Thursday, February 24, 2011

Question from Len - Judging a woman's fertility

Did the Tudors think you could tell if a woman was able to bear children? For instance, was there an age or appearance that they thought meant you were more likely to bear children well and be fertile?


  1. I know that a sign of wide hip was considered a sign of fertility. It was considered bad for fertility to bed a female under the age of 16.

    So even though some elite marriages were concluded when the bride was quite young, the couple was kept apart until she had passed the age of 16 and has had at least 3 menstrual cycles.

    I don't know about other appearance issues.

  2. I think the key criterion was whether the girl had begun her menstrual periods, no matter what her age or appearance - there is constant feverish speculation in contemporary ambassadorial reports whether a prospective bride has started her courses, whether her courses are regular, what sort of diet might help bring on her courses, etc. Mary Tudor's biographers have a lot of that material to work with, since she apparently had irregular periods.

    Beyond this cornerstone of prospective fertility, there seemed to be cultural and individual beliefs about the signs of fertility. Catherine of Aragon's father Ferdinand fancied himself an obstetric expert, saying in 1513 that the "eldest daughter of the king of France is not likely to have children." This is Claude de France, who married Francis I; she is repeatedly described in various histories as "small and strangely fat" in quotations, so I assume there's some kind of contemporary source for it. Possibly there was a belief that too much stoutness prevented pregnancy; 12 years later Tunstall and Wingfield are telling Henry that the Emperor's brother Ferdinand is not likely to have children, "his wife being corpulent." (Anne of Hungary went on to have 17 children, most of whom survived childhood, although there were a few epileptics among them).

    Claude de France also suffered from a hereditary limp - the French word "boiteuse" connotes either a hunchback or a limper, a crookedness of the body. This was thought to be a very serious inhibitor of successful childbearing (although Claude went on to have seven children). Claude's father Louis annulled his first marriage to Jeanne de Valois on the grounds that she was so crooked that he had been unable to deflower her; Jeanne bravely contested that she was capable of sex and childbirth, but the Pope (heavily bribed) agreed with Louis. She was very badly deformed, however, and her own father Louis XI cackled when he married her to Louis of Orleans that their children would cost very little to rear (since there would be none, due to her physical defects; the Spider King wanted to choke off the rival Orleans house).

    James V of Scotland was offered the daughter of the Duke of Vendome as a bride; he came to France to look at her and found she was "boiteuse" (I don't know whether it was a hunchback or a limp) and refused. Possibly she was ugly because of the disability, but her ability to bear children could have been his real concern.

    A general appearance of bad health - thinness, frailty -- also denoted a bad breeder. James V wanted to marry the tubercular Princess Madeleine of France, but her father put him off, saying she was "unfit for marriage."

    Mary of Hungary, a thin pale girl in her youth, matured into a hearty masculine type of woman, but never married again after being widowed young. "The imperialists have offered her to the king of England," the bishop of Faenza wrote in 1536, "but it is thought he will not take her, as she is in bad health, and not fit to have children."

  3. I was able to track down the quote on Claude - it was Mercurino de Gattinara, the Emperor's chancellor, who characterized Claude as "small and strangely/extraordinarily fat" in a letter to Margaret of Austria. He was serving as ambassador to France in 1515 and saw Claude then.


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