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

‘Lisztomania’: Franz Liszt, sex, and celebrity

The 19th century witnessed the rise of the celebrity musician. Previously, musicians were wholly dependent on aristocratic or ecclesiastical patrons, and their output was determined by the wishes of these sometimes despotic individuals. Bach, for instance, was a mere Kapellmeister, and Haydn was not much more than a court servant. Even Mozart was unhappily dependent on patrons such as the Archbishop of Salzburg. Beethoven could perhaps be credited with starting the cult of the musician, but it was not until Paganini appeared on the musical scene in the early decades of the 19th century that a performer achieved celebrity status.

Niccolo Paganini, an Italian violinist, was renowned for his outstanding talent. His gripping performance style was an important influence for Franz Liszt, who attended one of his concerts in 1832, saying afterwards, “what a man, what a violin, what an artist! Heavens! What suffering, what misery, what tortures in those four strings!…As for his expression, his manner of phrasing – they are his very soul!” But Liszt’s meteoric rise would eclipse even Paganini’s bright star. As one observer remarked in 1832 of Liszt, “when he appears, he will eclipse all other like a sun!”

Franz Liszt was a musical genius, undoubtedly one of the greatest pianists of all time. He could boast of extraordinary technique and immense powers of expression, and was already delighting audiences at the age of twelve. At his first public concert in Vienna, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported that some audience members had cried out “A miracle!”, while others suspected some sort of trickery, until the piano was turned around so that the audience could see that he was really playing himself. Professional musicians were just as impressed with Liszt’s talent. In 1832, Liszt performed Mendelssohn’s incredibly difficult new piano concerto with brilliance and entirely without error – even though he had never seen the score before. Awestruck, Mendelssohn hailed this as a miracle.

Liszt in 1837, aged 26
Liszt in 1837, aged 26

Musical ability was, however, not the only reason for Lizst’s success and rise as a celebrity. He was blessed with an extraordinary charisma which mesmerised audiences, sending them into hitherto unknown frenzies of ecstasy, a phenomenon for which Heinrich Heine coined the term ‘Lisztomania’. In 1837, one observer described how “when I first heard him I sat speechless for a quarter of an hour afterwards, in such a stupor of amazement…Such execution…no one else can possess. He plays sometimes so as to make your hair stand on end!” In 1840 Robert Schumann described Liszt’s extraordinary power of “subjugating, elevating, and leading the public”, noting that audiences were “overwhelmed by a flood of tones and feelings”. Hans Christian Andersen, who attended another of Liszt’s recitals in 1840, touched on a common idea that Liszt was divinely inspired: “When Liszt entered the saloon,  it was as if an electric shock passed through it…the whole of Liszt’s exterior and movements reveal one of those persons we remark for their peculiarities alone; the Divine hand has placed a mark on them which makes them observable among thousands”.

Liszt was, furthermore, a master of self-promotion, augmenting his talent by projecting an almost superhuman image; a musician with mysterious, otherworldly abilities. Upon checking into a hotel in Chamonix in 1836, he listed his profession as “musician-philosopher” and his travel route as “in transit from Doubt to Truth”. Heine noted wryly of Liszt’s self-presentation that “the whole enchantment is to be traced to the fact that no one in the world knows how to organise ‘successes’ as well as Franz Liszt – or better, now to stage them. In that art, he is a genius”. Certainly, Liszt carefully cultivated his image, taking full advantage of new artistic mediums. His early depictions are traditional oil portraits, but he soon saw the utility of the lithograph, which could be produced and distributed quickly and cheaply. Liszt also took well to the new medium of photography, for which his pensive air was ideal, and he sat for Europe’s leading photographers from the mid-1850s onwards.

Lithograph of Liszt in 1846, aged 35
Lithograph of Liszt in 1846
Liszt in 1858, aged 47
Liszt in 1858, aged 47










Liszt became so famous that he soon had royalty and nobility at his feet. Liszt was from quite a humble background; his father had been a clerk-musician employed by Prince Esterházy, However, he himself was exceedingly intelligent and well-read, and liked to project a cultivated image, mixing with luminaries of the Paris literary world such as George Sand, Victor Hugo, Heine, Dumas and Balzac. With this successfully augmenting his musical talent, wherever Liszt went in Europe (and he appeared more than 3000 times in public between 1838 and 1846), the nobility clamoured to meet him and hear him play. Liszt did not stand on ceremony with anyone. Observers were astonished when, at the end of concerts, he would step into the front row and casually converse in French with the members of high nobility as if he were a close friend.

