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?
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.