Female barrenness, bodily access and aromatic treatments in seventeenth-century England

woman wombFemale barrenness, bodily access and aromatic treatments in seventeenth-century England

By Jennifer Evans

Historical Research, Vol.87:237 (2014)

Abstract: Across the seventeenth century medical self-help manuals noted that aromatic substances were a suitable remedy for female barrenness. It has often been suggested that in the early modern period physicians did not touch their patients but instead relied upon patient narrative to diagnose and treat the sick body. This article problematizes this issue by investigating the multi-sensory approach to treating infertility, a disorder invested with concerns of gendered bodily access. It will be demonstrated that the recommendation of aromatic treatments for infertility allowed male physicians a means to negotiate the complex gender boundaries that restricted their access to women’s bodies.

Introduction: Across the seventeenth century writers in several medical self-help manuals noted that aromatic substances, in the form of fumes, suffumigations, gloves and ointments, were a suitable remedy for female barrenness. In particular the use of musk, civet and ambergris was thought to stimulate the reproductive organs, encouraging sexual desire and fertility. Many traditional histories of early modern medicine have suggested that physicians did not touch their patients, except to take a pulse, instead relying upon patient narrative, and in some cases urine analysis, to diagnose and treat the sick body. Similar comments were also made about the male practice of gynaecological and obstetric medicine. Yet it would appear from the language of medical texts, as will be seen, that not all physicians diagnosed and cured at a physical distance from their patients; they, like other medical practitioners, could and did touch the body when necessary. Accordingly, several scholars have modified and nuanced our understanding of how medical practitioners negotiated access to their patient’s bodies. Lianne McTavish, for example, has demonstrated the ways in which both patients resisted the gaze and touch of man-midwives and male practitioners structured their practice, by presenting touch as a method of viewing, in response to these concerns.

Click here to read this article from the University of Hertfordshire

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