When 17th-century women would seek out hare spittle

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Despite the wonders of modern medicine, seeking treatment for infertility can still be a heartbreaking experience. But spare a thought for British women living in the 17th century.

Anyone having difficulty conceiving all those centuries ago might have come across one William Sermon, a notorious physician whose 1671 book recommended a bizarre array of cures for infertility, such as drinking wine mixed with hare spittle or mouse ear.

A copy of his book, The Ladies Companion, Or The English Midwife, has been unearthed in a Surrey attic and is expected to fetch up 2,000 when Sotheby's auctions it next month.

Sermon (c1629-1680) is said to have decided to study medicine after witnessing a woman giving birth alone in a wood while he was out hare-shooting which may explain why hares feature so prominently in his cures.

"Take the slime that a hare will have about his mouth when he eateth mallows and drink it in wine," Sermon instructs his readers. "Two hours after lie with your husband and fear not (faith my author) but that you will conceive."

Another remedy Sermon recommends to husbands is to secretly feed their wives the womb of a hare. "Give to the woman without her knowledge the womb of a hare to eat. Or burn the same to powder, and give it to her in wine to drink."

Other fertility treatments read like a witch's spell book. "Take Mouse-ear three handful, Elicampane, Liquorice, of each half ounce, Currants... boil them in two quarts of old wine... of which drink a small draught every morning."

Although the remedies might appear bizarre and positively useless by modern medicinal standards, advice such as Sermon's would have been widely distributed and followed.

Tessa Milne, Sotheby's English literature and history specialist, said: "The copy we are selling is extremely well thumbed and we know Sermon's books would have been widely read. It's the sort of book that would be kept in the family until a member of the family was due to give birth or try for a child."

The copy of The Ladies Companion going on sale next month contains an inscription that shows the book was once owned by Anne Byrd, who lent it to a friend before her daughter Elizabeth asked for it back.

Cambridge University awarded William Sermon a doctorate of medicine in 1669 after he set up a thriving practice in Bristol following an outbreak of the bubonic plague.

He was particularly well known for his "Cathartique and Diuretique" pills which claimed to cure all sorts of ailments and were sold in outlets across the country for four shillings per packet, which was a considerable sum at the time.

"He was definitely something of a self publicist," said Ms Milne.

"He was quite well known at the time because he very much made sure he was well known. He never missed an opportunity to market himself."

The secrets of the famous pills, which Sermon says on the front of his book can cure "the Dropsie, Scurvey, and all other sharp, salt and watery humours", were lost after the physician's death in 1680.

'Powder the umbilical cord and drink it in wine'

* Take very old cloves and bay-berries (of each half an ounce), Pimpernell (two drams) and the lesser sort of Mouse-ear (one handful), all grossly beaten and put in a stone bottle. Then add thereto one pint-and-a-half of the best Sack [sherry]. Boil the bottle for the space of half-an-hour in a pot of water; of which drink take one or two spoonfuls.

* Take nep [catnip], mugwort and eringo roots (of each one handful), boil them in white wine and drink first and last a small quantity thereof, mixed with one dram of tryphera magna [a herb], made without opium, for nine days together. Eat every morning one new-lay'd egg for 28 days together; but let the eggs be taken from such hens that have no cock for that time go with them. Take essence of Satyrion [orchid], from a scruple to a dram, in a glass of Muscadine [wine]. The salt of Satyrion is also effectual given in the foresaid liquor.

* Take the navill-string [umbilical cord] of a boy that is the first-born, which hath not touched the ground, being well dryed, beat it to a powder and drink it in wine.