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Medieval Ideas about Infertility and Old Age

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By | Early Medicine, Events and Visits

The next seminar in the 2017–18 History of Pre-Modern Medicine seminar series takes place on Tuesday 16 January.

Medical Recipe Collection, England, 15th Century. Swaddled baby in a cradle on rockers. (MS.5262). Image credit: Wellcome Collection: CC-BY.

Speaker: Dr Catherine Rider (University of Exeter)

Medieval Ideas about Infertility and Old Age


When they discussed fertility and reproductive disorders it was common for medieval medical writers to talk about age. The anonymous early fourteenth-century Tractatus de Sterilitate, for example, listed ‘too young or too old’ among the causes of female infertility, although it did not mention old age when discussing men’s reproductive disorders. A number of other medieval medical writers gave ages at which they claimed most women, and men, would no longer be able to have children: information which was often drawn from earlier texts. As well as featuring in medical texts, the topic of age and fertility also appeared in other kinds of learned writing in the Middle Ages. In particular Bible commentaries and saints’ lives discussed the miraculous births of children such as Isaac and John the Baptist to elderly parents. Discussions of fertility and old age therefore became one area in which medical and religious discourses overlapped and interacted. This paper will examine both the medical and theological writings in more detail, exploring how old age was believed to affect the fertility of both men and women


Wellcome Library, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE.

Doors open at 6pm, seminar will start at 6.15pm.

The seminar series is focused on pre-modern medicine, which we take to cover European and non-European history before the 20th century (antiquity, medieval and early modern history, some elements of 19th-century medicine).

Further details on the seminar series are available in a previous post.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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