Dr Jennifer Evans: “Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England” | Talks at Google

Dr Jennifer Evans: “Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England” | Talks at Google

OK, well, thank you very much for coming and
spending your lunch hour listening to me talk about
something quite random. I’m a senior lecturer in
history at the University of Hertfordshire. And I run a blog called
Early Modern Medicine. I have some cards at the front. If you do you find yourself
fascinated by the end, please come and take one. And I’m going to talk to
you about my first book. As you’ll have seen from
your raffle tickets, academic monograph,
slightly different ballgame, very expensive, so
there’s only a few of them here, and slightly
different process, maybe, to writing other kinds of books. So what I’m going to do is
try and condense my book into 50 minutes, give
you the major highlights. And what I really
hope to show you is that we tend to think in
modern society of aphrodisiacs in a very specific way. You say the word
“aphrodisiac,” and everyone thinks about lust,
sexual desire, and we very rarely think about
it in relation to reproduction. And what I want to
show you is that what I found while
reading 17th century medical texts is that
wasn’t the case in the past. And actually, when you
read a lot of history books on this subject,
historians will tend to just talk about aphrodisiacs
using modern technology. But they’re not
quite the same thing. They’re must more of a medicine. So hopefully that’s
what we’re going to get to over the
next 45, 50 minutes. So before I get on to that, I
wanted to cover some background material. I wasn’t quite sure
what kind of a crowd I’d be talking to in terms
of historical interest or enthusiasm or knowledge,
so a few little things. I’m going to bandy the term
“early modern” quite a lot. Historians do this all the
time, and then people say, oh, is that the medieval period? No, it’s not. So we’re normally talking about
the area between 1550 and 1750 or between 1500 and 1750. What I’m going to talk
to you about today, I mostly focus on
1550 and after. And there’s no exciting reason. It’s just very pragmatic in
that medical books before 1550 tended to be published in Latin. I don’t read Latin,
so my book would have been really short had
I tried to go before that. I do sometimes read stuff
that’s older than that, but I tend to stick with things
that are written in English. Predominantly, my main interest
is in the 17th century. And this is because I think
it’s the most exciting and most vibrant century
you could possibly study for English history. As many of you
will probably know, it’s the era of the
English civil wars. It’s the era of
the protectorates, the regicide of Charles I,
Restoration of Charles II. It’s the era of the
Glorious Revolution in 1684 when James II is ousted
and the Protestant William of Orange and his wife
Mary are given the throne. But it’s also really
interesting outside of politics. I’m not a big fan of
political history. In the world of science,
a lot of the names that you’ll have learned
at GCSE and earlier, they’re all people working in
the 17th century, so Robert Boyle, Robert Hook, Christopher
Wren, Francis Bacon, and perhaps the most famous
of all, Isaac Newton. They’re all 17th century
men who like to study. And in the world
of medicine, it’s also a really important era. There was a lot happening. William Harvey discovered
the circulation of the blood and published his first
book on that in 1628. And perhaps more
important for what I’m going to talk about today,
both the egg and the sperm were discovered in
the 17th century. So there’s a lot happening
in 17th century England. And the other background
I want to briefly cover is the medical
model of the time. Most people will
have heard of this. Hands up if you’ve heard
of the humoral model. Excellent. Hands up if you
know what it means. Oh, good, so my next
slide isn’t pointless. OK, so humoral medicine
is the predominant way of thinking about the
body in the 17th century. And it’s what we’re
going to focus on today. That’s not to say
new things weren’t happening in the 17th century. You get the rise of
chemical medicine very early in the century, and
towards the end of the century you get a focus on
nervous disorders. Everything becomes about
nerves and mechanics. But predominantly, people
focused on the humoral model. And this was a
very ancient model created by Hippocrates,
who lived around circa 460 to 370 BCE. And it was refined then in the
second century AD by Galen. The theories had existed
throughout the medieval period. They were there. But really in the Renaissance
in the 16th century, there’s like a
drive to rediscover that ancient medicine
and to revive the text and to understand what
Hippocrates and Galen said in its purest form. So humoral medicine has
this kind of resurgence. Older historians–
and I don’t mean age; I’m talking
chronologically– tend to say that the humoral
model stops being influential at the end of the 17th century. For what I look at,
reproductive medicine, that’s not really the case. And more and more
historians are accepting that actually the
humoral model stays quite influential
through the 18th century and even tailing into
the 19th century. So how does the
humoral model work? I’m hoping everyone
can see this slide. So under the humoral
model, your body is created, or
predominantly made up, of four humors, or
fluids– blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. And each of those
four fluids exists inside your body in
your own personalized kind of complexion. So some people have
more of one thing. Some people have more
of another thing. And those humors are all
related to different kinds of qualities. So each humor has a quality–
hot, cold, wet, and dry. And again, that affects
what kind of body you have. And what’s really interesting
about the humoral model is that– you might
say unlike today, but that might not be the case. Unlike today, your
humoral complexion, the way your body is
made up, is thought to affect everything about you. So your strength,
your character, your emotional
stability, the kinds of diseases you’re
liable to get are all linked to your
humoral complexion. And I really like this. You can see the picture
on the right-hang side to you shows four different
types of body– phlegmatic, sanguine, melancholic,
and choleric. And you can see on
the left-hand side is a womanly body, because
women are thought to be colder and more moist than men. Men are on the right-hand side. They’re hotter and drier. And this, in the humoral model,
is more perfect, so patriarchy built into the medical model. Women are just
less good than men. So this all effects the kind
of person you’re liable to be. And these are
another set of images showing the different kinds
of person you might be. And my favorite book
for describing this was one written by John Fage,
and he really nicely sums up how these different
humoral complexions affect your personality. So he writes that choleric men
