This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
The London Cuckold, a ballad printed between c1685 and 1688, describes a man who takes leave of his “witty Wife” to “behold the glory” of the army on campaign at nearby Hounslow Heath. On his return, unaware that his wife has been unfaithful, he is lavished with attention:
“When he came home she gave him Kisses,
and Sack-Posset very good,
Caudles too, she never misses,
for they warm and heat the Blood
Such things wilt create desire,
And new kindle Cupid’s Fire;
These things made him kiss his Wife,
And to call her Love and Life.”
It’s an amusing image: the guilty wife feeding her cuckolded husband with treats intended to “kindle Cupid’s fire” – stoke amorous affection and increase arousal – to make him enamoured anew and even, perhaps, more sexually appealing. But it’s her choice of foods that is most interesting: a taste of the diverse range of putative aphrodisiacs in early modern England.
Caudle, a warm drink of thin gruel mixed with wine or ale and sweetened or spiced, was believed to be arousing, as was sweet-posset, another mildly alcoholic confection. But the array of aphrodisiacs also included some surprises. Along with produce from kitchen garden and hedgerow (such as parsnips, carrots and nettles), warming spices including cinnamon, anise seed and coriander were high on the list. So were birds like pheasants and sparrows, as well as animal genitalia – the pizzle (penis) and testicles of bulls, boars, goats and stags. Yet, perhaps most surprising was the belief that flatulent foods such as beans and pulses increased libido.
For early modern men and women, though, these foods were more than just sexual curiosities. They were inherently understood to be treatments for infertility, not just stimulants for increasing arousal.
This understanding drew upon the medical idea that sexual desire and pleasure were fundamental to fertility – without them, conception was unlikely to occur, not least because men and women would be less likely to engage in intercourse. As the early 18th-century surgeon and medical writer John Marten argued: “God Almighty has…endured each [sex] with natural Instincts, prompting them to the use thereof with desire, in order to perpetuate the Species, by producing new Creatures to supply the room of those who are gone; without which desire, what rational Creature would have taken delight in so filthy, so contemptible and base thing as Venery [sexual intercourse] is?”
Aphrodisiacs were believed to act in several different ways. They could heat the body; they could provide nutrition for the production of seed (sperm); and they could provide salt, to make the seed more titillating. Pulses, beans and other flatulent foods were thought to mainly affect men, and to function by creating wind and inflating the body.
Angus McLaren, a historian of reproduction, noted that in the early modern period men were frequently recommended flatulent foods such as apples to stimulate lust. Audrey Eccles, in her work on Tudor and Stuart obstetrics and gynaecology, identified these as a category of stimulants widely known as ‘windy meats’.
Medical authors of this era explained that erection of the male genitalia was caused by a combination of factors: blood, imagination, muscles, pressure, seed and wind. Helkiah Crooke’s 1616 book, Mikrokosmographia: A Description of the Body of Man, vividly invoked the roles of blood, spirits and wind in this process: “When as in venerious appetites, the bloud & the spirits do in great quantity assemble themselves out of the veines and arteries, that member is as it were a gutte filled with winde, presently swelling and growing hard.”
Though Crooke used wind as a metaphor for the biological processes occurring during arousal, he also noted later in his treatise that “the efficient cause [of an erection] is heate, spirites and winde, which fill and distend” the hollow parts of the penis. Medical writers agreed that foods releasing wind into the body enabled men to get and sustain an erection.
This was important not just for the act itself, but also for ensuring that impregnation resulted. Medical doctrine explained that male seed was potent and fertile because it was hot, as well as being spirituous and salty. The heat of the seed was maintained during intercourse because it remained insulated inside the man’s body until it was placed directly into the womb or neck of the womb.
As Alessandro Massaria’s medical book for women from the turn of the 17th century explained: “Another cause of barrenness, by the defect of the yard [penis], is too much weakness and tenderness thereof, so that it is not strongly enough erected, to inject the seed into the womb; for the strength and stiffness of the yard, very much conduces to conception, by reason of the forcible injection of the humane seed into the womb.”
