Dr Jennifer Evans, ‘Shameful Secrets? Men’s sexual health in the long seventeenth century’

24 August 2015

The recent symposium at the University of Northampton, sponsored by the RHS, on Masculinity and the Body in England, 1500-1900 aimed  to reflect developments in the historiography of the body over the last 25 years, as well as provide an opportunity for early and mid-career historians to show-case their latest research. Here Dr Jennifer Evans, Senior Lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire and author of Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England, presents a summary of the paper she delivered at the symposium. Her research throws light on the little-known history of male sexual health and raises challenging questions about the gendering of shame.

JenEvans Wellcome 1In A True and Succinct Account of the Venereal Disease (1706) John Marten exclaimed that ‘most Men blush to own [the venereal disease], because it carries with it Disgrace, and seems to reproach them with Frailty and Irregularities’.[1] Yet other diseases of the ‘privities’ did not cause shame. Matthew Purmannus noted that ‘in the year of 1687 [Baron Von Horst ] shewed me a great Box full of Angular, Oval and Round Stones which came from him in Six Weeks Time, the largest whereof was about the bigness of a great Pea’.[2] The pain and disordered urination of bladder stones, despite being caused by excessive consumption of food and drink and the association of incontinence with the female leaky body, did not cause men embarrassment. These disorders were at two ends of a spectrum of bodily shame.

Medical texts across the seventeenth century implicitly and explicitly suggested that the male body was inclined to be perfect. Men’s bodies, for example, were thought to be hotter than women’s, to possess more blood, to possess the most potent and important reproductive material, to be stronger and to house more rational minds. The body also supported certain elements of manhood; for adolescents and young men, the ability to demonstrate courage, sexual virility and strength; for adults, the ability to produce, provide for, and protect a family. It might be expected therefore that damage to part of the body that was distinctly male would raise concerns about the manly body’s ability to fail.

JenEvans Wellcome 2Medical writers occasionally suggested that men might be hampered in ability to claim manly status by a disease, and that by extension this could have been embarrassing or have evoked shame. John Muys 1686 treatise on surgery included the story of a bold young virgin who vilified her bridegroom on their wedding night when his hernia was revealed by the presence of a truss.[3]  She complained that ‘such a distempered Body [could not] satisfie a Maid in the flower of her Age’ and exclaimed that she would rather die than live with her new spouse.[4] Muys noted that the husband had to ‘prove’ himself ‘a Man sufficient’ by impregnating her with twins. This man’s hernia had thus allowed his wife to complain and scold, inverting the gender hierarchy of the household. The bridegroom’s manliness was placed in a precarious position by his bodily disorder and had to be visibly displayed to attain his due position as head of the household.

Lisa Smith has shown that medical writers in England and France displayed similar apprehensions about male bodily leakage caused by haemorrhoidal bleeding, incontinence and uncontrolled shedding of seminal matter because they undermined self-control.[5]  These concerns meant that some diseases that damaged a man’s genitalia, urinary tract or reproductive and sexual capacities could be degrading. Yet more commonly medical writers employed language that created a normalising narrative, that reassured men that bodies afflicted in such ways would be largely unaffected, and thus implicitly suggested that their ability to attain and retain manliness would not be diminished. They noted that patients suffering from a range of disorders were ‘perfectly’ or completely cured.[6] In part this reflected practitioners’ desires to attract new patients by emphasising the efficacy of their cures. Nonetheless, this may have cultivated a medical milieu in which men were encouraged to think of these disorders as minor, not warranting excessive concern, embarrassment or shame.

