Fertilization and Embryology:
Western Perceptions in the Late Middle Ages
Throughout the Middle Ages, the phenomenon of conception was explained by two main paradigms. The Aristotelian model of conception proposed that the inferior female seed, a modified version of what we now know as sperm, supplied nourishment to the superior male seed (Zacks 65-66). The more prevalent embryonic notion, embraced by the Hippocratic-Galenic school, envisioned the union of male and female seeds. This union, however, falsely suggests an equality between the seeds. As men were believed to be superior to females morally, mentally, and anatomically, male seed, a treasure to be conserved--a "precious liquor" as Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset dub it--was not to be released in any wasteful fashion (52). For this reason, coupled with religious doctrine that only recognized the procreative purposes of intercourse, the one acceptable sexual position was 'missionary style" (Riddle, Contraception 27). In this position, the male seed could more effectively saturate the womb and enhance the likelihood of combination with the inferior and harmful female seed. (For a discussion of overall gender differentiation, refer to the medieval humoral system. For a discussion of medieval sexual ethics, click here).
Medieval individuals believed a woman's seed lingered in the medium of sexual fluid (Riddle, Contraception 96). This notion differs from the contemporary biological understanding that eggs are produced in the ovaries and released during menstruation. If medieval peoples believed that the egg was a product of secretions during intercourse, what, then was menstruation's perceived purpose? Lore reveals that, like intercourse, menstruation served to purge the woman of her dangerous seed, and in the absence of either of these events, masturbation was encouraged as a means of staving off complications--most notably respiratory and mental in nature--that could arise from seed accumulation. Because the female seed was supposedly located within the sexual fluid, female orgasm was believed to be necessary for conception and, thus, pregnancy. Accordingly, rape victims, prostitutes who no longer enjoyed sexual relations, and women with less-than-gifted partners could not conceive children.
A recognized potential consequence of coitus, pregnancy was the eventual state achieved by woman when her seed combined with that of a man. Because no medieval perception of an embryo existed, pregnancy was not seen in contemporary terms as the implantation of an embryo in the uterus. To medieval women, pregnancy began with the cease of menstruation, perhaps several months after fertilization in some females. Yet even after women were aware of their state, they, in effect, had the ability to establish the initial boundary of pregnancy. To the medieval community, then, a woman was not pregnant until "it was so visibly evident that it could not be denied" (Riddle, Contraception 26-27). Because of the serious implications of pregnancy for medieval women--the hardship of labor, the monetary expense of children, the impending lack of freedom, and possible violation of religious convictions, to name a few--contraception in various forms was widely practiced. Furthermore, knowledge and use of abortifacients to terminate pregnancies (that perhaps prevailed despite the used of contraceptive measures) also became mainstream.
Jacquart, Danielle and Claude Thomasset. Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton
Riddle, John. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. Cambridge: Harvard
---. Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.
Thomasset, Claude. "The Nature of Woman." A History of Women. Ed. Christiane Klapisch-Zuber.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. 43-69.
Zacks, Richard. History Laid Bare: Love, Sex, and Perversity from the Ancient Etruscans to Warren
G. Harding. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
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Last revised: 4 May 1998