were for the most part short because their natural
heat consumes and dries up all the moisture in their
body so they can’t grow. And this, he said, was
connected to the fact that they would
sooner grow beards, they would be
naturally quick-witted, they would be courageous
and have strong appetites. Unfortunately for
choleric men, they’re also liable to be arrogant,
graceless, quarrelsome, fraudulent, and
constant and crafty. Whereas, he says,
phlegmatic men– and I’m sure I don’t need to
explain what phlegm is. It’s still pretty much the same,
cold, wet, goopy, grossness. Phlegmatic men are hindered
by their bodies’ overabundance of phlegm. And so they’re likely
to be short, gross, and fat without hair or beards,
and so they’re not very manly. And they’re also liable to be
slothful, forgetful, cowardly, covetous, and vain. So everything about
you is kind of dictated by the makeup of
your body and these fluids. And importantly
under this model, a healthy body is
a body that flows. because it is made of fluids. And a healthy body is
one that’s in balance. So you should be maintaining
your own balance of humors in order to maintain
your health. And they do this through
something called regimen, which again was something taken
from Hippocrates and Galen, and it’s focused
around something they call the Six Non-Naturals,
six factors that you regulate in order to maintain health. And I am going to read these off
my list– air, diet, exercise, bodily evacuations of all
kinds, emotions, and sleep. And if you regulate those,
you should be very healthy. And perhaps the
most famous thing about humoral
medicine is connected to this idea of
balance and flow, is the way in which
they treat illness. So illness tends to
be a buildup of one humor in the body, or an
excess, and the only way to kill that is to
remove the excess. And so early modern
medicine and before tends to focus a lot on purging
and lots of emetics next to make you vomit, things
to go the other way as well, and the most famous, phlebotomy,
so cutting with scalpel or using leeches to
remove excess blood. And so we all look
back on the past and think, oh, my
God, that’s horrific, what are they doing
to these people, it actually makes perfect sense
for what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to
restore balance. So it was under
this type of model that the people I’m
looking at tried to understand aphrodisiacs
and how they worked. So before I really get into
the kind of meat of the book, I want to have a little section
of caveats and addendums. And the first is
that you are going to hear about some quite
famous, well-known aphrodisiacs. Oysters in particular
are going to pop up, and asparagus and
a couple of others. But you’re about to be bombarded
with the most ludicrously, ridiculously long list of foods
that function as aphrodisiacs. Please don’t leave here
and worry about what you’re going to have for lunch. It’s fine. The major caveat
is I’m not going to be talking about
chocolate, so anyone who was here hoping for a
nice history of chocolate, I’m very sorry. I didn’t talk about
chocolate in the book because it’s everybody’s
favorite go-to aphrodisiac substance, so there are hundreds
of histories of chocolate. The other reason I didn’t
write about chocolate explicitly is because,
as hopefully you’ll see, chocolate is one of the
most famous aphrodisiacs in the 17th century. Everyone knows chocolate
is an aphrodisiac. But they’re talking
about the drink, very different to
what we know today. It’s a mix of cocoa, milk,
spices, often chili and pepper and cinnamon. And the reason I’m not
going to talk about it is because it’s seen as
luxurious and exotic, and so the chocolate
is an aphrodisiac, but it’s also what goes in it
that makes it an aphrodisiac. And not everyone’s sure
what is more important, the cocoa or everything else. And we’re going to talk
about the everything else. The other kind of brief
caveat I want to make is an apology for the quotes. If you don’t understand
something I’m quoting, please just wave at me and
we’ll stop and talk about it. So to think a little bit
about reproduction and sex in the early modern
era, as I said at the very beginning,
what we really need to do for the
next 20 minutes or so is throw out your
modern understanding in how we think about
sex in the modern day. In this era, reproduction is
almost inextricably linked to sexual pleasure and desire. So people can think
about them separately, particularly if
they really want to, if they have a specific
purpose in mind and they don’t want a baby. They can think about
them separately. But they’re really, really
closely tied together. And the major reason
for this is the way they understand the
reproductive organs. And for many people
in this era, they think that men and women have
the same reproductive organs. Now, this does change over time. But very early in
the era, they think that the women’s reproductive
organs, because she’s colder and wetter on that
side of the humor model, are held inside the body. Men, being hotter,
have a heat force that propels them outwards. But they’re exactly the same. That model does come under
heavy criticism right from the 16th century, because
there are a lot of people going, it’s ridiculous. They’re clearly not
the same set of organs. And so there’s a bit of
tension between anatomists and traditional
medical knowledge. But importantly,
one of the things that stays for much
of era through to when the egg and the
sperm are discovered is the idea that both men
and women have testicles and that both men and
women produce seed, or spermatic matter,
reproductive matter, whatever you want to call it. Those matters have
to meet in the womb, preferably at the
same time, not one first and the other one joining
later, in order for conception to occur. And what this means for
men and women in this era is that they expect both men
and women to orgasm in order for a conception
to occur, which is great– misogynistic,
patriarchal system in which women’s pleasure
is given priority. You would think that
would be awesome, but it doesn’t quite work
out like that for most women. Now, one of the
problems with this model is you get lots of medical
writers and legal writers and theologians all saying, yes,
but Mrs. Brown down the road is married and has 20 kids,
and she never enjoys it. We can tell. She doesn’t like her husband. And so they can see
there’s something wrong with their model. But for the most of it, they’re
following this two-seed model, both men and women have seed. And one of the most interesting
things to come out of that is the way that the 17th century
writers and legal writers think about rape. Because if a woman is raped
and conceives a child, she cannot claim
she’s been raped, because if she enjoyed it,
somehow enjoyment and pleasure equals consent, and it’s not
until the 1670s that people start really questioning
that and saying, well, hang on a minute. That’s a bit ludicrous. So it’s within this
kind of framework that people are
