How to Tell Whether You or Your Husband Are Infertile: Pee on Plants

When I was a kid I did a science project that involved growing bean sprouts under different circumstances: in sun, in shade, next to a big homemade electromagnet. The idea was to see which set of conditions fostered the most growth. Little did my father and I suspect that we were doing a slightly modified version of a 1600s fertility test.

Nicholas Culpeper’s 1652 Directory for Midwives is a gem, and I’ll have more to say about it hereafter. It’s a delightful document, surprisingly egalitarian in many respects. In the following excerpt on ways to test “accidental” infertility (i.e., that which isn’t “natural”), Culpeper rages  against all the physicians who blindly follow Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen, “little gods-amighty” whose theories he dismisses as unsubstantiated and laughable. In lieu of their solutions, he offers the following test:

The most rational way of knowledge in this Point, that ever I read in this Case, I shall quote, and give my Reasons for it, if it do hold true, well and good; if not, I cannot help it. It is this.

Take a handful of barly (or any other Corn, that will quickly grow, will serve the turn as well) and steep half of it in the Urine of the Man, and the other half in the Urine of the Woman, the space of four and twenty hours: then take it out and set it, the Mans by it self and the Womans by it self; set it in a Flower-pot, or something else, where you may keep it dry; then water the Mans every morning with his own Urine, the Womans with hers, and that which grows first is the greatest sign of Fruitfulness…

These, in case you wondered, are the circumstances under which husband  and wife might start urinating on their plants as a sort of competitive marital sport. It’s important, too, that we imagine the domestic tensions that might play out in the course of this experiment: would one party start secretly watering his/her plant with water or fertilizer? Would the other start eating lots of parsnips or dumplings to temporarily boost his/her fertility?

When Mr. Millicent gets home, we are starting a garden. I intend to win. In preparation, I’m off to strengthen my womb with a draught of boiled white wine steeped in stinking Arrach. See ya.


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