‘Infertile’ and ‘sub-fertile’ semen in the Hippocratic Corpus and the biological works of Aristotle

Fallas, Rebecca (2021). ‘Infertile’ and ‘sub-fertile’ semen in the Hippocratic Corpus and the biological works of Aristotle. In: Bradley, Mark; Leonard, Victoria and Totelin, Laurence eds. Bodily Fluids in Antiquity. Routledge, pp. 120–133.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429438974-11


Bodily fluids are fundamental to all the theories of conception put forward by the ancient medical writers. In order to produce a child, a woman needs to produce menstrual fluid and a man (and depending on the theory a woman) needs to produce semen. This chapter focuses on the descriptions of male infertility due to a lack of fertile semen given by the authors of the Hippocratic Corpus and in the biological works of Aristotle. Semen is described by these authors in many ways, including ʼnon-generative’, ‘less fertile’, and, in the Hippocratic Corpus, ‘small in amount’, ‘weak’, and ‘infertile’. In modern medicine the terms oligozoospermia (low sperm count) or azoospermia (zero sperm count) are used to describe the fertility of semen. However, individual sperm cells were only identified under a microscope in the seventeenth century. Therefore, the question arises: what did the ancient medical writers believe was happening when they described the man producing ‘infertile’ or ‘weak’ semen? This chapter explores the reasons given by these authors for an inability to produce fertile or sub-fertile semen and discusses what these writers may have been envisaging happening when they described semen as ‘infertile’, ‘less fertile’, or ‘weak’.

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