The Forum: Journal of History


Zia Simpson


Since the first civilizations emerged, reproductive ability has been one of the most prominent elements in assessing a woman’s value to society. Other characteristics such as beauty, intelligence, and wealth may have been granted comparable consequence, but those are arbitrary and improvable. Fertility is genetic, and for centuries it was beyond human control. Among the medieval European nobility, fertility held even greater power. The absence of an heir could, either directly or indirectly, bring about war, economic depression, and social disorder. Catholicism provided a refuge by allowing barren women to retain their hopes, while simultaneously enriching Rome’s coffers. Other women attempted various means of encouraging conception, such as early herbal treatments and remedies. Infertility was a dangerous game: not only were the treatments rudimentary and often detrimental to the patient’s health, but venturing too far into the realm of cures could earn a woman accusations of witchcraft or heresy. During an era in which dynastic extinction meant political instability, the religious and physical means through which noblewomen attempted to conceive, while deeply personal, were also matters of state. And while women were encouraged to conceive at any personal cost, certain lines could not be crossed, and navigating that maze was an imperious task. Through analysis of letters, memoirs, and exchequer receipts, I explore the ways in which medieval noblewomen in Europe attempted to “cure” infertility, and how their successes and failures were perceived by the public.