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The Fascinating World of Aphrodisiacs

When most of us think of aphrodisiacs nowadays, we imagine a menu of oysters and chocolate, perfect for Valentine’s Day – even if the odd garlic or fenugreek makes an apparition here and there. In the modern world, aphrodisiacs are meant to stimulate the body and increase sexual pleasure: the word comes from the Greek goddess of love and sex, Aphrodite. Early modern people, on the other hand, understood them as capable of enhancing the body’s fertility too. Sexual pleasure was thought to increase the chances of conception: lust was an integral part of reproduction. But why was there a connection between procreation and aphrodisiacs? And what kinds of aphrodisiacs did people use?

Browse through pretty much any medical book written between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries and you will find plenty of things described as capable of provoking lust or ‘venery’ (from the Roman version of the goddess, Venus – it’s the same origin as ‘venereal disease’).  These could go from ordinary, everyday foods (such as carrots and milk) to exotic and expensive products from the New World (such as chocolate and vanilla). Although aphrodisiacs could be used in various ways, historical sources mainly discuss them within the framework of matrimony and procreation: they were used by married couples to help them conceive. For conception to occur, the quality of the male seed (sperm) was important; in women’s case, it was a healthy monthly menstruation that was needed. Still, it was usually thought that heat and pleasure were essential for both, which explains why most aphrodisiacs were recommended for everyone who wanted to conceive.

Aphrodisiacs were everywhere: the overlap between aphrodisiacs and remedies for infertility and cures for barrenness and impotence is such that these categories become almost meaningless. This was especially important at a time of high infant mortality and when procreating was the main goal of marriage: it was only natural for couples to seek to maximise their fertility. Moreover, in a patriarchal society, women’s main social role was connected to motherhood and male virility was demonstrated by the production of offspring. This meant that having children was expected of most people and that infertility was a serious problem. Don’t get me wrong: people did also try to regulate their fertility through contraceptives and abortions. Still, the ubiquity of aphrodisiacs in early modern books, pamphlets, ballads, and plays testifies to the extent to which they were a part of everyday life. Knowing aphrodisiacs was just a part of most people’s everyday medical and sexual knowledge.

So, what did early modern people consider aphrodisiacs? Well, the short answer is… lots of things. This is because the list included traditional and new remedies, which derived from several different medical systems, from the Hippocratic and Galenic humoral medicine to astrological, folkloric or Aristotelian beliefs. Bodily heat was usually considered vital to sexual activity and fertility: heat could also facilitate the conception of a male child, as men were believed to be hotter than women in general. So, it was particularly important for those who needed a male heir. Therefore, in Galenic medicine, which tended to treat the body through opposites, an infertile body should be treated with warming foods and spices (game meat, birds such as hens, sparrows and pheasants, rocket, peppers, cinnamon, and nutmeg, among others). The opposite was also true: to diminish libido, anaphrodisiacs that cooled the body could be used, such as water lilies.

Aphrodisiacs were believed to be so powerful that they could even be used to treat infertility caused by witchcraft. Still, many of the foodstuffs recommended strike our modern sensibility as unexpected: ‘windy meats’ or flatulent foods, such as beans and peas, were also recommended to help a couple conceive. For men, it was believed that wind could help attain and maintain an erection, though women were warned about the dangers of excessive windiness in the womb.

The body could also be stimulated through sympathetic medicine and the doctrine of signatures, according to which the external appearance of plants held clues to occult virtues it had to treat the body. This meant that phallic plants such as carrots and parsnips could be understood as capable of facilitating sexual activity.  Satyrion (or ‘dog stones’) was widely believed to be an aphrodisiac because of its testicular appearance. The name itself comes from the mythological Greek satyrs, known for their lecherous nature.

In popular culture, these beliefs deriving from the doctrine of signatures also explained why animal genitalia were often considered aphrodisiacs. The sexual power of animals usually considered highly lascivious, such as goats and birds, was believed to be transmitted through the consumption of their bodies. Animal testicles and penises (from foxes, bulls, and goats) as well as wombs (from dogs or hares) were especially valuable if the animal was killed during copulation, as the organs would then have their reproductive virtues enhanced. (Yes, seriously. I wish I was making this up!)

All these ingredients could be consumed by themselves (as ‘simples’) or in combination with others (‘compound medicines’), which could enhance their effect. They served to heat the body and encourage intercourse, to prepare the womb for conception and improve the quality of the male seed (sperm). In the case of seed, salt and ‘salty foods’ had been traditionally recommended, such as seafood. As the Neapolitan humanist Giambattista Della Porta wrote, in a recipe called ‘That a woman may conceive’:

Salt also helpeth Generation: for it doth not only heighten the Pleasures of Venus, but also causeth Fruitfulness. […] Hence the Poets feigned Venus to be born of Salt or the Sea.
Della Porta, Natural Magick (1658)

According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite had been born from the sea, which explained seafood’s properties as aphrodisiacs – think of oysters and caviar, for instance. Because male seed was partly composed of salt, these substances served to strengthen it, improving its quality and fertile potential.

