Professor Rider at the library event

From parsnips as ancient Viagra to drinking trout boiled in goats milk – Medieval couples hoping for a baby were given a huge amount of varied advice to help them conceive.

Modern mums and dads have been able to discover more about this sometimes unsavoury guidance and share some of the myths and advice they were told in the 21st century.

Professor Catherine Rider and Professor Sarah Toulalan, from the University of Exeter, are experts in ancient fertility, childbirth and sex, working to uncover help published in medical books hundreds of years ago. They also want to hear about the myths and advice couples now trying to conceive or expecting a baby are told about conception, pregnancy and childbirth. The aim of the ongoing project is to discover what has changed and what hasn’t, and which needs these informal beliefs fulfil.

Professor Rider and Professor Toulalan spoke to parents at a “bounce and rhyme” session at Exeter Central Library about their research and gave families the opportunity to add the “old wives tales” they had heard.

Some of these beliefs – past and present – involve how to tell if an unborn baby is a girl or a boy. Helkiah Crooke’s Mikrocosmographia, from 1615, says: “She that goeth with a manchilde is well coloured, she that goeth with a woman child is swarthy or pale coloured”. It also says “Male children are born in the right side, Females in the left”. If a woman has conceived a boy “the right pap [breast] will swell, if a female the left”.  Mothers to be wanting to know the sex of their child were told in 15th-century book of sermons and medical works they could boil their breast milk with “water from a well” – if it stayed together in the water it was a boy, and if it sank to the bottom if was a girl.

Meanwhile modern parents said they had been told a fast heartbeat from a baby in the womb meant it was a girl. One parent said bumpy skin was the sign the baby was a boy. Others referenced dangling a ring to discover the sex – one said going to the left was the sign of a girl while another said it was a circling motion. Several parents had thought the size and shape of their bump could help them tell the sex of their child.

There has long-been advice on foods and other methods to help conception.

Sixteenth-and seventeenth-century medical books says those “subject to Barrenness should eat such meat only as tend to render them fruitful” such as “meats of good juice, that nourish well, and makes the body lively and full of sap”. This includes “Hen-Eggs, Pheasants, Woodcocks, Gnatsappers, Thrushes, Black birds, young Pidgeons, Sparrows, Partridge, Capons”. It also recommended “Almones, Pine-nuts, Rasons [raisins], Currants, all strong Wines moderately taken, especially those made of the Grapes of Italy”.

It recommended “the Genitals are chiefly erected and provoked by Parsnips, Artichokes, Turnips, Rapes, Asparagus, Candid Ginger, Gallinga, Acorns bruised to powder and drunk in Muscadel, Scallions, Sea-shell Fish.”

­In a 15th-century book of medical recipescouples were told to each urinate in an earthen pots, put wheat-bran in each, and “let them stand ten days and ten nights, and thou shalt see in the water that is in default small live worms; and if there appear no worms in either water, then they be likely to have children in process of time when God wills”. Women were told to drink trout boiled in goats milk before having sex, and also to eat leeks, to help conception.

The modern-day parents said they had been advised to lie with their legs in the air after sex, and you could not get pregnant while breastfeeding.

Ways to influence the sex of your baby were also prominent in the past. Women were told to conceive a boy after sex they “must gently repose on her right side, with her head lying low, and her body sinking down, that by sleeping in that Posture the cells on the right side of the Matrix may prove the receptacles of the Seed in which are the greatest force of Generative heat”.

Couples were also told the best time to conceive a boy is “when the Sun is in Leo, and the Moons Sign is Virgo, Scorpio, or Sagitarius.”

For a girl they should lie on their left side, and the best time to “copulate” for a girl with a “gentle temper” is “when the Moon is in the Wain and the Sign in Libra, or Aquarius”.

Other 15th century advice for women included lying with her left hip higher than her right during sex “so she makes the man’s seed fall on the right side, where the male is conceived. And in the same way on the other side for a female”.

Meanwhile modern tips for childbirth mentioned at the library event included eating pineapple or a curry, and massaging oil in the perineum. One parent said they had been told a craving for sweet foods meant they were having a girl, and another said sweet cravings meant the child would be a fussy eater.

Professor Rider and Professor Toulalan are planning further events to talk to parents, and also want to feed these ideas into their future research.