Historians have devoted much attention over the past forty years to the revolution in communication following the emergence of printing by movable type in midfifteenth- century Europe. Current scholarship questions whether such a revolution took place, and stresses the coexistence of manuscript and print, the intersection of both media with speech and pictures, and the partialness and gradualness of changes in communication between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. In parallel with these general debates, histories of generation have documented the increasing interest of learned men in the workings of women's bodies, and argued that knowledge of generation, even when shared only between women, could be instrumental in upholding the institution of marriage.
This chapter explores what happens when we consider the direct relevance of debates about script and print to understandings of human generation. It focuses on the fortunes of a kind of practical knowledge that is best identified by the medieval Latin term ‘experimenta’ (singular ‘experimentum’). Here is an example: if you wish to influence whether you will have a boy or a girl, you should use the herb mercury. It grows in two kinds, male and female, each effective in producing the corresponding kind of children,
so that the decoction of juice of the Male drank four dayes from the first day of purgation, will give force to the womb to procreate a male Child: but the juice of the Female drank for so many dayes, and in the same manner, will cause a female to be born, especially if the man lye with his wife when the [menstrual] Terms are newly over.
This instruction was first printed in 1559 in the Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius's Occulta naturae miracula (Secret miracles of nature), a compendium of wondrous phenomena and herbal knowledge proving the presence of God in the workings of nature. Widely translated throughout Europe, it came out in English in 1658. In chapters 3 to 11, Lemnius collected material about generation, beginning with the injunction to remember that procreation was a divine gift, and including information about resemblance, pregnant women's cravings, the roles of female seed and menstrual blood, and the sex of the child.
Experimenta were useful practical techniques for healing, influencing natural processes and foreseeing outcomes; that they had passed the test of experience was their chief recommendation.