Barain, barraine, bareigne, and many other spellings in Middle English. The term is derived from the Old French baraine; see the Oxford English Dictionary’s discussion of the term’s etymology.
Words related to infertility in the Middle Ages covered a wide range of meanings. The Middle English word barain as well as many of the analogous terms listed below referred not just to the human incapacity to create offspring, but also to a lack of reproductive capability on the parts of plants or animals; to spiritually unproductive thoughts or actions; and to harsh or desolate physical environments. See the entry for this term in the Middle English Dictionary
Middle English unfructuous: see the Middle English Dictionary
Middle English unfruitful: see the Middle English Dictionary
Old English unberende: see the Bosworth-Toller Old English Dictionary
Old English unwæstmeberende: see the Bosworth-Toller Old English Dictionary
Latin sterilis: see Latdict
Scriptural texts, medical treatises, and penitential handbooks attend carefully to the problem of barainnesse in women. God’s intervention allows both the Old Testament Sarah and the New Testament Elisabeth to bear sons despite their advanced age and previous inability to conceive (Genesis 17:17 and Luke 1). Medical writers not only offered remedies for female infertility, but warned against treatments that could affect women’s future fecundity: an early fifteenth-century treatise, for example, admonishes practitioners not to put any “violent thyng” in a woman’s uterus, “lest thou make the woman bareyn [for] ever” (Rowland 1981: 112). In addition to the loss of fertility, barain may refer to the desired effect of contraceptive strategies. Chaucer’s Parson emphasizes the sinfulness of “drynkynge of venemouse herbes, thurgh whiche [a woman] may nat conceyve” (see here for a Modern English translation of “The Parson’s Tale”).
Medieval writers associate barainnesse more frequently with women than with men. Indeed, when used as a noun, barain seems to have been applied only to an infertile woman. It is important to recognize, however, that many writers of the Middle Ages acknowledged the possibility of male sterility and suggested remedies for it as well. The varying and often self-contradictory presentations of these questions suggest that medieval writers needed to work through complex assumptions regarding men’s and women’s roles. As Joan Cadden asserts, medieval medical writers “negotiated the delicate business of according women the main responsibility for childlessness without giving them credit for full reproductive activity” (Cadden 1993: 258). If women were exclusively associated with barainnesse, then they might also deserve exclusive recognition for successful procreation. Then as now, discussions of infertility evoke broader issues related to gender and sexuality.
Contemporary analyses of reproductive problems avoid barren in favor of infertile. The word occurs in a New York Times article on infertility as late as 1980, and is used ironically in book titles such as Elaine Tyler May’s Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness (1997). The description of Epimedium as barren-wort, which the Oxford English Dictionary locates in English soon after the Middle Ages, refers to the plant’s supposed utility as a contraceptive.
Evidence and Images
Barratt, Alexandra, The Knowing of Woman’s Kind in Childing: A Middle English Trotula-Text
Turnout: Brepols Publishing, 2002.
“Barren, adj. and n.” OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. 5 November 2012.
Oxford English Dictionary Online
Cadden, Joan. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Green, Monica. “Infertility.” Women and Gender in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia
Ed. Margaret Schaus. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Green, Monica. The “Trotula:” A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Rowland, Beryl, ed. and trans. Medieval Woman’s Guide to Health: The First English Gynecological Handbook
Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1981.
Moira Fitzgibbons, Marist College