Tuesday, 11 December 2012

To Bring on the Flowers: Medieval Women Menstruating.


 It happened once a month for most of their adults lives. So, on a practical level, how did medieval women cope with menstruation and how was it seen by society in general?
                                                 Women in a fifteenth century Italian breviary

Firstly, it may be the case that a modern perspective underestimates the medieval woman by even asking the question “how did they cope?” Just as today, it was a part of life which routinely had to be dealt with; perhaps the average medieval and Tudor woman was more pragmatic about her bodily fluids in a world which contained less privacy and a greater emphasis on the functions of fertility. Was the monthly period considered a “curse” or in fact a blessing that marked an important transition to womanhood and the ability to bear children? Herbals make reference to the “flowers;” an image which has far more positive connotations of blossoming and growth than later, nineteenth century monikers, yet it is clear that women were self-conscious at the time of their menses and took steps to avoid detection. Menstruating women carried round nutmegs and nosegays to conceal any arising odours, as the corrosive power of the female reproductive fluids, transmittable through smell, constituted a real fear at the time. To stem a heavy flow, women were advised to take the hair from an animal’s head and bind it to a “green” or young tree; another “proven” remedy advocated burning a toad in a pot and wearing the powder in a pouch around the waist. If this failed, recipes using comfrey, nettle and blackberry, alongside the repetition of “magical” numerical formulae were suggested. This was mainly in response to social reactions, determined by the church, which defined the menstruating woman as unclean.

Church teaching encompassed a variety of beliefs in the unsavoury and potentially damaging nature of menstrual blood. It was a punishment from God that all women had to bear as a result of Eve's temptation, therefore pain relief was not allowed as cramping and suffering was part of the divine plan. Holy women, fasting and abstemious, often found that their periods stopped, which was interpreted more as a sign of favour than a response to their restricted diet. As a function of a wider cultural misogyny, these were disseminated in different degrees between parishes but included the ideas that women should not take Holy Communion during their time of the month and that couples should refrain from sexual intercourse during this time, as any children born to them would be red-haired and puny. Menstrual blood was also feared by men as a corrosive forces representative of female power. One belief stated that it could damage the penis on contact, or that men might unsuspectingly consume it in love potions! It had the power to turn new wine sour, make fruit fall from trees, kill bee hives, give dogs rabies and make crops turn barren. A child in a cradle could be poisoned by the gaze of an old, pre-menopausal woman, whose accumulation of blood would lead to poisonous vapours being given off by her eyes!  The overactive female cycle was also considered to play a significant part in the creation of stillborn or unformed foetuses or “moles.” There were some living and some dead moles, thought to occur when the man’s seed was weak, barren or imperfect; or that it had been choked through the abundance of menstrual blood. As one of a number of mysterious maternal excretions, including placentas, umbilical cords and birth cauls, the supposed “magical” properties of female blood were treated with suspicion by those excluded from the birth chamber.

 Medieval and Tudor surgeons did not fully understand the role that menstruation played in the reproductive cycle. Women were possessed of imperfect or inverted versions of male reproductive organs, with their cold and wet “seed” emitted to mingle with that of the hot, dry male, resulting in conception. The courses were understood to be the body’s method of shedding unnecessary, accumulated blood, without which, the womb would become overrun with fluid and could “choke” or “suffocate” a woman. Bleeding from a vein or any other part of the body was considered the same as menstrual bleeding, a means of removing the dangerous excess, meaning that the practise of barber surgeons opening patients’ veins was seen as a suitable cure for amenorrhea, or the cessation of the courses. Bleeding a patient was the most common way to treat this condition, to prevent consumption by body heat and the development of “mannish” characteristics. Among many beliefs regarding the female cycle, was that the failure to menstruate made a woman dangerously “masculine” and prone to many forms of madness and fits. Other remedies included hot baths, pessaries placed in the vagina or, for married women, intercourse. Trotula of Salerno wrote that a woman who failed to menstruate as the result of fasting should eat good food and drink to “give her good blood.” Women of all classes would have had recourse to herbal remedies too. The regularity with which commonplace books contain recipes to “bring on a woman’s courses,” suggest this must have been a common problem. The herb rue, drunk in the evening was supposed to be particularly effective, as were savin and mixtures of wine and hyssop. Shepherd’s purse, St John’s wort, Bishop’s weed and wallflower were all suggested and could be found growing wild, according to one medieval Herbarium. A 1476 medical text included recipes for inducing menstruation with a blend of soda, figs, garlic seed, myrrh and lily ointment, or else pulped cucumber flesh mixed in milk. These could be drunk or inserted into the vagina on pessaries of soft wool. Others suggested dates, hazelnuts and saffron.  Fine lines demarcated their administration: it was safe to drink rue in the evening but lethal in the morning.