understanding aphrodisiacs. And the last caveat
I want to make is that I’m going to
talk about sexual desire and sexual pleasure, and I tend
to do it quite interchangeably. And that’s a reflection
of what they’re saying. So the lines between the
two are often very blurred. And as we’ll see,
particularly when you’re talking about foods
that stimulate these things, there can be this
really complicated, cyclical relationship where
pleasure causes desire, and desire causes pleasure, and
they’re all connected together, and they can’t
really separate them. So apologies for the blurred
lines, but just go with it. It will all make
sense at the end. So hopefully, given
what I’ve just said, you can already start to
see how aphrodisiacs would be a quite different substance
to what we know them to be today. The only other thing I’ll
say before we really get into is I’m not going to talk about
religion very much today. But it’s worth bearing in
mind that the religious setup of the country, it’s a
very Protestant nation. Sexual pleasure and desire
between a man and his wife is very important. It’s supposed to stop
fornication and adultery, and marriage is supposed
to be for mutual benefit. And men and women are expected
to give what they term “due benevolence.” And you’re not
supposed to reject your spouses, due benevolence. And if you ask, you’re
supposed to give it up. And this is all framed as well
around the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. So there is a religious
thinking that kind of supports the medical literature,
and the medical literature draws on those
religious thinking. So fundamentally, aphrodisiacs
in this era work in two ways. The first is perhaps
the most obvious and the one that will
seem most familiar, is that it prompts libido. And so it facilitates
the occasions in which conception can happen. Without libido, there’s not
going to be much intercourse, and there aren’t going
to be many babies. And so it functions
in that kind of way. And several medical
writers make a point of pointing out how
important sexual desire and sexual pleasure
are for this. And one or two even go so far
as to say without sexual desire and pleasure, everyone
would stop breeding and the human race
would come to an end. And I want to share with you
perhaps my most favorite quote, and I’ve been studying this
topic for over seven years, so it’s won out over a
long list of contenders. And my most favorite
quote is from a man called John Martin writing
in the early 18th century. And he’s a surgeon. He writes on reproduction
and venereal disease. And he writes about
sexual desire and pleasure in the following way. “God Almighty has endured each
sex with natural instincts, prompting them to the
use thereof with desire in order to perpetuate
the species by producing new creatures to supply the
room of those who are gone. Without which, what
rational creature would have taken delight in
so filthy, so contemptible and base thing as venery
is?”– as intercourse is. “And indeed, had not nature
tapped a more than ordinary, pleasing sensation and
desire to each sex in the act by giving those parts
such a quick, tender sense and transporting
titillation and which with all the artillery of reason
we are not able to control, so furious is our
passion in the embrace, we should have no manner of
incitement or inclination to performing it. And consequently,
procreation must soon cease and be at an end.” I think he wins for
most melodramatic quote about sexual pleasure you could
possibly find in a medical text ever. So this is the kind of
overarching framework. It’s one of the ways in
which people could say, oh, that food works
as an aphrodisiac and it works for
fertility and conception simply because it prompts
people to have sex. And so it’s encouraging
things in that way. And what you find
in medical texts is they will write
separate chapters. So normally medical texts
are organized by disease. They have separate chapters. And there might be a
chapter about barrenness and infertility. And you also find some that
are about loss of libido, or as they call it, a
want of carnal copulation, lack of drive, as we
would call it today. But interestingly,
when these writers include two separate chapters,
and they have aphrodisiacs that link to this
kind of quotation, they will often write
that both kinds of drugs are applicable in both
ways, in both places. So if we look at Felix Plater–
he’s not an Englishman. His book is published in
England in 1662 after his death, and he writes only that
the things mentioned to provoke lust are chiefly
used for conception. So the primary use
of all aphrodisiacs is to promote conception,
which is not exactly how we think about them. But beyond this, early
modern men and women think about different foods as
affecting the reproductive body in quite substantial
ways, all of which promote desire and
libido, but all of which also improves the body’s
fertility at the same time. What I’m going to do
now is go through each of those categories with
you, what types of foods could you eat in the
early modern period if you were having problems. And for the book,
I did this as well. I broke them up into these nice
snazzy chapters and headings. I do like a bit of
alliteration, so there are lots of alliterative
titles going on over the next few slides. But it’s important to
remember that mostly I’ve done this for ease of reading. It gets very muddy
and complicated. There are many, many
foods that people simply say, oh, it’s an aphrodisiac. And that’s it. That’s all the information
they’re going to give you. When you’re trying to write
a book on why aphrodisiacs work in 17th century,
that’s very frustrating, very annoying. But they all say muddle them up. So drugs in the early modern
era are very rarely specifics. They very rarely function
to help just one body part or to cure just one disease. They tend to do lots and
lots and lots and lots of different things depending
on the context you’re using them within. And so you might have one
person say that oysters are an aphrodisiac
for one reason, and another medical writer
publishing the same year or a year later will say they’re
an aphrodisiac for a completely different reason. So there’s lots
jumbled and mixed up, and things tend to
have multiple virtues. But for ease of what
we’re talking about today, these are my nice little
semi-fake categories of aphrodisiacs. So the first few what
I’m going to talk about are all based on
that humoral model that we looked at earlier. And the first category is
hot foods and heating herbs. I told you alliteration is
going to feature heavily now. And this is because for
early modern men and women, a body that was cold,
or as they termed it, frigid, was
one that was deemed to be unable to procreate,
unable to reproduce, and was unable to feel
any sexual pleasure or sexual desire. An important part
of this is that seed that we were talking
about earlier that men and women produce. That needs to be warm. Otherwise it can’t
spark new life. And in particular
