Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Secret Fertility Potions of the Royals

The sun is out. Birds are chirping. Lawn mowers are cutting grass. My window is open and it finally feels like spring. We tend to think of spring as the time babies are born, but that is actually only true for sparrows. For humans, more babies are born in August than any other month presumably making the cold weather more conducive for conception.  No worries. The Raucous Royals is here to offer the following fertility secrets passed down by the royals.

The ancients just didn’t seem to get the whole concept of menopause. Such was the case of Byzantine Empress Zoe in the 11th century who at the age of fifty was forced to tie pebbles to her body, hang fertility amulets around her, and wear chains. By fifty, women have enough problems with things hanging without adding rocks to their body. Poor Zoe. She never did get that baby, but on the positive side, her body was compared to a "well baked chicken" with "every part of her was firm and in good condition." I kind of wish someone would say by giggly post-partum bits look like firm poultry.

Throughout medieval and Renaissance times, when a queen was anointed with the consecrated oil, it was believed this oil guaranteed fertility. Some batches must have gone bad because greasing up didn’t always get the job done. When the first wife of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon could not conceive she made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady Walsingham and donned a hair shirt. She went through all that itchiness and she was still just left with one daughter, the future queen of England Mary Tudor.

Catherine de Medici wins hands down for enduring the most uncomfortable fertility rituals. She applied a poultice of ground antlers and cow dung prescribed by her alchemists. When that didn’t work, she swallowed elixirs of mare’s milk, rabbit’s blood, and sheep’s urine. (gulp). And of course, she ceased all riding of mules because it was well-known that the animal caused sterility. I would be pissed if someone took away my mule!

But don't think the women were having all the fun wallowing in cow dung. Men too had some freakishly weird fertility potions. Ferdinand of Aragon ate bull’s balls to increase his virility. Judging by the amount of mistresses he had, I hardly think he needed it.

Other queens swore by “taking the waters”. Such was the case with Anne of Austria who realized her advancing age and infrequent visits from her husband, Louis XIII, were making her chances of conceiving slim to none.  Miraculously, she conceived Louis XIV after taking the waters in Auvergne and he was born in 1638. Nicole Kidman reportedly swears by these same fertility waters.

Wife of Charles II, Catherine of Braganza was another fan of fertility dips and spent her summers in the fecund waters of Tunbridge Wells and Bath. Unfortunately, she was not as successful giving birth to a healthy baby. I guess the Bath waters did not have the same magic.

During Louis XIV's reign, it’s no wonder how anyone ever got pregnant because women could not have sex one hundred days of the year during Catholic observance days. Soon fertility went hand in hand with some of the wackiest superstitions in history. For example, to get a son, women were instructed to conceive during the waxing moon and to constrict the man’s left testicle. (girls came from the left testicle, boys came from the right). Men were also instructed to work a bit harder because it was believed that a woman’s orgasm increased fertility. (Yey! This one is actually true.) The church advised women to pray to St. Leonard, a hermit who founded a monastery and was the patron saint of prisoners. (Ironic, considering pregnancy often feels like an imprisonment). I do believe in the power of prayer and praying to any saint seems like a far better option then waiting for a waxing moon. I would just pick another saint. Those handcuffs he is holding are kind of scary.

When royals failed to conceive, they also could rely on the old Renaissance card trick - the phantom baby. When Henry VIII’s sister, Mary married the ailing, decrepit King of France, Louis XII, there was little hope for an heir. But without a heir, Mary also had little chance of staying in France and the clock was ticking with her gouty husband. No problem for this Tudor vixen. After Louis’ death, Mary simply wrapped her thin waste in towels and staged an occasional fainting spell. Unfortunately, no one bought the ruse especially the mother of Francis I, Louise of Savoy, who knew her son had a pretty good chance of becoming the next king if there were no visits from Mr. Stork. Louise ordered a full medical examination that turned up with Mary looking much thinner minus her pseudo baby bump. Shortly after her husband’s death, Mary was sent packing.

The beautiful Bianca Capello took the pregnancy ruse one step further. Around 1564, Bianca caught the eye of the son of the Grand Duke of Florence, Francesco de Medici. Unfortunately, Bianca was already married to a young clerk named Pietro Bonaventuri and Francesco was married to Johanna of Austria. In the Medici household, pesky husbands had a habit of turning up dead and wives were practically invisible. Such was the fate of Pietro when he was found murdered in the streets of Florence after a “scuffle”.

