herbal extracts, and 80 grams of acetanilide (a pain remover), together with the “secret ingredient” so ubiquitous in quack medicines.

Kelsey is near-forgotten today, but the legacy of the Grape Cure’s most fervent advocate, Johanna Brandt, lives on. Johanna Brandt (1876-1964) was a South African propagandist of Afrikaner nationalism, spy during the Boer War, and writer on controversial health subjects. In her book, The Grape Cure (published 1928), she claimed that following a grape diet had managed to entirely cure her of stomach cancer. There is actually no evidence to suggest that she ever had cancer, let alone that she was cured of it by eating grapes. Doubtless hoping to boost her credibility, Brandt maintained that “books on this wonderful Nature Cure have been published in all the various languages of Europe” as far back as 1556. Her variant involved a strict regimen of fasting followed by a grape diet. For particularly weak patients grape juice could be used as a substitute, while for external cancers she recommended a grape poultice or a grape juice compress. Her explanation of the scientific workings of the cure is as follows:

The grape is highly antiseptic and a powerful solvent of inorganic matter deposits, fatty degeneration, morbid and malignant growths. It acts as a drastic eliminator of evil while building new tissue. Abnormal growths, cancers, tumors, ulcers, abscesses and fibrous masses seem to be dissolved by the powerful chemical agent in the grape. The secret of the Grape Cure in wasting diseases is to be found in the rich proteid supplied by the grape. Grapes are the most magnetic food, as every tendril of the grape is a living receiver of cosmic magnetism.

Johanna Brandt (1876-1964), advocate of the Grape Cure
Johanna Brandt (1876-1964), advocate of the Grape Cure


Brandt also maintained that the grape cure had demonstrated effectiveness against arthritis, diabetes, gallstones, cataracts, stomach ulcers, tuberculosis and syphilis; but it is its reputed effectiveness in curing cancer which has remained influential. It is not supported by any scientific evidence, yet a search for the Grape Cure on Google throws up a surprisingly large number of results. Brandt’s book is still selling on Amazon with a high proportion of 5 star reviews. The Grape Cure’s credibility is, however, rather undermined by the fact that it is frequently featured on sites with titles such as ‘Vibrational Healing’ and ‘MysticalPortal’.