The Facts of Life: 17th-Century Style

Forget Cosmo. Forget Maxim. Anyone looking for sex advice in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries would head straight to Nicolas Venette's The Mysteries of Conjugal Love Reveal'd.

Take a look at the two cupids uniting their hot torches to one another. That gives you a sense of the titillating tips that Venette's books contained--all for the purpose of making babies, of course!

So where
did babies come back then?

Until the late seventeenth century, humoralism was the primary way of understanding conception. Humoralism is associated with Galen, a second-century ACE Greek physician who lived in Rome. His work was substantially influenced by his predecessor Hippocrates.

Galen held that the body was governed by a system of fluids, of "humors": blood, phlegm, yellow bile, black bile. Each body had a "complexion" that was specific to the individual--and reflected a greater tendency toward one of the four humors. This complexion helped determine the overall health of the person, as well as their character. "Sanguine" folks were upbeat and energetic. "Phlegmatic" folks were lethargic and sad. Yellow bile led to "choleric" folks who flew easily off the handle. And depressed "melancolics" suffered from an over-abundance of black bile.

Men and women were very different from one another. Men were hot and dry; women cold and wet. (This helps to explain why men have private parts outside their bodies, more on that another time.)

For Galen, both men and women contributed "seed" in the sex act. The seeds mixed--and their overall quality of the mixture would determine whether a girl or a boy would be born. The birth of a boy was proof of the father's virility (his seed won the battle). The birth of a girl called the father's macho-ness into question.

In fact, the birth of a girl was frequently associated with marital sterility in the early-modern era.

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