 Franz Liszt Fantasising at the Piano (1840). The imagined gathering shows his aristocratic, literary and artistic connections; seated are Alexander Dumas, George Sand and Marie d'Agoult, and standing are Hector Berlioz (or Victor Hugo), Paganini and Rossini. There is a bust of Beethoven on the piano, a portrait of Lord Bryon on the wall, and a statue of Joan of Arc on the far left.
Franz Liszt Fantasising at the Piano (1840). The imagined gathering shows his aristocratic, literary and artistic connections; seated are Alexander Dumas, George Sand and Marie d’Agoult, and standing are Hector Berlioz (or Victor Hugo), Paganini and Rossini. There is a bust of Beethoven on the piano, a portrait of Lord Bryon on the wall, and a statue of Joan of Arc on the far left.

Royalty were also keen to meet Liszt, and they showered him with honours. When Liszt left Berlin in 1842, King Friedrich Wilhelm gave him a coach pulled by six horses, accompanied by a procession of thirty other carriages and an honour guard of students. As the music critic Ludwig Rellstab put it, “he left not like a king, but as a king”. The Austrian authorities gave him a passport on which simply stood Celebritate sua sat notus (“sufficiently known by his fame”). By 1845, Liszt’s star was so high that rumours flew around that he was going to marry the fifteen-year-old Queen Isabella II of Spain, who had supposedly created the title of Duke of Pianozares for him. However, all this adulation didn’t make him more respectful to royalty, to whom he could on occasion be downright rude. When Tsar Nicholas I turned up late to a 1840 recital and started talking, Liszt stopped playing and sat motionless with head bowed. When Nicholas inquired why the music did not continue, Liszt said coolly, “Music herself should be silent when Nicholas speaks”.

An older Liszt performing in front of Kaiser Franz Joseph I (Note the flowers strewed around him)
An older Liszt performing in front of Kaiser Franz Joseph I. (Note the flowers strewed around him)

Although both men and women admired his performances, Liszt held a particular attraction for women. He was very good-looking, with strong features, luxuriant hair and a brooding air. Women wore Liszt’s image on cameos and brooches, fought to collect the dregs of his coffee cup, tore his handkerchiefs and gloves to shreds, wore his cigar butts in diamond-encrusted lockets, turned his discarded piano wires into bracelets, and so on. A contemporary caricature of a Liszt concert in Berlin in 1842 depicts an audience of frenzied women variously screaming, swooning, trying to storm the stage, observing him through binoculars (from the front row) and throwing flowers at him. Heine once consulted a specialist in womens’ diseases about ‘Lisztomania’; the specialist smiled knowingly and talked at length about the mass hysteria caused by a musical aphrodisiac in a confined space.

Caricature of women at a Liszt concert, 1842
Caricature of women at a Liszt concert, 1842

And Liszt was by no means immune to all this feminine adulation. He enjoyed numerous affairs, evincing a preference for ladies of the highest social rank. Among his early conquests were Countess Adèle Laprunarède and Countess Pauline Plater. When the latter was asked to rank the three great pianists who had performed in her salon, she judged on decidedly non-musical criteria, saying that Hiller would make the best friend, Chopin the best husband, and Liszt the best lover. Liszt’s most enduring relationship, however, was with Countess Marie d’Agoult, the daughter of a wealthy German banking family who had married into one of the oldest families in France. Together they had three illegitimate children, one of whom, Cosima, would go on to marry Richard Wagner.

Alan Walker, Liszt’s biographer, describes what was probably Liszt’s greatest achievement, completing the transition of the musician from servant to master: “Beethoven, by dint of his unique genius and his uncompromising nature, had forced the Viennese aristocracy to at least regard him as their equal. But it was left to Liszt to foster the view that an artist is a superior being, because divinely gifted, and the rest of mankind, of whatever social class, owed him respect and even homage”.

Liszt in 1847, aged 36
List in 1847, aged 36

Sex, the law and the press in Georgian London

The Prince Regent dancing with another man's wife at his debauched birthday party
The Prince Regent dancing with another man’s wife at his debauched birthday party

A taste for salacious gossip, particularly that of a sexual nature, is nothing new. It’s a stereotype, but probably a true one, that Georgian London was a bawdy place and had no shortage of scandal to go round. The spreading of scandalous stories was helped by the 18th century explosion in the newspaper trade, particularly in London. In 1770, London had 5 daily papers; by the 1780s it had 9 dailies, 8 tri-weeklies and 9 weeklies. Aside from political and financial news, a large part of what was driving that growth was the reportage of scandal, whether sexual or otherwise. Given all this, it’s not surprising that legal cases concerning rape, sodomy, bestiality and adultery were eagerly followed and commented upon in the papers. Entrepreneurial businessmen would print cheap mass-produced pamphlets with an account of everything which had happened in a trial, although their reliability is doubtful; sometimes the note-taker in court would get bored or confused and left out bits and misreported others.