  There is no doubt that the onset of menstruation marked an important stage in determining the transition from childhood to womanhood in the medieval and Tudor marriage stakes. The age of consent, set variously at between twelve and fourteen throughout Europe, appears commensurate with the arrival of the menarche. It was also a class-dependent issue, as a certain weight and percentage of body fat was required to trigger the first period. Young women of the upper classes, leading less physically active lives and eating a higher proportion of meat were considered by their contemporaries to commence their cycles earlier and bleed more heavily. Margaret Beaufort was clearly menstruating before her teens as she gave birth to the future Henry VII at the age of thirteen in 1457. Those lower class females whose lives were more physically active and diets comprised more vegetables started their cycles later, a fact which is borne out in the statistics relating to the age of marriage, although these are also determined by many other economic and social factors.

 At the other end of the age range, the onset of the menopause appears to have been much earlier than today. Patterns of births to upper class women suggest that this happened in the mid to late thirties, having been brought forward by frequent childbirth. Catherine of Aragon’s menopause came in 1525/6 when she was 40, after six pregnancies, but many of her contemporaries who bore in excess of ten children did not reproduce after around the age of thirty-five. For many, death rapidly followed, when they were in their late thirties or early forties. Mary Rose, Henry VII’s younger sister bore four children, between the ages of twenty and twenty-seven and died a decade later. His elder sister Margaret fared better, bearing her seventh child at the age of twenty-six and surviving for the same number of years again. Elizabeth of York, Duchess of Suffolk bore at least eleven children, between the ages of eighteen and thirty-six. The final cessation of the monthly period and arrival of the menopause would have left women more vulnerable to certain illnesses then, just as it does today.

  Returning to the purely practical aspect of menstruation, women of all classes needed some method of absorbing blood flow. Well into the twentieth century, the age-old “rags” were used, torn and stuffed between the legs, although they were dependent upon the use of some form of girdle of underwear to hold them in place. Trotula refers to wads of cotton being used to clean the female genitals, inside and out. Certains types of moss were also used to absord the blood flow from wounds and may well have also been used by women to staunch their flow as well as filling for washable cloth pads. Other recent suggestions have included cloth tampons, anointed with honey and oil, with a tie around the thigh. The traditional red coloured petticoats, worn next to the skin under many layers of skirts may have owed their existence in part to a desire to minimise and absorb stains. Those engaged in manual work or physical activity must have had some way of ensuring their rags or pads remained in place. The discovery of a very modern looking pair of pants in an Austrian castle in 2008 suggests that such support was available, although the nature of medieval and Tudor undergarments still leaves many questions unanswered. Perhaps some women did retire for physical or religious reasons, for the duration of their menstruation, considering themselves unclean or incapacitated. For others, there was little choice but to carry on and put their trust in whatever remedies were available to them. The secret washing of “rags” and numerous customs regarding the nature and odour of menstrual blood imply that periods were a mixed blessing for the medieval and Tudor woman. They were an important rite of passage in an era which placed a high value on fertility yet they were also a source of shame and inconvenience. Typically though, this paradox fits much of the historic female experience, with women encouraged to define their bodies through masculine eyes and to lose ownership over their own natural functions. Medieval and Tudor women did not record their experiences of their “flowers;” they are referred to, often euphemistically in medical texts, yet for females of all classes and a range of ages, it was simply a necessary part of life upon which their society depended.

 

 

40 comments:

  1. In reading old household manuals and similar documents, I have been in the habit of seeing remedies for amenorrhea as veiled abortion methods, but several of my history professors in university were feminists, and that seems to be a very 21st century feminist view. Do you think these bits of "women's knowledge" are really in response to -- for example -- women's physical reactions to malnourishment and their overtaxed immune systems, and their attempts to escape (medical) repercussions from not menstruating when they should be? Although I know that the Church (influenced by the Law of Moses) considered a menstruating woman unclean, and there was the medical/scientific fear of having an excess of blood or other substances (the "humours") in the body, I hadn't thought of these bits of information in relationship to each other and women's menstruation. I'm wondering if the same issues can be extrapolated into later documents of similar purpose, into the 19th century. Instead of the more 21st century feminist view -- that most, if not all, remedies for "female complaints" are really secret abortion methods -- maybe the attempts to re-start menstruation or "strengthen the blood" are reactions to poor diet or disease stopping it. I know that my periods stopped for 2 months when I was bed-ridden with severe pneumonia several years back, and my doctor said that was a normal reaction when a woman's body re-directs energy to fighting disease.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hello, thank you for your interest in this. I do think there is a considerable degree of ambiguity regarding the overlap of remedies for amenorrhea/abortion, which was, of course, illegal. I found a couple of herbals that were quite explicit, stating that wallflower mixed in honey and wine, applied to the vagina “takes the foetus from the womb" and that pennyroyal could “bring foorth dead fruit.” There are also some dual instructions, such as drinking rue in the morning to abort a foetus and in the evening to restart bleeding.
    I think menstruation must have been inconsistent for many women and dependent on lots of factors, such as illness and malnutrition- actually this theme is developed much more in my book "In bed with the Tudors" where I explore the case of Catherine of Aragon's iregular cycle and fertility levels in the context of her deprivation, illness and religious fasting. Fertility is a complex issue and can be affected by so many factors, particularly in this case, class and status; for the nobility, the pressure on young wives to conceive quickly and regularly, even when in delicate health, may be behind some of these cures. Motherhood was the defining feature of secular women's lives and to be considered "infertile" was socially shameful as well as raising the possibility of the marriage being dissolved in some form. I strongly suspect these cures are dual purpose and as you suggest, survive into later centuries. Thank you for sharing your experience with me.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Amy,

    Do you know the terms that American women used for their periods in the late 19th century. I found a number of articles referring to female distress but couldn't figure out what women called their periods.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi, I'm sorry I totally missed this comment, sorry for the late reply. Quite honestly I have no idea what American women called their periods in the late nineteenth century but that itself might be an indicator- the secrecy that surrounded female health and reproduction made many such topics taboo. I've just been researching breastfeeding and pregnancy through the ages and it seems that in the UK there was a culture that simply made it impossible to talk about, even between sisters, friends etc. Incredible as it seems, there may not have been a word in common use- I suspect there were informal slang terms that some women used, such as the curse or even the menses or flowers but it seems the times were such that there was a degree of prudery that meant the topic was addressed euphemistically. If I come across any terms, I'll post them up here. Equally, if you find any references to periods during that time, I'd be fascinated to know. Many thanks for your interest and comment, best wishes, Amy

    ReplyDelete
  5. Irregular periods can be caused by STI or pregnancy. The first period is referred to as the menarche. Now, the second “period” can be irregular. In rare cases, the second period can occur even after 20-24 months.

    The quirky thing is that an irregular period need not be normal if the woman is sexually active.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Elizabeth Chilver14 January 2014 at 04:28

    Excellent article Amy. I agree something would have been used to keep pads in place in the absence of modern knickers, but I would say that the recent find of a pair of underpants in Lendberg is not thought to be female wear. I attended a lecture by Beatrix Nutz on the founds and though she was not able to find any DNA to definitively state it is male or female, based on her research she does not think it is a female garment but a male garment.

    There is plenty of pictorial evidence of underpants (braies) which are certainly worn by males and are identical in every way to the ones found. The only pictorial images of women wearing braies are in satires which show a woman attempting to take on a man's role or being the wife who hen pecks the husband. Even as late as the Victorian period, the "knickers" worn are open crotch - they won't keep anything in place so even they had to have something else to hold a pad in place.

    Whatever method is used its probably very simple and could be a tape sewn to a cloth back and held in place but a belt around the waist underneath the smock. I suspect any stains from a bleed would end up mostly on the pad and thence on the smock. Though the red colour of a petticoat may have been chosen, there is evidence of other colours used too. Its more likely that the colour red is used as it was thought to have health giving properties - an example of this is how to treat a patient with smallpox which involved wrapping them in red blankets and having the room/bed hung with red fabric and a fire well stoked to induce sweating. It seemed to work for Elizabeth I.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's really interesting Beth, thank you for adding it.