In other words, more wind meant a stiffer erection, more direct placement of seed and a better chance of conception.
Wind also made seed more stimulating and more potent. Medical writers asserted that seed titillated and irritated the sensitive skin of the reproductive organs as it passed through them, causing arousal.
And in his Secret Miracles of Nature (1559), Lævinus Lemnius explained that seed was made from the “windy superfluity of blood” and that foods that “will make men lusty” should create “plenty of seed, and a force of a flatulent spirit, whereby the seed may be driven forth into the Matrix [womb].” So wind enhanced both the amount and potency of the seed and the function of the male reproductive organs.
Unlike categories of aphrodisiacs recommended for consumption by both men and women, these ‘windy meats’ were promoted only for men. In fact, wind and flatulence were thought to be particularly damaging to women.
Philip Barrough’s 16th-century medical treatise warned that “windinesse ingendered in the wombe, doth let the fertilitie or conception, & causeth barennesse”. Jane Sharp, 17th-century author of the first female-authored midwifery manual, suggested that women should take juniper berries every morning to prevent wind from collecting in the womb and damaging fertility.
Beans and pulses, particularly chickpeas, were among a host of foods identified by early modern medical authors as ‘windy meats’. Barrough, for example, argued that when a man could not fulfil his marital duties (sexually satisfy his wife and make her a mother) “windie meates are good for him, as be chiche peason, beanes, scallions [onions], leekes, the roote and seed of persneppes, pine nuttus, sweet almonds… and other such like”.
The English translation of Jacques Ferrand’s 1623 treatise Erotomania similarly listed various foods he believed would, through their heat and flatulence, provoke lust, including soft eggs, pine nuts, pistachios, carrots, parsnips, onions, oysters, chestnuts and chickpeas.
Herbals produced by botanical writers offered similar ideas. John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum of 1640 stated that: “Cicers [chickpeas], as Galen saith, are no lesse windy meate than Beanes, but yet nourish more, they provoke venery, and is thought to increase sperme.”
Another flatulent food described by botanical treatises as an aphrodisiac was the aubergine, or ‘mad apple’. “They breed much windinesse, and thereby peradventure bodily lust,” commented Parkinson. Likewise, William Salmon wrote in the early 18th century that “they yield but little Nourishment, and breed much Wind, whereby ’tis possible they may provoke Bodily Lust”.
Thunder but no rain
However, not all medical writers agreed that ‘windy meats’ boosted fertility. Even Lemnius stated that: “Some of our lascivious women will say, that such men that trouble their wives to no purpose, do thunder, but there follows no rain, they do not water the inward ground of the matrix. They have their veins puffed up with wind, but there wants seed.”
This insinuated that wind, though allowing men to engage in sexual activity, did not enhance the quality of a man’s seed and, thus, did not improve fertility.
Similarly, a late 17th‑century medical tract by Swiss physician Théophile Bonet confidently dismissed windy meats, stating: “It is commonly reported of Aphrodisiacks, that Flatus or wind is necessary to Venery: but though in Boys erection or distension of the Penis may seem from Flatus, and these may concur by accident, yet they cannot nor ought not to be reckoned among Aphrodisiacks; those things indeed that excite the Spirits stir up Venery, and so make the Seed turgid, but so do not those things that breed or excite wind.”
Bonet, again, did not discount the idea that wind could cause the penis to swell, but observed that ‘windy meats’ did not improve the quality of a man’s seed, so did not deserve to be classified as sexual stimulants.
These criticisms became more common as the period progressed and, by the 18th century, windy meats had lost their prestige. New understandings of the anatomy of the penis revealed that wind did not inflate the penis or enhance male potency and attention shifted to the role muscles and blood flow played in sexual abilities.
Jennifer Evans is a historian at the University of Hertfordshire, with a special interest in medicine and sexual health in early modern Britain