Until modern times, conception was a topic fraught with anxiety. For a married woman to be childless was a disgrace and disaster - but unwanted pregnancy could be disastrous too. Traditional advice on how to conceive (or avoid conceiving) must have been copious, though little has been recorded in print; early folklorists and their informants probably avoided the subject as unseemly. In general terms, it is known that medieval women went on *pilgrimages and visited holy *wells to cure barrenness, and that the 'luck' of various folk customs could include human fertility, but personal measures are very rarely mentioned. Nowadays, there is less reticence; the information which follows was easily gathered orally and by a questionnaire in 1998.
   A waxing *moon and a rising *tide were thought to favour conception, and the full moon was best of all [JS]; Lincolnshire women interviewed in the 1980s stated:
   We were told by our mothers and grandmothers: have intercourse when the tide is coming in, the sea will wash it in.
   We used to say, do it when it was a full moon, (but) I think really you could do it any time and get a baby.
   If you live on the coast, do it when the tide is going out and the sea will take it all away. (Sutton, 1992: 53, 93)
   Some believed the time of conception had physical results; in Kent in the 1950s a girl with a facial birthmark was told she must have been conceived during an eclipse, and her red-haired brother that his parents must have made love during the mother's period [JS].
   It was thought that a death in a family would soon be followed by a conception, the child coming, according to an old saying, 'to replace the one lost'; also, that if a childless couple adopts a baby, the woman will very shortly become pregnant. Position during intercourse was thought important, the deeper the penetration the likelier conception. Some held that position could determine the baby's sex: 'A woman from Hackthorn (Lincolnshire) remembers her mother's advice in the 1930s: "Lay on your right side when doing it and you'll have a boy, lay on your left if you want a girl"' (Sutton, 1992: 54). The same advice was given in the so-called Aristotle's Masterpiece ((1684), book I, chapter 2), which recommends continuing to lie thus when sleeping, for at least a week. It was said that if the mother's 'system' was acid, she would conceive a girl, but if alkaline, a boy; women would adjust their diet accordingly, and use douches of boracic acid, or bicarbonate of soda [JS].
   Two common fallacies among young girls were that you cannot become pregnant the first time you have intercourse, nor if you do it standing up [JS]. To urinate or take violent excercise straight afterwards was thought to be a safeguard; girls would make themselves cough or sneeze, jump about - or jitterbug. Various strange contraceptive methods were used. One was to insert one's wedding ring into the womb and leave it there; this is known to have been practised in London some 50 years ago [JS]. Another, recorded from East Anglia, depended on contact with death; the woman might hold a dead man's hand for two minutes - some said, by opening up a new grave - or put a coin which has lain on a corpse's mouth under her pillow, thus averting pregnancy while it was there, or, according to others, for ever after (Porter, 1969: 11-12; Sutton, 1992: 92). In the north of England around 1850, it was commonly thought that if a woman bore twins of which one was a boy and the other a girl, she would never get pregnant again (Denham Tracts, 1890: II, 30).
   Plants reputed to prevent conception or cause abortion included *parsley, pennyroyal, *nettles, and saffron (Hatfield, 1994: 17-20); aloes and purgatives were also used as aborti-facients, as was gin (preferably hot), and vinegar in which twelve pennies of church money had been steeped for two or three days (Folklore 69 (1958), 113). Violent excercise, especially throwing oneself downstairs, was also thought effective.
   See also *childbirth, *menstruation, *pregnancy.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.


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