for men, it needs to be warm, because men,
being the more perfect of the species,
are the ones that endow a new child, a
new fetus with its soul. And they think all of
this has to be warm for it to happen,
but not too hot, because if your seed
is too hot, it burns up all the important
elements, and that’s just as bad as if it’s really cold. For women, the womb also
needs to be warm enough to cherish a newborn
fetus– newborn is probably the wrong term–
newly conceived fetus. If the womb is considered too
cold or too wet and slippery, it will slide out or freeze
and it will all go wrong. So given that they thought
about things in this way, one of the most popular
categories of aphrodisiacs was these hot foods
and heating herbs. And if we look at popular
medical writers like Nicholas Culpepper, he’s a really
fascinating character. He lives in the 17th century. He’s supposed to go to
university to become a theologian and a clergyman. He decides he doesn’t
like it, tries to elope with a young girl. He gets struck by lightning
and never meets him, ends up becoming an
apothecary, and then turns into this kind of
semi-radical figure who rails against the Royal
College of Physicians, who publish everything in
Latin and want to hold all their medical knowledge
close to their chest. Culpepper thinks
that’s unfair, so he translates nearly everything
they write and publishes it in English so
everybody can read it. And he writes that the fourth
cause of natural barrenness is a loss of carnal copulation. And he describes it as follows,
“when men and women come to the school of Venus either
not at all or so frigidly that never a wit is
never the better.” And so he says these people
should eat heating herbs, and this will help them
regain their libido, their sense of pleasure, and
their ability to conceive. And one of the very earliest
texts I look at, Jacob Rueff’s medical and
midwifery manual, advised that women
who were, quote, “hindered very much for a want
of desire to be acquainted with Venus”– the language of how
they describe sexual pleasure is just amazing
throughout the whole era– “should take heating herbs such
as gelengal, rocket, pepper, ginger, and cinnamon.” And it was some of those
spices in chocolate, and it was that heating
effect in the chocolate that was thought to be
aphrodisiac as well. While another Englishman,
Philip Barrow, writing in the
16th century stated that “frigid men
and women should eat meats that do heat and
engender good humors, as is the flesh of hens, capons,
partridges, pheasants, young doves, birds of the
mountain, especially sparrows, cockstones, and suchlike.” So clearly you’re not
lacking for options. There’s quite a few
things you can choose. The most famous of all of the
hot foods and heating herbs, though, was the Spanish
fly, Contharides. And this small,
iridescent beetle was very rarely recommended
by medical writers. It’s incredibly dangerous. And it’s incredibly
dangerous still. And I’m not sure I’m– well,
people often end up on my blog, I can see what they’ve been
searching for, and a lot of people are searching
for Contharides and whether they’re dangerous. And I just want a big
banner on my blog that says, yes, don’t use them. They’re known to blister
and burn the skin. And that’s both if they’re
applied to the skin, or if they’re
consumed internally, they’ll blister and
burn internally. But they do create
this warming sensation. So anything that’s hot
under the humoral model or creates that sensation
of warmth when you eat it is really good as
a heating herb. And Contharides are
probably the most potent. So given how dangerous
it was, medical writers didn’t really like
to recommend it. And in fact, they spent a lot
of time trying to warn people about the side effects. And Jane Sharp, who was the
first woman and Englishwoman to ever write a midwifery
text and publish it in England writes of Contharides,
or Spanish fly. She warns people
“not to take them to stimulate an
erection, because it could result in a priapism,
or a continual standing of the yard.” Yard is one of their term–
I don’t need to explain that, do I? [LAUGHTER] We don’t think it’s
based on length, though. We’re still trying
to figure that out. So priapism, or continual
standing of the yard, which she goes on to
say is more of a problem than if it never stands at all. And she’s not wrong. [LAUGHTER] Other writers tend towards
quite gruesome tales. They like to recite
a nice little story to try and put people off. And the Swiss physician
Theophile Bonet, who is working in Geneva,
records in his medical texts that, “I’ve known several among
the rest, two noblemen who used Contharides,
the one to gratify his whore, the other,
his new married wife, but wholly with ill
success, for the first fell into a most dangerous
pissing of blood, of which he was cured with great difficulty. And the other, the second
day after he was married, died of an apoplexy,”
which is what we would now term a stroke. So heating aphrodisiacs
are very popular throughout the entire era,
but they’re quite dangerous, particularly the Spanish fly. Now, many of the foods that
were thought to be warming also were thought to fit in our next
category, which is nourishing foods and seed provokers. Any food that
nourished the body was thought to be good
as an aphrodisiac because it fundamentally
meant that you were producing more seed. For early modern men and
women, you eat your food, it sits in the stomach,
gets converted into blood, blood circulates around the
body, ends up in the testicles, or depending on which text
you read, the prostate, because some people think
the prostate is doing this, where it’s– they term it
concocted or elaborated and turned into seed. And so blood that was
food becomes seed. And so anything you
eat that’s nourishing is producing more
seed in your body. And seed is really
important because it’s thought to be stimulating. So as it passes through
all the little passageways of the reproductive organs,
it stimulates sexual pleasure. And this is where you get
that complex desire-pleasure crossover, because
the production of seed is stimulated by desire,
which creates pleasure, but the pleasure also
stimulates the desire, which creates the seed production. And I think they
get as confused as I do when they were writing them. So anything that helps
nourish you produces seed. And better quality seed
gives more titillation. But importantly,
it’s also more likely to result in a
conception, so again, this link between
sex and reproduction. So if we look back at
Felix Plater’s 1662 book, he loves this category. He goes nuts and lists
huge amounts of things. And so he says,
“To correct a want of copulation in particular,
we give things that cause seed. And this, as is said, by
its plenty and sharpness stirs up desire to the act and
disposes the members for it. These are such as
cause much blood, which is the matter of
which seed is made.” Some some suggestions
that he offered were the “brain’s stones,” which
is their word for testicles, and flesh of crawfish, crabs,