JenEvans Wellcome 3a

It is clear though that, despite the general tone of medical texts, men with diseases of this nature sometimes hid their shameful secrets from family, friends and others. Physicians and surgeons aided patients in this endeavour by obfuscating names and personal details in published and manuscript case notes and observations, thereby providing anonymity for the embarrassed. Samantha Sandassie has argued that seventeenth-century observations did not commonly provide patient details.[7] Yet in cases of sexual and genitourinary ill health it is apparent that medical writers could use this trope to the advantage of their patients. James Cook’s The Marrow of Chirurgery Much Enlarged included the case study of ‘One now alive, and therefore not to be named’ in a chapter outlining hydroceles (watery hernias in the scrotum).[8]  Likewise in his Severall Chirurgical Treatises Richard Wiseman repeatedly described patients by their age or life stage, rather than by name: ‘A Young Man’, ‘A young fellow’, ‘’A Gentleman of about Thirty years of age’, ‘one of about thirty six years old’.[9]

Anonymity though, was not granted to all patients and afflictions. Cook, who obscured the name of a man with a watery hernia, openly described a ‘Mr. Bradly, aged 84, whose Scrotum was livid’ and afflicted with a tumour. Although it is possible that Mr Bradly was no longer alive, so removing the concern about his reputation, the observation did not end with any suggestion that the patient had not survived. John Hall’s treatise likewise, named several patients troubled with bloody urine including M. Flod and Mr Thomas Underhill, while William Clavel was described as being troubled with a virulent gonorrhoea. Yet a patient afflicted with a flux of semen and night pollutions – i.e. a lack of control over seminal emission- was described only as Mr. P.[10] Similar patterns can also be seen in manuscript texts. Nicholas Gaynsford, apprentice to Dr George Willet in Groombridge, Sussex, clearly identified Samuel Curde and Samuel Rogers who had swollen scrotums, but obscured the name of ‘A Certain man having his Testicles Inflammed’.[11] This would suggest that disorders directly affecting the testicles or seminal matter were more liable to cause shame than others.

Patients’ names may have been obscured for any number of reasons. Yet the adoption of this topos by surgeons and physicians suggests that despite encouraging men to be open about their disorders and, importantly, to seek appropriate medical help for these conditions, they were aware that men could and did find a range of problems embarrassing and could and did help them hide their shameful secrets.


[1] John Marten, A True and Succinct Account of the Venereal Disease (London, 1706), 123.
[2] Mattheus Gothofredus Purmannus, Chirurgia Curiosa: Or, The Newest and most Curious Observations and Operations in the Whole Art of Chirurgery (London, 1706), p. 146.
[3] John Muys, A Rational Practice of Chirurgery: Or, Chyrurgical Observations Resolved according to the solid fundamentals of True philosophy (London, 1686), p.156.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Lisa Wynne Smith, ‘The Body Embarrassed? Rethinking the Leaky Male Body in Eighteenth Century England and France’, Gender & History, 23/1 (2011), 26-46.
[6] For example, Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, Medicinal Councels, Or Advices: Written Originally in French, by Dr. Theodor Turquet de Mayerne … Put out in Latine at Geneva by Theoph. Bonetus, M.D. Englished by Tho. Sherley, M.D. Physican in Ordinary to his present Majesty (London, 1677), p. 62; Mattheus Gothofredus Purmannus, Chirurgia Curiosa: Or, The Newest and most Curious Observations and Operations in the Whole Art of Chirurgery …. To which is Added Natura Morborum Medicatrix: Or, Nature Cures Diseases (London, 1706), p.151; John Moyle, Chyrurgic Memois: Being an Account of many Extraordinary Cures which Occurred in the Series of the Author’s Practice, espectialy at Sea, when imploy’d in the Governments Service … (London, 1708), p.  74, 101.
[7] Samantha Sandassie, ‘Evidence-based medicine? Patient case studies in English surgical treaties, 1600-1700, Medical Humanities, 34/1 (2008).
[8] James Cooke, Mellificium Chirurgiæ: Or, The Marrow of Chirurgery Much Enlarged (London, 1676), p.510.
[9] Richard Wiseman, Severall Chirurgical Treatises (London, 1686), p88, 158, 6, 23, (irregular pagination following page 498).
[10] John Hall, Select Observations on English Bodies: Or, Cures both Empericall and Historical (translated by James Cooke) (London, 1657), p.102, 144, 159, 182
[11] Welcome Library, MS 6919, Nicholas Gaynsford His Boke, Sig. 12v, 17r.