One of the more curious Old Bailey cases depicted in Garrow’s Law is that of the prostitute Susannah Hill, who was prosecuted in 1791 by William Garrow on the charge of hanging a man named Frantisek Kotzwara. On 2nd February of 1791, Kotzwara, a Czech musician and small-time composer, visited Hill in her lodgings in Vine Street (an alley in Westminster, now more famous for its place on the London Monopoly board). After dinner, he gave her two shillings and asked her to castrate him. Hill refused, but not wanting to lose Kotzwara’s custom, she agreed to his next odd proposition. He tied a noose around his neck which was attached to the doorknob, and they had sex. After the deed was done, Kotzwara was found dead.

It’s one of the first recorded cases of erotic asphyxiation. (Interestingly, Victorian men who also got aroused by the sensation of being partially hanged could visit ‘Hanged Mens’ Clubs’, in which death by asphyxiation was more of an unfortunate side effect than a planned event). In the subsequent murder trial at the Old Bailey, the jury acquitted Hill because it seemed to have been an accident, at least on her part. Someone – probably the judge – requested that the court records of the trial be destroyed in order to avoid scandal and a slew of copycat cases. It’s very likely that a copy got out anyway, since a pamphlet published in 1797, Modern Propensities; or, An Essay on the Art of Strangling, featured a detailed summary of the trial along with Hill’s memoirs. The front cover illustration of Hill and Kotzwara looking rather jolly, shown below along with the title page, is so prominent that it’s obvious that this pseudo-scientific pamphlet relied very heavily on the scandalous in order to sell.

Modern Propensities

Modern Propensities Title Page











One perennially bestselling source of sexual scandal is of course adultery. It’s a theme which runs throughout Garrow’s Law and indeed throughout the Georgian press. Then as now, the general public would shake their heads in outrage at the news of some extramarital affair and were only too quick to swallow whatever the media told them. In many cases no doubt the Georgian readers did hold genuine moral beliefs against adultery. Yet these stories wouldn’t have sold as half as well as they did if there wasn’t a keen interest in sexual scandal, hiding behind all the public prurience.

From a modern perspective we might assume that when a husband initiated adultery proceedings, it would be against his wife. That wasn’t the case in Georgian England, where the injured husband would bring an action against his wife’s supposed lover. The lover hadn’t committed a criminal offence as such, but if found guilty of adultery (‘criminal conversation’ as it was euphemistically known) he would have to pay the husband compensation, the idea being that he’d damaged the other man’s property (his wife). Because of this, adultery trials took place in the civil courts, particularly in the Court of the King’s Bench.

Westminster Hall, where the Court of the King's Bench oversaw criminal conversation suits
Westminster Hall, where the Court of the King’s Bench oversaw criminal conversation suits

The criminal conversation trial between William Garrow and Sir Arthur Hill shown in Garrow’s Law never actually occurred in real life, but the show’s writers based it on an actual trial which is interesting for its rather extraordinary outcome. Sir Richard Worsley (1751-1805) was a politician and antiquarian who married 17-year-old Seymour Dorothy Fleming in 1775. Although she brought the considerable sum of £70,000 into the marriage, they were badly suited and the marriage soon fell apart. Lady Worsley was rumoured to have had 27 lovers. She had a child by Maurice George Bisset, an officer of the Hampshire militia and a friend of Sir Richard’s, with whom she then ran off in November 1781. Although Sir Richard had previously acknowledged the child as his own in order to avoid scandal, after their elopement he was out for revenge, and in 1782 he brought a criminal conversation case against Bisset for £20,000. At first the case looked like a strong one. Lady Worsley’s past history of adultery would tell against her, and there was fairly sound evidence to show that she had lain with Bisset. But as the trial unfolded, shocking revelations brought the prosecution into doubt.

Various witnesses described how Sir Richard didn’t seem to care about Lady Worsleys’ adultery and even encouraged it. The counsel for the prosecution revealed that when various ladies from their neighborhood had warned Sir Richard that he ought to keep his wife in check, he replied that ‘Lady Worsley liked it, and he chose to…oblige her’. Following this, Lord Deerhurst gave evidence that Sir Richard had told him ‘that many young Men had tried her…and that I had his permission to try my chance with her’.The case was ultimately undone by the revelation that Sir Richard had actually displayed his wife naked to Bisset at the bath-house at Maidstone, shouting ‘Seymour! Seymour! Bisset is looking at you’. Being convinced of the adultery, the jury found for Sir Richard, but obviously they weren’t very impressed with him since they only awarded him 1 shilling in damages. The sensational trial found its way into the press, and you could buy a printed transcription for (ironically) one shilling. Sir Richard Worsley was ever after laughed at as a cuckold.
Sir Richard Worsley
Sir Richard Worsley
Lady Worsley
Lady Worsley

Further Reading