lobsters, oysters, cuttlefish, [INAUDIBLE], cocks, quails,
sparrows, and foxes, as well as milk, eggs, chestnuts, parsnips,
almonds, pine nuts, pistachios, artichokes, rapeseed, beans,
peas, rice, and barley. So you were definitely not going
to not find an aphrodisiac. There’s always something
you can turn to. Now, a very similar category
to these are seed provokers. And when I was writing the book
and doing the research for it. I kept coming across
these two kind of interchangeable terms,
nourishing foods and seed provokers. And in the 18th century, they
even get called spermatics, which I quite like as a term. But I think, depending
on where you’re reading, these are either the same
thing, or they’re actually something different. And a seed provoker is
something that prompts the body to make seed out of nourishment
that’s already there as opposed to just providing more
of the base material. And Felix Plater’s is
one of the text where you can see this
distinction, because having given that huge, long
list of nourishing foods, he goes on to say that you could
also take these seed provokers. And he says that these are
onions, leeks, mushrooms, rocket, colewart, which
is a type of brassica, a bit like kale, and asparagus. And so he’s quite clear
to separate the two out. Now, I’ve said seed
was titillating. There is a reason for that. The reason why
seed is titillating is because of its salt content. They believe that seed is salty. And so another category
of aphrodisiacs are salty or slightly
salty, brackish foods, because they augment
the quality of seed that makes it titillating. And one medical
writer is [INAUDIBLE]. He explains in the 17th
century that “salt, by reason of its
heat and acrimony, provokes to lust those
that used to eat it in any great quantity. And it was for this cause
that the Egyptian priests would want to abstain from
all manner of salt meats, having found by experience
that salt does cause a kind of itching or
tickling in the parts that serve for generation.” And this is quite a nice
anecdote that he includes. It sounds quite sophisticated. Another text I read was
slightly less sophisticated and said it was
evident that salt was an aphrodisiac
because mice on ships are want to breed quite excessively. And even if you have one mouse,
by the end of your journey, you’ll have lots,
and that’s clearly the fault of licking
salt from off the ship. Theophile Bonet, our Swiss
physician we met earlier liked to link it more to Venus. And he said that “saline
and acrimonious things were aphrodisiacs
because, as Venus is said to be born of
salt sea, so saline things you know to be stimulate.” And he goes so far as to say
that the word “salacious” must all be connected into this
because of that “sal,” “salaciois,” “saline” all
comes connected to Venus. What I found really interesting
while writing the book is that lots and lots of medical
texts in the 17th country just kind of cut and paste. They’re huge fans of plagiarism. They will republish and reprint
and steal from each other over and over and over. So change can be
quite slow to identify and slow to make its way
through these kinds of texts. But throughout the
17th century, they are questioning
their aphrodisiacs. They’re questioning what works. And poor saline,
salty foods are one of the first kind of casualties
of this reexamination. And John Martin, who wrote about
pleasure– we saw him earlier– he writes in the
early 18th century that there’s no way
that these can work, because there’s not
enough salt in seed for it to be stimulating. And I think his word choice
is really interesting, because he’s not outright
saying salt isn’t aphrodisiac, just that there’s not enough
there, which to my mind would mean a reader
would just say, oh, well I’ll eat lots more
of it and then it will work. But he’s trying to
distance himself from that kind of understanding. Others are a bit more
argumentative and forceful. And so say salty
foods stop being described as an
aphrodisiac fairly early in the 18th century. So, so far, hopefully
you’ve picked up on this, all of these foods
work for both men and women. And that in part is
because of that idea that men and women’s
bodies are very similar. They do function
in different ways, but they’re quite similar. But there was one aphrodisiac
that was solely for the men’s bodies, solely for men. And this is normally my
most popular category of aphrodisiacs. They were things that
cause flatulence, so flatulence foods
come to be known as windy meats in
the 17th century and in the early modern era. And anything that releases
wind into the body, into the reproductive organs,
is supposed to be good for men. The reason it’s good for men
is because the way anatomy understands the male body at
the very beginning of the era is they think that
an erection functions through blood, imagination,
muscles, pressure, seed, and wind. And this is my second-favorite
quote from the book. Helkiah Crooke, an Englishman,
writes of the male member that it was, quote, “a gut
filled with wind, presently swelling and grown hard,”
so not a very sophisticated understanding of the male body. And windy meats are
really bad for women. Wind collecting in the womb is
a disorder called the dropsy. It’s very bad, but there are
some very amusing stories about when that wind
is released from women. Medical writers like
to write about that. But dropsy actually
causes barrenness, so it’s a bad thing for
women, but it’s good for men. Now, the reason this
is so good for men is because it
facilitates an erection. We might think that’s
purely mechanical. So are they really
aphrodisiacs if it’s just aiding the mechanics? But by enhancing and
lengthening the amount of time a man can sustain
an erection for, what they believe
is happening is you’re giving more time for
friction, which causes more heat, but you’re also giving
more time for that woman’s colder body to get to a
point where she will orgasm. And so there is more
chance of those two seeds meeting at the
same moment in the womb and forming a fetus. So again, it’s kind of pleasure,
but in a really off mechanical, mechanistic kind of way. So the flatulent
category, probably not a surprise to anyone, includes
beans, peas, and chickpeas. And Philip Barrow,
who we met earlier, argued that when a man
cannot fulfill his duties, which I think is a very
interesting phrase, quote, “windy meats are good for him,
as be chick peas and beans, scallions, leeks, the root and
seed of parsnips, pine nuts, sweet almonds, and
other such like.” Again, anything that’s
similar will work. Another author claimed
a similarly long list of foods as windy
aphrodisiacs, including pine nuts, pistachios, small
nuts, chives, artichokes, colewarts, rapes, carrots,
parsnips, green ginger, eryngo, which is a plant that grows
in coastal areas in England, satyrion, which we’re going to
see in a minute, onions, water nuts, rockets, et
cetera, oysters, also chestnuts, chickpeas,
and all such like meats. And I think you can
see here this repeated phrase of “and suchlike.” And so they’re very
