‘Elderly years cause a Total dispaire of Conception’: old age, sex and infertility in early modern England
Social History of Medicine
Oxford University Press
© The Author 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Social History of Medicine. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
This article examines early modern ideas about old bodies, sex and reproduction. The old body in early modern thought was particularly connected to barrenness and sterility: it was understood that old women were barren while old men were invariably increasingly less fertile. Consequently, sexual activity was regarded as inappropriate for the old and, as a result of the physical changes of ageing, very likely difficult to achieve and unsatisfactory. At a time when the primary – albeit not the only - aim of marriage and sexual intercourse was procreation, with the production of offspring essential for the preservation of family and state, inheritance, social and economic stability, regulation of sexual behaviour was important in western European societies. The ridiculing of old men and women’s sexual behaviour that permeated contemporary culture in stories, ballads and jokes, alongside medical literature that characterised old bodies as sexually unappetising as well as unreproductive, carried the message that sexual activity was not for the old. This article further demonstrates the centrality of fertility to early modern thinking about bodies and sex and therefore about who were considered to be unsuitable sexual partners. It also adds to recent scholarship that argues for age as an important category of historical analysis, in this instance specifically in the histories of the body and sexuality.
This is a freely-available open access publication. Please cite the published version which is available via the DOI link in this record.
Social History of Medicine, 2015
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