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Health and wellbeing in the ancient world
Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

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3.4 Being healthy but infertile

As you heard in Video 3 earlier, one possible reason for dedicating models of sexual organs to a god was infertility. The WHO estimates that today around 1 in 4 couples of reproductive age will be affected by infertility – that is, a couple will have attempted to conceive for more than a year without producing a living child. Although there are no figures from the ancient world, written sources do reveal that the struggle to conceive was a concern in antiquity and there are many recorded causes and treatments given for such difficulties in the ancient medical texts.

Rose touched by frost.
Figure 15 A rose touched by frost

The main source for infertility in the ancient world comes from the writers of the Hippocratic Corpus. Indeed, fertility problems were considered so frequent by the Hippocratic writers that after listing the various causes of infertility, the third volume of Diseases of Women – often known as On Sterile Women – states:

This is the number and kind (of causes) in women that prevent them from giving birth, until they are healed, and through which they become completely infertile: therefore, there is no need to be surprised that there are often women who fail to give birth.

(Barrenness, 1)

So reproductive failure was viewed by this Hippocratic writer as something that a doctor should expect to see in his patients with relative frequency. It is worth noting that, although the focus in this case is on female infertility, it was understood in antiquity that men could be infertile too. In On Sterile Women, the writer notes that he has listed causes of infertility which stop women ‘giving birth, until they are healed, and through which they become completely infertile’. The writer says that if treatment is successful the women will go on to have a child and, if not, she will remain infertile.

This raises the question of whether someone could be considered both healthy and infertile in the ancient world. If you look at some examples of infertility in the Hippocratic texts you can see that there are three different prognoses given.

The first possibility was that the treatment worked, and the person was not only cured but their fertility was restored. For example:

If a woman’s menses do not flow where they should, but start down into her rectum, in this case too she does not become pregnant … If the mouth of a woman’s uterus has turned toward her rectum or has closed, on being treated she recovers her fertility.

(Barrenness, 1)

Here the author clearly states that by treating the woman’s menstrual problems her fertility will be restored.

The second prognosis was that treatment was unsuccessful and the woman remained ill and may even have died:

Now if the menses which have become full of pus do not go down through the vagina, they are likely to burst forth above the groin down along her flank without swelling … In these cases the woman does not usually survive. But even if she should survive she will always be infertile.

(Diseases of Women, 1.2)

In the Hippocratic Corpus, there are many examples of women being described as ‘cured’ while the author also states that they will remain infertile. It therefore does seem possible to be healthy as a person, while having an unhealthy womb. While an unhealthy woman may also be infertile, this did not mean that an infertile woman was always considered as being unhealthy by the ancient medical writers.