open to the concept that if you haven’t got
exactly what’s on my list, anything you’ve got
that’s kind of similar is probably going to work, which
is very important when you’re talking about quite
a varied wealth dynamic across the country. As with salty foods, windy
meats, unfortunately– I think it’s a real shame– fall
foul of the reinterpretation and reinvestigation
of aphrodisiacs, and increasingly across
the 17th century, anatomists point out that
the penis is a lot more complex than just
an empty gut that needs to be filled with wind. And so these are gradually
rejected as aphrodisiacs. And Theophile Bonet argues
that “it’s commonly reported of aphrodisiacs that flatus, or
wind, is necessary for venery. But though in boys, erection
or distention of the penis may seem to be from flatus, and
these may concur by accident, yet they cannot nor ought
not to be reckoned amongst aphrodisiacs. Those things indeed
excite the spirits and stir up venery and
make the seed turgid but so do not those
things that breed wind.” I think it’s shame
just because they’re the most fun to talk about. So it would have been nice had
they carried on a bit longer. So all of these
groups of aphrodisiacs provide the body with
something that it’s missing. If your body is
cold, you heat it up. If your body lacks wind, you
eat things that give more wind. And this is in the
humor model tends to be called “curing
by contraries.” So you give something
of the opposite quality to the disorder, and
it will help cure it. But there’s one
group of aphrodisiacs that function under
another model, and this model is often
curing through sympathy and is sometimes called “the
doctrine of signatures.” Has anyone hear
that term before? So the doctrine of
signatures basically outlines that you
can identify what something is good for by
the signature it bears. So what does it look like? And what is it similar to? And the most famous– I’ll
leave you with that picture while you think
about that phrase. So under the doctrine
of signatures, anything plant-based
that’s of a phallic shape is going to work for
an aphrodisiac process and to help conception. And this plant, you can
see on the board here, is called satyrion. It’s also called dogstones. It’s a type of orchid. And there’s a
whole set them that are called foolstones,
foxstones, dogstones. And if you remember
I mentioned earlier, stones is their
word for testicles. And so this plant is
famous in the 17th century for being an aphrodisiac. It’s got a tool, fleshy, erect
stem, as they describe it, a nice bulbous head on the top,
and two bulbous little balls at the bottom covered in
roots that look like hairs. So its signature was very clear. And Richard Bunworth,
who is a commentator on the doctrine of
signatures, argues that “the roots of
satyrion, or dogstones, represent the
testicles in figure and are famous for their
[INAUDIBLE] stimulation to venery. While Oswald Croll, a writer
on chemistry and medicine, also talking about the
doctrine of signatures, stated that this was so potent
that it worked even if you just held it in your hand. You didn’t even have
to consume this one. It’s that good. So I think we can
all see why that functions under the
doctrine of signatures. It’s quite clear
what it looks like. But there are also some
more add and unusual ones. Beans– now, to me, beans
don’t look particularly like any part of the
reproductive organs. But for people in the
17th and 18th century, they look like the
glans of the penis, so the very end of the penis,
and that’s why they work. So William Salmon, who wrote
a book called “Botanologia” in 1710, informed his readers
that “a strong broth of beans stirred up lust and
was good for impotency in the male kind who
have not the power to use the act of generation,
both because they’re nutritious,” and
we’ve seen already they’re windy, but, quote, “by
reason, the bean, especially the field kind,
has the signature of the glans of the penis. And for that reason,
Pythagoras and his followers judge them to be
provokers of lust.” What I think is really
interesting is outside of these ones that resemble
the glans of the penis, most aphrodisiacs
by signature relate to looking like the testicles. And I think again here, you
can see the really close link. This isn’t just about sex. Because if you’re
augmenting the testicles, you’re augmenting the
thing that produces seed, and seed is fundamental
for conception. So even when it looks
like they’re just talking about sex and
sexual pleasure and desire, they’re still talking about
conception and reproduction. Now, it wasn’t just
plants you could eat under the doctrine
of signatures. Apologies– this
is slightly gross. Animal genitalia were a popular
aphrodisiac at this time. The testicles and the pizzle, or
penis, of bulls, boars, goats, and stags were all recommended. Goats were often described
as a lascivious goat, even in medical texts. They say take the stones
of a lascivious goat. According to the Oxford
English Dictionary, a lecherous goat is still
a phrase and used now. I haven’t heard it any time
recently, but apparently. So you can all call people
lecherous goats if you need to. While I think stags,
bulls, and boars were all a bit more obvious,
they’re all seen as quite potent, quite virile
animals, particularly stags– and stag horns as
well also work– perhaps a bit more
unusually, you could also eat the brains
of these creatures. So creatures thought to be
particularly lascivious, you consume their brains,
and it will provoke you to think in the same way. So Nicholas Culpepper wrote
that “whatsoever any creature is addicted extremely to, they
move the man that eats them to the like. Therefore, partridges,
quails, sparrows, et cetera, being exceedingly
addicted to venery, they work the same in those
men and women who eat them. Now, I kind of expected
rabbits to make an appearance in this category,
given their reputation. And sometimes they’ll recommend
the womb of a hare for women to eat for conception
purposes, but very rarely for aphrodisiacs. So it’s very rarely connected
to the kind of desire, pleasure side of things. So poor rabbits clearly
developed their reputation slightly later than this. So those are the main types of
aphrodisiac that were in use or were being discussed by
medical writers at this time. And hopefully what you can
see is there’s an awful lot to choose from. And within that, there’s
a whole range of things that you could grow in the
garden, so carrots and parsnips and onions, things you
could get in hedge rows, like nettles, right the
way through to things that are more expensive,
like cinnamon and saffron. So they’re really making
sure they cater to everybody and all social classes. But you might be
sitting here thinking, this is all well and good,
but they’re medical texts. They’re supposed to
talk about diseases. And did people outside
of those circles really think in
these kinds of ways? So I want to kind
of try and prove to you that it’s a
widespread understanding, and it’s not just sad medical