      Delete
  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The only thing I have ever read concerning menstruation pre-1900 was in a book about Lizzie Borden murders in Fall River, Mass. During the police search of the basement in the house, they came upon a bucket with used (ie. bloody) cloths. We can suppose that Mrs. Borden was too old to menstruate, so that leaves Lizzie, her sister and the maid as capable of contributing to this. The police reports did not (could not) mention any sort of thing either in court or any other time. It would not be proper to do so. With DNA today it would have been a different story. One wonders if testing of said menstrual cloths could have convicted Lizzie or not. Very interesting article, I sometimes shudder to think of childbirth and bad periods during previous centuries...

    ReplyDelete
  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have researched a lot about history of menstruation and this article is one of the best articles.

    ReplyDelete
  12. very good article - thanks! I was looking around for people's ideas about 'sanitary protection' in earlier history and keeping pads in place because I have a draft post for the wondersandmarvels.com blog due out next Monday on the claim that ancient Greek women used tampons; this is sort of a follow-up to the piece I did http://theconversation.com/four-weird-ideas-people-used-to-have-about-womens-periods-30623 which is also mostly about the ancient Greeks

    ReplyDelete
  13. The tampons blog post is now live at http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2014/11/the-history-of-tampons-in-ancient-greece.html - hope you find it interesting!

    ReplyDelete
  14. As a wardrobe mistress for many historical dramas I found all this very interesting , we studied much of social history , I think women as usual were between a rock and a hard place . Corsets pulled so tight to crush the rib cage did not help . Underwear not warn at the convenience of men as in Africa today . We are fortunate to live in the Western world but if we taught in schools some social history a bit more and not simply birth control and taught young girls how women have been abused in History and demonised maybe we would not have so many young girls behaving without control .

    ReplyDelete
  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  16. These are actually wonderful some ideas in the blog. You have touched good quality points here. In whatever way continue writing.payday loans no credit check

    ReplyDelete
  17. I wonder why, menopause came so much early for these ladies. Is there an explanation?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's an interesting question but it seems, from what I've read, that it's a biological thing, so that if women begin bearing children early and have a number of pregnancies quite close together, then it brings on an earlier menopause. Obviously all women are different but when I looked at the family trees of aristocratic women who bore their first child in their mid-late teens and had a large family, they usually bore the last one in their mid 30s, suggesting that was when their fertility went into decline. Katherine of Aragon went through hers at 40.

      Delete
    2. I have had A LOT of OB/GYN trouble and been to many different specialists. The doctor always wants to know how old a woman was at menarche. When I asked why, I was told that the younger a girl is at menarche, the OLDER she will be at menopause~as a rule of thumb.

      Delete
  18. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  19. No one has yet mentioned the possibility of an internally worn 'cup' which would retain the majority of the daily flow, in much the same way that a 'Dutch cap' can be used as sanitary protection instead of contraception. A fruit with a tough skin, stitched cloth or soft leather would be possibilities. I believe that Roman women sometimes used halved citrus fruits as both contraceptive devices ( in which case the acid environment created would also act as a spermicide as well as a physical barrier) and sanitary devices.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Aside from the early and frequent childbearing, I would imagine women had earlier menopause because their lifespans were so short. The average life expectancy for either gender was about 45 years.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Much obliged for setting aside an ideal opportunity to talk about that, I feel firmly about this thus truly like becoming more acquainted with additional on this sort of field. Do you psyche redesigning your blog entry with extra knowledge? It ought to be truly valuable for every one of us. hair color

    ReplyDelete
  22. Thank you for this great article. It's very informative.


    Hygiene Services
    http://impacthygiene.com.au/

    ReplyDelete
  23. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  24. The first line, 'It happened once a month for most of their lives' put me on guard of this article. Women did not have periods month after month as they were usually pregnant most of the time. The reason they think we have breast and uterine cancers is because women have many periods these days, when we are designed not to.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lol, especially all those nuns, spinsters and widows. A fair percentage of married women didn't reproduce either, as the parish bdm records show us.

      Delete
    2. There were plenty of women who had few or no children even then, as Amy Licence has already pointed out - and, for that matter, there was no lack of breast and uterine cancers before the modern era, as famous sufferers such as the Empress Theodora, Mary Culpeper, and Anne of Austria could tell you (to their sorrow). Keeping your wife pregnant "most of the time" throughout her fertile years is an excellent way to lose her, as shown by the tragically short lifespans of perpetual mothers throughout history. The human body needs time to rest and recuperate from the hard work of one pregnancy before embarking on the next, and even attempts to enforce this through reduced fertility during the breastfeeding period.

