The Medieval Versions of Viagra

Over a thousand years before Viagra was invented, medieval men were looking for ways to treat erectile dysfunction. We take a look at the prescriptions offered in one of the most popular medical textbooks from the Middle Ages.

Ahmed Ibn al-Jazzar was born in Tunisia at the end of the ninth century. The son and nephew of physicians, al-Jazzar set up his own practice where he examined patients and had his servant administer the medicines. When he died around the year 980, his property included 24,000 gold dinars and a collection of books that weighed 1125 kilograms.


He was also a prolific writer, with medicine being the main topic. His best-known work was called Provisions for the Traveller and Nourishment for the Sedentary – its title is misleading since it offers an in-depth guide to healthcare from head to toe. While the textbook contains little about anatomy or physiology, it did cover various diseases and problems, and supplied treatments. By the twelfth century it had been translated into Greek, Latin and Hebrew and was widely used in Europe for the rest of the Middle Ages.

Among the topics covered by al-Jazzar were sexual diseases and their cures. He quickly gets into covering men’s sexual problems, and following the medical theory of his time believed that the wrong balance of humours in a body could make men impotent or flaccid. According to al-Jazzar, having a proper balance in the testicles was the key factor in male sexual health:

The power of sexual intercourse will only be at its best, when the temperament of the testicles is warm and moist, in a balanced measure of close to a balance, for warmth increases lust, while moisture increases sperm. If, however, the temperament of the testicles is changed very much, the power for sexual intercourse will not be proper and balanced. If, for instance, warmth and dryness dominate the temperament of someone’s testicles, this man will only have meagre sperm, because of the dryness, while his lust for sexual intercourse will still be strong because of the warmth and will pass quickly.


He then goes on to recommend various foods that would offer the best conditions for producing sperm and sexual vigour – these include chickpeas and turnips. Meanwhile beans were good for producing sperm, by al-Jazzar notes that they should be combined with long pepper, ginger or other ingredients to make sure one has the strength for sexual intercourse. If these simple foods failed to make a man virile, al-Jazzar offers several more complex remedies, such as:

There is also a prescription for an electuary which I have composed, which stimulates the lust for coitus and is good for cold of kidneys, internal flatulence, and cold of the buttocks; I have tested it, approved of it and found it to be quickly effective – success is granted by God: Take giner, galingiae, secacul, Chinese cinnamon, long pepper and linseed, of each ten mithqals; sweetmeat and peeled sweet almonds, of each twenty dirhams; seed of rocket, seed of carrot, seed of lucerne, bishop’s weed and anise, of each four mithqals; cardamom, saffron, clove, pyrethrum, pepper, nutmeg, mace, of each two mithqals. Pulverise, strain and knead these ingredients with skimmed honey and store them in a vessel which is smooth on the inside. Take in the morning and evening, each time the amount of one hazelnut, for it is a wonderful remedy which is quickly effective.

He also offers a few simpler methods:

Another ingredient which strengthens potency is cow’s milk, and its by-products. Or take half a dirham of clove, pound it and drink it with fresh milk, or the wood of galingale and keep this in the mouth, for it produces a strong erection. Or pulverise pyrethrum, moisten half a dirham of it with oil of jasmine, rub one’s penis with it, eat ginger, secacul and walnut preserves, and drink syrup of honey and juice of carrots.


He notes that in some of his prescriptions, the medicine is good for more than just sexual intercourse:

Prescription for a beverage composed by myself, which stimulates the lust for sexual intercourse, produces abundant sperm, is beneficial for stomach, kidneys and liver, as well as for those diseases caused by cold in the intestines, and which heats the body and has been tested by myself: Take seed of fennel, anise, seed of wild carrot, leaves of mint, water-mint, pennyroyal, wild origan and seed of rocket, of each 20 dirhams; 100 dirhams of seedless raisins.

Collect these ingredients, macerate them in ten ratls of very hot water and leave them in it for a day and a night, then cook it over a gentle fire until one half is left, macerate and purify it. Pour the water back into the pot with an equal amount of origan-extract, and cook it with the following ingredients: saffron, ginger, galingale, clove, long pepper, Chinese cinnamon, secacul, smaller cardamon, sweet costus and mastic, of each one dirham. Pulverise, pound and bind them loosely in a fine piece of cloth. Cook this the water and origan-extract over a gentle fire while immersing it time and again until it gets the consistency of rosewater-syrup. Leave it until it has cooled of, then put it in a pot. Take a dose of one ounce dissolved in hot water, for it is an exquisite drink. If one adds to it one ratl of the extract of carrot when it cooking it strenthens one’s potency even more.


After including a couple more remedies, al-Jazzar concludes by noting a few more natural ways that could help a man to have great sex:

These include affectionate words, showing passion, kissing the cheeks, fondling with the hand, licking with the tongue, joy over the sight of the beloved, expressing one’s devotion to the beloved and refraining from dwelling on grievances against her.

The rest of this section details other sexual problems and diseases for men and women, and their treatments, including gonorrhea, nocturnal emissions,  menstruation issues, and dealing with pregnancy and childbirth. Many of the treatments he wrote about could regularly be found in medical textbooks for the next several hundred years.

You can read a full edition and translation of this section in Ibn Al-Jazzar on Sexual Diseases and Their Treatment, by Gerrit Bos (Kegan Paul International, 1997)


See also: Sex in the Middle Ages

See also: How to restore virginity – advice from Caterina Sforza


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