men writing in their books that thought this way. And early modern England is
quite consistently recognized as an era where
people are expected to know about their bodies,
to know about their health. That’s a nice little Latin
phrase, nosce te ipsum, know thyself, which underpins
the idea that you should really understand your body, understand
how to keep it healthy. Physicians are also
really expensive, so it’s in your best interest to
know how to cure your own body and how to help it. And we can see, therefore, that
people know the humoral model quite well and they know
their medicine quite well. And we see it in
both directions. So it’s not just that
everyday people listen to what medical writers say. Medical writers also pick up
top tips from everyday people and record them in their books. So occasionally you’ll
see them saying, oh, whoever it is down the
road is using this, and it seems to
work really well, and they incorporate
that into their own text. So it’s quite a broad
medical culture. It’s not too specialized. And we can see
this in particular if we turn to ballads. And ballads, unfortunately
not power ballads like the ’80s, but
similar principle. Songs with a story
to them are printed throughout the 17th century. They’re printed very cheaply. They do look like this. They’re one side of
a sheet of paper. They’re normally only a
couple of pence to buy. And one historian has estimated
that three to four million of these were printed in the
second half of the 17th century alone. And they always deal with kind
of popular themes and notions. And if we look at these
songs and these ballads, we see there’s a whole
grouping that are completely obsessed with inadequate
husbands and impotent men and men whose
wives cheat on them and so make them into cuckolds. And what we see in
several of these is that the wives of these
insufficient husbands turn to aphrodisiacs in
order to try and ameliorate their plights and make
their lives a little better. So the wife who is the main
character in “The London Cuckold,” printed in
the 1680s, explained that she gave her husband
a whole series of things to try and make him better. “She gave him kisses and
sack posset very good. Cordial, too, she never
misses, for they warm and heat the blood. Such things will create desire
and new kindle Cupid’s fire. These things make
his kiss his wife and call her love and life.” And sack posset is cream
with spices and eggs in it. And cordial is a bit like mulled
wine but thicker and with oats. It’s kind of like a winey
gruel type of thing. Another ballad,
“The Woman’s Brawl,” which I think is a great
title, included a section where the protagonist, Doll,
complained about her husband to a neighbor. And she said of him. “Thou unnatural clown,
thou, feeble dick, thou, as I’m an honest women
neighbor, I went like a fool and made him a cordial
with turkey eggs and afterwards a tansy with
new-laid eggs from a hen trod by gamecock. I put comfrey and clary in and
fed him lamb stones, caviar, and potato pies, yet he could
do no more good to a woman than a boy of a year old.” She’s not very happy
with him in this ballad. What I think is
really interesting is in medical texts, aphrodisiacs
are thought to work. And in all of these
kinds of texts, quite often they don’t work. And I think predominantly,
this is because it’s funnier if they don’t work. And they work better
for the kind of genre if they don’t succeed in
making the husband particularly lusty or fertile. But both of those ballads
I just spoke to you about were about importance and about
sex and about sexual pleasure. But if we look deeper, we
can again see this connection to reproduction and conception. So the plot of “The
Contempted Cuckold” focuses on a bridegroom
whose new father-in-law promises to pay him quite
a substantial sum of money on the birth of
their first child. And the poor man
after seven years still doesn’t have a
child and importantly hasn’t received his payment. But he’s now being ridiculed
by the people in the community. And the ballad runs as follows. “There was no hopes
of an heir being born. Therefore, he was
much discontented. All his old cronies
did laugh him to scorn. Alas, he was daily tormented.” And likewise, a
pamphlet that describes some of these stories, the
title is “A Fumbler’s Hall at Doolittle Lane.” They were great with
their euphemisms. It’s not a difficult
one to work out. There’s a whole series of
women in this pamphlet who moan that their husbands
aren’t quite good enough. And one of them
claims that she’s now being exposed to the taunts
and jeers of my neighbor, who called me Barren Doe. And she thinks this is
completely unacceptable and she should be allowed
to seek another husband. So when you look at
popular literature, you can still see this
connection, this understanding that an aphrodisiac would work
not just to improve your sex life, but to improve your
chances of being a parent. And this was really
important, because children in the early modern period
are an outward display, they’re an outward sign, that
you are virile and potent if you’re a man, which is
important for masculinity. And for women, having
a child is the moment when you’re kind of brought
into the circle of local married women and mothers,
and you’re allowed to attend gossips
and childbirths. And so it really cements your
standing in the community. And so if you look
at court cases, you can also see why
aphrodisiacs would have becomes so important. And Laura Gowing, who’s a
historian at King’s, has found a couple of cases
of sexual defamation being brought to courts,
where it’s not really about the sexual aspect. It’s about fertility. And so there’s a woman in London
who brings a case of defamation against her neighbor
because the neighbor said, I have 10 children, and
thou hath never a one. And that was seen as a
slander on her reputation. Likewise, a man in
Essex sued his neighbor because the neighbor
had said they had no prick to get a child. And so children
are very important. And hopefully that will help
you understand why aphrodisiacs are slightly more medicinal. We tend to think of them as
sexual curiosities, I think, but for people in the
early modern period, they can be things
that really matter. They are a medicine
that can help you change your status in the community. And I’d like to finish today
by contradicting everything I’ve just said by pointing
out that although this was the predominant understanding,
aphrodisiacs are still things that provoke lust,
and not everybody’s a good follower of medical
advice in the 17th century. And so people do use
them in ways that are considered to be inappropriate. And this is one of my
favorites, an advert listed in “Harris’ List of Covent
Garden Ladies,” which was a book detailing all
the prostitutes working in the area, revealed
that there was at least one prostitute with
a very unique selling point. “A Miss Bland of
Wardour Street, Soho, is a gay, volatile girl,
very genteel in her person, and has an extraordinary
