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Beautiful Fertility in Eighteenth-Century England and France

Event type
British History in the Long 18th Century
Event dates
, 5:15PM - 7:15PM
IHR Wolfson Room NB01, Basement, IHR, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU
Lisa Wynne Smith (University of Essex)
020 7862 8740
Historians have recently taken an interest in early modern beauty, particularly its association with the life-cycle, femininity, and art. Although historians have noted the association of fertility and beauty or fertility and health, they have often skimmed over those connections. In the eighteenth century, however, fertility, health, and beauty were closely entwined: to be fertile was to be healthy; to be in good physical and moral health was to be beautiful. Metaphors for beautiful, domesticated fertility ran throughout society, from agriculture to animal breeding, which framed their understanding of human reproduction.

In this talk, I draw on medical literature, popular physiognomy, recipes, and philosophy to consider England and France comparatively. Both countries aimed to build an empire, which required a healthy and sizeable population, and philosophical and medical ideas regularly crossed borders. Yet, concerns about degeneration prevailed in France, while the English focused more on morality. 

The connection of health, beauty, and fertility theoretically made fertility easily observable—and therefore controllable—on women’s bodies. Identifying male fertility was a greater challenge; a man might look healthy, but produce infertile or corrupt seed. Demonstrating female fertility, moreover, encompassed a much longer period than we might assume today, extending from pre-conception to infant care. Women were thus not only responsible for their own fertility, but also compensating for a husband’s potential generative faults and ensuring that the production strong, beautiful children.