Female Barrenness, Bodily Access and Aromatic Treatments in Seventeenth-Century England

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Scholars examining medical practice in early modern England have often remarked upon the complexities of the relationship between male physicians and female patients. It has been noted that ideas of female modesty and concern about the potential erotic nature of contact between patients and practitioners could affect the treatment of certain disorders. This paper contributes to this on-going discussion by examining the use of pungent substances to diagnose and treat female barrenness. Diagnostic tests included in medical treatises could rely upon the woman’s ability to perceive a particular substance. These tests thus put women at the centre of the diagnosis of their disorders and allowed them to negotiate access to their reproductive bodies. Similarly medical practitioners included a range of treatments for infertility that involved the fumes of certain substances entering the womb or surrounding the body. These treatments may have allowed women, and perhaps their medical practitioners, to choose a method of remedy that did not involve the application of external lotions to the genitalia. Thus by considering the multi-sensory nature of medical treatment this paper will highlight that the diversity of remedies advocated in early modern medical texts would perhaps have allowed women to restrict access to their reproductive bodies, while still obtaining diagnosis and treatment.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)423-443
Number of pages21
JournalHistorical Research
Issue number237
Early online date12 Mar 2014
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2014


  • history
  • barrenness
  • women's history
  • fertility
  • sensory history
  • medical practitioners


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