I know what you’re thinking: none of this is very sexy. I agree. But that’s the thing; for us, aphrodisiacs are connected to pleasure only, whereas for early moderns, it was impossible to separate this pleasure from the fact that it also enhanced the chances of conceiving a child.

So, here’s a short (and non-exhaustive) summary of what early modern people considered aphrodisiacs, in no particular order: rocket, mustard, pepper, cinnamon, cress, ginger, galingale, myrrh, chicken, partridge, capons, pheasants, game meat, doves, birds like sparrows, aniseed, caraway seeds, saffron, cloves, balsamic, sea holy (eryngo), satyrion, nutmeg, cantharides, parsnips, turnips, carrots, eggs, hares, green geese, crawfish, crab, lobster, oysters, cuttle-fish, polypus, quails, foxes, milk, chestnuts, almonds, pine nuts, pistachios, artichokes, radishes, beans, peas, rice, barley, veal, onions, leeks, mushrooms, asparagus, garlic, leeks, sugar, caviar, eels, hazelnuts, aubergines, lemons, trout, milk, chickpeas, chocolate, vanilla, figs, musk, and amber. My favourite is probably cantharides, the ‘Spanish fly’, described by English midwife Jane Sharp in 1671 as having Viagra-like effects, making the penis ‘continually standing’.

In any case, good luck cooking up something for Valentine’s Day that wouldn’t be considered an aphrodisiac by early modern standards… Just make sure you steer clear of eating animal genitalia. Chocolate is much nicer!

References:

Theophile Bonet, Mercurius compitalitius: or, A guide to the practical physician (London, 1684).

Giambattista Della Porta, Natural Magick (London, 1658).

A Marsh, The ten pleasures of marriage relating all the delights and contentments that are mask’d under the bonds of matrimony (London 1682).

John Sadler, The sick womans private looking glasse (London, 1636)

Further Reading:

Jennifer Evans, Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2014).

Angus McLaren, Reproductive Rituals: The Perception of Fertility in England from the Sixteenth Century to the Nineteenth Century (London, 1984)

Philippa Pullar, Consuming Passions: A History of English Food and Appetites (London, 1970).

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‘Holy Anorexia’: The Fascinating Connection between Religious Women and Fasting

CONTENT WARNING

Discussion of bodily harm and eating disorders.

Social media might make it seem like fasting (and especially intermittent fasting) is something new. But fasting – voluntary or not – has arguably existed for as long as humans have. People have abstained from food throughout history for many different reasons, not least of which scarcity of nourishment (think of hunter-gatherers during a harsh winter). But the main reason for voluntarily fasting has been religion – just think of the Islamic Ramadan or the Christian Lent. An extreme version of religious fasting has been called ‘holy anorexia’ (anorexia mirabilis), and it was not a rare occurrence among medieval saintly women. The most famous example is perhaps St Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), who died from the rigorous practice. Her ecstatic visions were often centred around food and starvation as a way of embodying her love for Christ. She was known for eating nothing but the holy wafer (the eucharist), despite the pleas of her religious community, including her confessor. But where did this trend come from? And why was it much more prevalent among female saints?

The term ‘anorexia’ comes from the Greek an (lack of) and orexia (appetite), encompassing a range of practices with various meanings. For medieval Christians, abstaining from bodily pleasures to achieve a higher spirituality was considered a noble goal; many religious orders took poverty vows, and by the 12th century, celibacy had become a universal requirement for priests. Religious fasting could bring people closer to God, and conversely, gluttony was considered sinful. Moreover, in a period in which food was not as plentiful as it is today, indulging in the sensual pleasure of overeating was often frowned upon, whereas refusing to eat for religious reasons was praised. Fasting became increasingly revered from the 13th century on, with the beginning of this trend perhaps best illustrated by an episode in which Christ appeared to St Margaret of Cortona (d. 1297) in a vision, telling her that ‘Christians cannot be perfect unless they restrain their appetites from vices, for without abstinence from food and drink, the war of the flesh will never end’.

‘Holy anorexia’ was a social, religious, and psychological phenomenon, which reached its peak in the 15th century, when hundreds of saintly women were recorded as having survived on little or no food, according to some contemporary writers. Most cases were recorded in the Italian peninsula, with plenty of examples both before and after that period (you can check out a wonderful summary in pictures here); still, the 15th-century numbers the most cases of anorectic mystics. Because so many women in this period undertook extreme fasting, some historians have likened their anorexia mirabilis to the contemporary anorexia nervosa. But we should be careful with anachronisms: medieval people understood their bodies in a very different way than 21st-century people do. Yet many of these saints are still revered by Catholics today, as a symbol of piety and devotion.

