Soon-to-be-parents often try to figure out whether their unborn child will be a boy or girl. This was true in the Middle Ages too, and there were answers provided for medieval people – they can be found in one of the most misogynistic texts of all time.
Around the turn of the fourteenth century De Secretis Mulierum – The Secrets of Women – was written. The author was once believed to be the German scholar Albertus Magnus, but more modern research reveals that was not the case. We do not know who wrote the wok, but it did become very popular. There are over 80 surviving manuscript copies, and once printing came to Europe, the text was published more than 120 times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The Secrets of Women aims to explain women’s health, in particular how they conceive and give birth to children. However, it does not rely very much on medical information but instead makes use of ancient natural philosophy to try to show that females are inferior to males and that their menstrual fluids are a danger to everyone. It was a text aimed at men – monks in particular – and offers many strange ideas, including several ways to determine if an unborn child was either a boy (which to the writer was a good thing) or a girl (which the writer viewed as a mistake of the pregnancy).
Here are five of the signs that reveal the gender according to The Secrets of Women and some of its medieval commentaries:
1. The child will be male if the mother’s face has a reddish complexion and she moves around lightly
The reason for this first sign is that a red colour is the sign of great heat, and if there is great heat in the womb then there is sufficient power to produce a male, and the woman moves slightly because heat is the beginning of motion.
2. The mother’s abdomen is rounded and protrudes to the right
The reason for this sign is that a male child is carried on the right side because it is the stronger and hotter side, and thus the abdomen is rounded because it is being stretched and filled up.
3. Differences in the size of the mother’s breasts
If the right breast is bigger, the child is male; if the left breast is bigger the child is female. If salt is placed on the nipples and does not liquefy, that this is the sign of a male.
4. If the mother walks with her right foot first, then it will be a male
The reason for this is that one always places the heavier foot first. We see the same thing happen in a person who has pain in a foot; that foot will be placed first. Thus the movement of the right foot first is a sign that the fetus is being carried on the right side. And, for the same reason, if a woman gets up from her seat and places a right hand first on her knee, this is the sign of a male; if she places her left hand first, this is the sign of a female.
5. Finally, this test can reveal whether it’s boy or girl
Take clear water from a clear, pure fountain, and place in this water a drop of blood or of milk taken from the right side of the woman. If the drop sinks to the bottom to come on this is the sign it for male; if it remains on the top, the child is female.
Some of these ideas persisted for a long time – even this list of old wives’ tales for gender prediction has some similarities to The Secrets of Women. However, one should not put any trust in any of these signs or methods.
You can read this work in Women’s Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries, by Helen Rodnite Lemay, published in State University of New York Press in 1992.
Top Image: A child in a womb from a medieval text – Bibliothèque royale de Belgique ms. 3701-15