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Speaker: Ancient infertility sheds light on modern issues

Citizens of ancient Greece and Rome worried about infertility just like we do, but instead of in vitro clinics they had oracles and doctors who prescribed fumigation of the womb with smoke.

In the fourth Arts and Sciences Humanities Lecture, "Fertility, Medicine and the Divine in the Classical World," presented Aug. 31 in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium, ancient history expert Rebecca Flemming from the University of Cambridge, examined the intersections of medicine and religion in ancient Rome and Greece.

Women in the ancient world would be as likely to go to an oracle as to a doctor, Flemming said, because the oracles approached infertility as an expression of fate, while the doctor looked at it as a physical problem. "There was no conflict between the two -- why not talk to everyone about your problem?" said Flemming in an interview.

But if neither doctor nor oracle helped, a woman could go to a healing sanctuary to petition the gods. But she'd better be careful what she asked for: Flemming recounted the story of a woman at the Sanctuary of Asklepios who petitioned for pregnancy. The sanctuary's stele recorded that her prayer was granted -- three solid years of pregnancy, until she returned and begged to give birth.

"While turning to females or midwives was an option and indeed in some particulars seemed to be the main option, specific action around infertility seems always to engage in some senses with male power and authority," said Flemming. "Moreover, a key point about infertility is also born out in the ancient world, which is that whatever the understanding about conception is, however much male failure can be implicated, the drama of infertility is always played out in the woman's body. That is to say, some things don't change."

Flemming's research on infertility is part of the larger Generation to Reproduction Project at the University of Cambridge. The project's goal, said Flemming, "is to completely rewrite the history of everything to do with generation and reproduction. It's pretty ambitious." Flemming is most involved in researching the relationship between infertility and healing cults, demographics, and the debates about reproductive theories.

"I use ancient medical texts and ancient medical culture as a way of getting at the wider society that produced it," said Flemming. "What I'm interested in is what's going on in the ancient world, but also what might throw some light on modern issues."

"I think that the current reproductive debates should be illuminated by a bit of historical understanding," she added. "You can bring too many assumptions that aren't true, so you need to know what the fixed points are and what's really mobile, and looking at history is a really good way to do that."

In his introduction to the lecture, Charles Brittain, chair of classics, said Flemming's work is particularly interesting because her sophisticated applications of modern theory to ancient material yield new ways to understand ancient and modern social practices (as well as offering historically grounded corrections to contemporary theoretical approaches).

The author of "Medicine and the Making of Roman Women: Gender, Nature and Authority From Celsus to Galen," Flemming is the recipient of such honors as the Philip Leverhulme Prize and the Norman H. Baynes Prize from the University of London.

The Arts and Sciences Humanities Lectures are presented with support from the Office of the President and the College of Arts and Sciences.

Linda Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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