‘If slendernesse be the cause of unfruitfulnesse; you must nourish and fatten the body’: Thin Bodies and Infertility in Early Modern England

  • Sarah ToulalanEmail author


Early modern authors of medical and midwifery books invariably identified body size – whether too fat or too thin – as a cause of reproductive dysfunction; this chapter investigates thin bodies and infertility. Ideas about the likely infertility of very thin bodies were derived from ancient classical models of reproduction but resonated in early modern society, especially as diseases that might cause sickness and wasting were prevalent, and the poor might struggle to achieve an adequate diet. The generative success of couples was the foundation of social, economic, political, and religious stability but mortality, especially infant, was high. Promotion of fertility and provision of treatments for infertility were thus continuing concerns. Although there was little change during this period, some shifts in thinking occurred in the eighteenth century reflecting new theories about conception, foetal nutrition in utero, causes of miscarriage, how birth is initiated, and emergent eighteenth-century anxieties about masturbation.


Anorexia Bodies Humoral model Lean Midwifery Reproductive cycle Size Slender Thin 

Research Resources

Primary Sources

  1. Sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth-century medical and midwifery books can be found in the British Library and in the Wellcome Trust Library on Euston Road, London. Many can be found online in Early English Books Online and in Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. The Wellcome Trust Library also has many manuscript receipt books. Useful edited collections include: Irma Taavitsainen and Paivi Pahta (eds), Early Modern English Medical Texts: Corpus Description and Studies (Amsterdam, 2010), a book and CD which is the second part of a three-part series covering medical writing 1375–1800; Pam Lieske (ed.), Eighteenth-Century British Midwifery, 4 vols (London, 2009).Google Scholar

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of ExeterExeterUK

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