For religious women, food was one of the few ways in which they could control the world around them; through renouncing ordinary food, they turned themselves to the divine nourishment of Christ. By embracing the suffering of the passion and letting go of their physicality, saintly women could paradoxically control their bodies. They could get closer to the divine, understand the pain of Christ, and elevate themselves above the people around them. Significantly, with excessive weight loss, many of these women stopped menstruating (amenorrhoea) and, while the primary goal of fasting was not reducing fertility, it was an unintended consequence. For religious, unmarried women, this may not have directly impacted their lives: they weren’t meant to become pregnant anyway. Still, in a period in which motherhood was almost synonymous with womanhood, this ‘un-sexing’ could arguably help them transcend the constraints of the human body and matter itself, illustrating medieval asceticism’s focus on the immortal soul.

It is not a coincidence that other religious women of the period, such as Joan of Arc, were known both for not menstruating and for arduous fasting (You can read more about blood and ‘un-sexing’ here.) Transcending the body (and especially the female body) through self-starvation was even more apparent in the case of St Liberata, also known as Wilgefortis (from virgo fortis, strong virgin). Her extreme fasting resulted in the development of facial hair (lanugo), and she has been adopted by some in the queer community as a transgender saint. Her father, the king of Portugal, wished her to marry, while Wilgefortis intended to devote her life to Christ. The story goes that, through fasting, she stopped menstruating and grew a beard, making her less attractive to potential suitors. Her father had her crucified. Not surprisingly, this 14th-century story became the basis for Wilgefortis’ popular devotion for more than two centuries, during the height of ‘holy anorexia’.

Still, the question remains: why was this more widespread among religious women? Fasting wasn’t exclusive to women, but there are far fewer male saints remembered for anorexia mirabilis. Cultures of piety varied across time and place, but female religiosity was perhaps best illustrated through the relationship to food. For religious men, on the other hand, it was giving up power, wealth, and sex that constituted the main path to the divine, through chastity and poverty. Women and men chose different symbols with which to express their devotion to Christ, depending on religious doctrine as well as expected societal gender roles. In patriarchal Catholicism, men were dominant: renouncing this dominance was best illustrated by letting go of power over others (exemplified by sex and wealth). For women, it was renouncing their roles as wives and mothers that indicated a shift from the worldly to the divine. To do so, these female mystics adhered to strict ascetic practices, which included self-flagellation and interrupted sleep as well as extreme fasting, to experience Jesus’ bodily suffering on the cross: while they renounced their own bodies and sexuality, they identified with the body (and the humanity) of Christ.

Throughout the centuries, many saintly and mystical women became known for religious fasting. Notable examples, besides the ones mentioned above, include Elizabeth of Hungary (d. 1231), Clare of Assisi (d. 1253), Margery Kempe (d. 1438), and Teresa of Avila (1582). They were exceptional people: their practices were not typical of most religious women, let alone ordinary women. These saints were praised as models for others because of their incredible discipline, sacrifice, piety, and devotion. When reading the accounts of their lives, we should be careful not to impose contemporary diagnoses or labels on people who lived in the past. We should also question the sources that recount their miraculous feats.

Yet, regardless of the specific details surrounding someone like Catherine of Siena’s fasting, these stories give us a glimpse into what late medieval people found inspiring and admirable. They also hint at women’s responses to life under the socio-political constraints of medieval Catholicism, in which control over their bodies had to be negotiated. These tales highlight a human longing for a connection with the divine, which ‘holy anorectics’ sought to achieve by renouncing from food, which ultimately also symbolised their nurturing and maternal roles in a patriarchal society. Finally, ‘holy anorexia’ and fasting were framed as virtuous and, the people who practised them, as examples of piety. With so many social media influencers today extolling the benefits of fasting, it might be helpful to look back and question our reasons for adhering to these practices, and how that shapes the way we understand our own bodies.

References:

The Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin, Catherine of Siena: Dictated by Her, While in a State of Ecstasy, to Her Secretaries, and Completed in the Year of Our Lord 1370; Together with an Account of Her Death by an Eye-Witness (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1907).

Fra Giunta Bevegnati, The Life and Miracles of Saint Margaret of Cortona (1247–1297),(Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 2012).

Further Reading:

Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

Rudolph M. Bell, Holy Anorexia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

Ilse E. Friesen, The Female Crucifix: Images of St. Wilgefortis Since the Middle Ages (Waterloo, CA: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001).

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