Bianca and Francesco carried on until 1574 when Francesco became Grand Duke of Tuscany. Throughout Francesco’s marriage, Johanna had only born him six measly daughters (a son died in youth). Now all Bianca needed to get the misses out of the way was a bouncing baby Medici. She took to wearing layered clothing and told Francesco the happy news. After a secluded "birth", she swiped a baby from a working class mother and passed it off as Francesco's new heir to the Medici fortune. The baby was named Antonio, Johanna died a few years later, and Bianca had her fairy tale ending.

Not exactly. Even though Bianca had conveniently disposed of her accomplices, Francesco found out. No worries still. Illegitimate sons could become heirs in Florence….if they could survive the machinations of the family members they were replacing. Antonio did survive. Mom and Pops were not so lucky. Bianca and Francesco mysteriously turned up dead after vacationing in their villa. Their symptoms coincide with arsenic poisoning probably ordered by Francesco’s brother Ferdinando...but that is a post for another day.


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Awesome post! I had no idea there were so many fertility rituals in history. Those poor women.

Undine said...

In the (surprisingly lengthy) annals of fake pregnancies--or pregnancies certain people chose to see as fake--one cannot forget the "warming-pan" baby attributed to James II of England and his wife. Whether the child was truly theirs or not, the allegation that he was a ringer did a lot to cost James the throne.

Bearded Lady said...

Elizabeth - I am sure there are many more that I am forgetting.

Undine - oh that is a good one. I forgot about James II's baby.

Stella da Genova said...

Wonderful post, beardedlady! It is very informative, I enjoyed it immensely.

It got me thinking about the reverse of these fertility treatments - the historical methods of preventing pregnancy! Caterina Sforza's collection of over 400 recipes, potions, tinctures, and health / beauty tips, "Gli Experimenti" had such information, written by her own hand mostly.

She herself bore eight children who lived to maturity, and I wonder if she knew of or used any fertility potions. Actually, she was an active, passionate woman, which must have contributed to her overall good heatlh. It was recorded that when the castellan threatened to revolt she rode her horse hard 7 miles from her castle to the fortress 8 months pregant! She gave birth to a son the very next day.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Really enjoyed this post - came to it via Historical Fiction Online wher someone had pasted the url.
There's a fabulous book of Medieval pregnancy and conception lore called the Trotula - available in translation from the original Latin texts by Monica H. Green.

Helen Hollick said...

Elizabeth Chadwick passed this on via Twitter - great post: interesting, informative and a giggle!

Makes you wonder just how many pregnancies were faked & babies smuggled in - or how many Dads were not actually the father...

Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

Wow - it's no wonder that some women reverted to false pregnancies when the fertility rituals they were performing were so gross! Thanks for the info.


Amanda said...

Great post!

Re: St Leonard being the patron saint of prisoners.

Don't forget that the mother's lying-in period is also known as confinement!

Emma said...

Not to mention all the dangerous things they did to avoid being fertile! There was a good reason for giving up mules - mule testicles were used for magical abortions in Classical Antiquity. You can't have an animal that causes abortions and infertility hanging around like that. ;)

Though sometimes I think the people prescribing different measures were just mean-spirited. Take this Greco-Egyptian potion for attracting a lover, for example: "Rub together some gall of a wild boar, some rock salt, some Attic honey and smear it on the head of your penis." The fellow who wanted a spell done must've been rather thick and the magician wanted to make him suffer... right? :)

Bearded Lady said...

Brooke - You have to love those Italians. I can't imagine what it would have been like to be pregnant your whole life...if you made it past your child bearing years. Women must have been desperate to try anything.

Elizabeth - The Trotula is a great resource. I don't always understand all the concoctions but I am always surprised by how many they got right. Thanks for the twitter link!

Helen - yes it makes you understand why everyone got to witness births by the time the 18th century rolled around. They didn't want any sub babies thrown into the mix.

dolleygirl - yes, medicine before antibiotics could get pretty freakish

jfb- thanks!

Amanda - that's right...the confinement. I can't imagine having to sit in a bed sometimes months before the baby is born. I feel for all those mothers that get put on bed rest. That must be hell!

Emma - mules are a funny thing in fertility because we still use their hormones in our modern day birth control. Or maybe it is donkeys? I can't remember?

Amy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amy said...

Oops! How did my comment get deleted? Stupid slow computer!
I said:
Too bad my husband wasn't around when all those poor royal ladies were desperate to get pregnant. He's like a one-man fertility clinc. I get preggers when I stand too close to him.

Caitlin @ Link Building Packages said...

Great post! I enjoyed reading through it. We're also trying to get pregnant. That's why it's amazing for me to find out what the old folks use to improve fertility. I'm just wondering why the bulk of the work goes to women. But think that is still the case up to now.

Anonymous said...

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