      The truth is, cancer has always been the unfortunate dark side of the human healing factor, and blaming it on modern birth control subverting a natural "design" for unrelenting back-to-back pregnancies is absurd.

      Delete
  25. Thank you very much. This post is very much helpful for me to get rid the problem of Amenorrhea. When I was suffering from this disease I checked up from many doctors. But no one medicine was beneficial for me. Then finally I find out some natural home remedies which have no side effect and very much beneficial for me.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I think I read somewhere that the peasant woman would "free bleed" while working the fields. I wish I could find this information. Have you heard of this?

    ReplyDelete

  27. Other than during childhood, pregnancy, breastfeeding or the menopause, the absence of the menstrual period may

    indicate a problem with the reproductive system. Amenorrhea is often caused by hormonal disturbance, which can be several

    things, including diseases of the reproductive organs, weight loss, emotional stress or overexercising - a hormonal-based

    drugs. But don't worry. We provide you the best Home Remedies For Amenorrhea . It is very easy to use.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Thanks for the information, very useful.

    I had been in severe period pain menstrual cramps for more than 15 years, can't lay down, can't sit, periods was hell to me.

    Not any more, two years ago, I found comfortable periods pad from www.periodpain.net, this saved my life, all the pain and discomfort gone.

    Hope this information can help people too, it is really good for periods.

    ReplyDelete

  29. I want to share a great testimony on this website on how great Dr. AZUMA help me in falling pregnant,me and my husband have been trying to have a baby for over 6 years,but they where no luck so we decided to contact the family doctor and after all the test have been done,he said to us that one of my fallopian tube is not functioning.then one day i was in the office when a friend of mine who have the same problem with me, fall pregnant after she contacted Dr.AZUMA.she directed me to him and when i contacted him through is email and he did the purification on the pregnancy spell and in 8weeks time i was feeling some how and i want to meet the family doctor who told me that i m pregnant.if you know that you have a similar problem like this and you want to be pregnant you can contact azumaspelltemple@gmail.com Dr.AZUMA via Email: azumaspelltemple@gmail.com,or cell phone +2347055176615

    ReplyDelete
  30. Get your cannabis oil from Dr. Obi from National Cancer Institute here in the state. he was one of the few doctors who recommended the use of cannabis oil on my daughter when the Doctors in most of the hospitals i have visited have completely lost hope that my beautiful daughter won't survived.
    he insist even against all odd that my daughter won't die and here I am, sharing this wonderful testimony because my daughter is healthy, kicking and playing around just within a space of 20 days I started using the oil on her.
    i sincerely believed you can contact this doctor through his mail box: drobiakpocancerhealer4all@gmail.com for matter relating to cancer and the use of cannabis oil. thank you so much for saving my beautiful daughter.
    Tracheal Hump
    Florida

    ReplyDelete
  31. If you have an interesting point of view or a topic that you want to read more about, NoZombo can fulfill your wish. Our goal is to inform you, inspire you, to arm you with suitable weapons, to give you information that you can use daily and in that way fight against the unknown and unforeseen. Just visit NoZombo . Modern social life

    ReplyDelete
  32. The slightest hormonal imbalance can disrupt the reproductive system which is why it is so important to take care of it. Some factors that can seriously impair your reproductive health include How To Naturally Cure Yeast Infection

    ReplyDelete
  33. I really appreciate information shared above. It’s of great help. If someone want to learn Online (Virtual) instructor lead live training in service management black belt, kindly contact us http://www.maxmunus.com/contact
    MaxMunus Offer World Class Virtual Instructor led training on service management black belt. We have industry expert trainer. We provide Training Material and Software Support. MaxMunus has successfully conducted 100000+ trainings in India, USA, UK, Australlia, Switzerland, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Bahrain and UAE etc.
    For Demo Contact us.
    Nitesh Kumar
    MaxMunus
    E-mail: nitesh@maxmunus.com
    Skype id: nitesh_maxmunus
    Ph:(+91) 8553912023
    http://www.maxmunus.com/


    ReplyDelete
  34. Nice Information provided in the blog
    Ayurprevencia clinic enhances your charm through graceful plans which add glamour and confidence to your skin, hair and beauty.We provide services for skin ailments like acne, pigmentation, dark circles, wrinkles, dry skin and black heads etc
    Ayurvedic beauty treatments Clinic Aundh, Pune
    Ayurvedic treatment for skin disease Baner pune.

    

    ReplyDelete