Female barrenness, bodily access and aromatic treatments in seventeenth-century England


  • The research for this article was made possible by a postdoctoral research fellowship provided by the Society for Renaissance Studies. The author would also like to thank Alexandra Walsham, Sarah Toulalan and Catherine Rider, along with the anonymous reviewers, whose generous comments and suggestions helped to shape the final version of this article.
  • [This is a revised copyright line on 21 March 2014.]


Across the seventeenth century medical self-help manuals noted that aromatic substances were a suitable remedy for female barrenness. It has often been suggested that in the early modern period physicians did not touch their patients but instead relied upon patient narrative to diagnose and treat the sick body. This article problematizes this issue by investigating the multi-sensory approach to treating infertility, a disorder invested with concerns of gendered bodily access. It will be demonstrated that the recommendation of aromatic treatments for infertility allowed male physicians a means to negotiate the complex gender boundaries that restricted their access to women's bodies.