Male infertility was treated even in medieval times

Male infertility was recognized, diagnosed and ‘treated’ as far back as the 13th Century, say scientists who found medieval texts describing medical tests and ‘cures’ for childlessness for men.

Researchers from University of Exeter in the UK analyzed popular medical and religious books from the 13th century, and found that widely-circulated medical texts recognized the possibility of male infertility, including sterility and ‘unsuitable seed’.

A urine test to determine if a husband or a wife was to blame for the absence of children in a marriage was devised, and medical recipes drawn up as a treatment for men.

It has been widely assumed that women in medieval England were blamed for childlessness and religious discourse about infertility focused on women.

If men were deemed responsible for the failure of a couple to produce children, this was in cases of sexual dysfunction where it was obvious the man was unable to have intercourse.

Researchers found that in 13th-15th century England male infertility was viewed as a possibility, not only among those who had studied medicine at a university and could read Latin but among less-educated sections of society reading texts in English.

“Although medical texts tended to devote most space to female infertility, male infertility was nonetheless regularly discussed as a possible cause of childlessness in academic texts and by educated medieval medical practitioners,” said Catherine Rider, a historian at University of Exeter.

Researchers found texts written in the vernacular contained references to male sterility as a possible cause of a woman failing to conceive.

Learned Latin texts were translated, adapted and added to, even influencing English recipe collections which included remedies for childlessness.

For example a 12th century gynaecological treatise entitled the Trotula, by an anonymous author, was circulated widely and translated into English and French. It states that “conception is impeded as much by the fault of the man as by the fault of the women”.

This widely read book on women’s medicine went on to describe male reproductive disorders as being about less visible forms of “sterility” as well as problems relating to erections and emission of sperm.

The book also includes a test to see if the ‘defect’ lay in the man or the woman, which had also appeared in earlier medieval texts.

Both should urinate into a pot of bran and the pots should be left for nine or ten days. If worms appeared in one of the pots than he or she was the infertile partner, the book stated.

“We can’t fully understand what attitudes were like towards male infertility in the Middle Ages because we have so few records which describe the experiences of people who had reproductive disorders,” Catherine said.

“It is hard to know whether men or women were more likely to seek treatment for infertility in practice. Most of our evidence comes from doctors who discussed what might happen and how to treat these problems,” she added.