titillation in all her members, which she’s very
fond of increasing by making use of provocatives
for that purpose, such as pullets, pigs, veal,
new-laid eggs, oysters, crabs, prawns, eryngos,
[INAUDIBLE],” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. “She’s reported to have
a kind of savage joy in her embraces and
sometimes leaves the marks of her penetrating
teeth on her paramour’s cheeks.” And medical writers,
too, were aware that people could use these
things in the wrong way. And so John Martin,
who we met earlier, cautioned people that
old lechers, thinking to improve their former
prowess, and young gallants willing to marry
their Mrs. Goodwill, do oftentimes misapply
those medicines. And likewise, as I’ve
already suggested, Contharides were
particularly dangerous, and people liked to
warn against their use. And this was in part because
they’re dangerous, but also because they’re being used for
the wrong types of purposes. And John Quincy warned his
readers with the story of a man who, taking a large
does inwardly, “so inflamed himself, that
he almost killed his wife, and yet continued, even in
distraction, with a fresh rage until he died, delirious.” And in one murder trial that
reached the Old Bailey in 1739, Catherine Demay was
accused of having put Contharides in the
coffee of a young man living in her house. And given their
reputation, many people felt it necessary to
say to the courts, she wasn’t trying to seduce him. That’s not what it was about. She was using them as a poison. And so they crop up. Aphrodisiacs crop up in a lot
of places in a lot of ways that theologians
and medical writers would have deemed
completely inappropriate. But having said that, I
think if we expand our minds and stop thinking
about modern mindset, we can see that sex in the past
is quite different for people. They think about it
in different ways. And in this era, it’s
mostly about having a baby, even when you’re enjoying
something as frivolous as an aphrodisiac. So thank you very much. [APPLAUSE] MALE SPEAKER: Thank you, Jen. We have time for a
couple of questions. AUDIENCE: You
mentioned stag horns. Did people eat stag horns? MALE SPEAKER: Can you
repeat the question back. JENNIFER EVANS: Yes, so
people did eat stag horns. They come up quite often,
actually, in medical texts. And I know that people
in the modern era have also tried them. AUDIENCE: And that’s not
a euphemism, [INAUDIBLE]? JENNIFER EVANS: No, they
don’t bother with euphemisms. So if they want you
to eat a stag’s penis, they’ll say stag pizzle. And one medical text I love
says stag pizzle, brackets, if you can’t get
that, a bull will do. [LAUGHTER] AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]? JENNIFER EVANS: Yeah, so
wealth and aphrodisiacs is really interesting, because
you would think that the lower classes are on a poorer diet,
so their libido is probably going to be lower anyway because
they’re not as well nourished. But the upper classes,
and particularly in the late 17th century,
early 18th century, people are just so worried
about luxury and excess. They think it’s actually
damaging the upper classes’ libidos. Because they become quite
fat and gross and large. Gross in their sense, not in
our modern sense, in case people think I’m being really
rude about people. So they worried, actually,
eating too much sugar, too much salt, too much fat,
is actually quite damaging to the upper classes. And there’s a bit of concern
in the early 18th century that the nobility
are going to be out-bred by the lower classes. And you can’t have that,
because then there’s a power struggle going on there. And there’s lots of nice
stories about milk maids who are incredibly lusty
and fertile and wonderful, while these weak, pale
women in the upper classes can’t bear enough children. And of course, part of that is
prompted by the royal families, because they often have
trouble conceiving children. And so people see the
problems the nobility are having with
their child-bearing. But there are
aphrodisiacs for everyone. You’ve got things in
the hedge row and then really expensive things. I’ve only come across
one recipe where it says, if you’re wealthy, take this. If you’re poorer, then
substitute X, Y, and Z in with cheaper things. So I think it’s a case of
adapting to your own means what you’ve got. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]? JENNIFER EVANS: It’s
difficult to see if there are things that are
recommended that are unhealthy now, because medical texts– I
mean, one of the things I found is they recommend
pretty much everything at one point or another. Someone will say everything. Other than tea, which is never
an aphrodisiac, and coffee, which causes impotence, other
than those things, nearly everything is recommended
at various points. And the problems with
diet for the lower classes is lack of meat. So they don’t have
as much meat to eat, which is possibly quite healthy. But given how much manual
labor they’re doing, they need the caloric intake. For the upper classes, health
becomes a serious problem, because when sugar
is introduced, they start eating a
lot more sugar and fat, and gout becomes incredibly
prevalent amongst the upper classes, particularly for men. And so there are
lots of health issues connected to the very sumptuous,
luxurious upper class diet. And there are some
people in this era who are recommending
vegetarianism as the most healthy diet. So they are concerned about
health and what they eat. But I don’t think they
recommend anything that we necessarily
would think was super dangerous as a normal food. So they recommend dangerous
things like pennyroyal, but they’re to provoke
miscarriages and abortions. And they’re still
today dangerous because they provoke
miscarriages and abortions. So they know what quite
a lot of things do. I’m not sure I really
answered that very well. MALE SPEAKER: [INAUDIBLE] I’ll
finish with one final question. What did you find was the
most unbelievable example of an aphrodisiac? What could you not believe? JENNIFER EVANS: I couldn’t
believe quite a lot of them, actually. But parsnips kept coming up
over and over and over again. And I was like, it’s a parsnip. And parsnips kept coming up
because they’re nutritious. But they would append on to
it, oh, the lower classes eat a lot of parsnips,
and they’re good. And potatoes also came up
in one text with the comment that the Irish eat
a lot of potatoes and have a lot of children,
so clearly they work. I think the most– the
brains of the small birds. I can’t really see modern
bandwagon building up around eating bird
brains as an aphrodisiac. There was nothing outrageously
outrageous, I don’t think. But all of them are
a little bit odd. AUDIENCE: Well, join me in
thanking Jen, everybody. [APPLAUSE]


  1. Food for thought, the salty affirmation was provoked by sea-men protruding into the taste-buds in a manner similar to salt biding on taste buds, causing a slight confusion for most attempts to describe the taste of 'seed'

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