What was used for birth control in medieval Europe?
Birth is a universal experience for humanity and therefore, so is conception. This makes the issue of contraception one which stretched back into antiquity. While this topic is frequently in modern news, the historic practices of contraception and the specific methods utilized are rarely touched upon. This leads to the question of what exactly people were doing to prevent unwanted pregnancies. In looking specifically at medieval Europe it is possible to gain an understanding of just how wide a range of methods (both practical and unlikely to work) was available to the common woman.
The Roman Catholic Church was outspoken in the writing of clerics as to the sin of contraception, frequently pointing to the biblical story of Onan, son of Jonah, who withdrew and spilled his seed on the ground rather than impregnate his dead brother’s wife as an example. A Papal Bull from the fifteenth century reinforced that abortion was not within the realm of practices permitted by the church, as crimes connected to witchcraft were described, including, “have slain infants yet in the mother’s womb” and continues on to include causing sterilization within men and women. Alternatively, older Jewish, Roman and Greek texts all mentioned methods of contraception and gave either blatant or tactic approvals to carry out these actions. Medical knowledge spreading from contact with Islamic kingdoms also brought with it contraceptive knowledge, as the practice was permitted under both Shiite and Sunni law. Specifically, the practice of coitus interruptus was encourage provided the man had the knowledge and consent of the woman ahead of time.
While coitus interruptus is the method mentioned by these major groups the actual methods practiced were extensive. While there is little written record of the frequency in which they were actually utilized, the sheer number of methods proposed is impressive. These methods range from the simple - barriers, a primitive form of the modern rhythm method, the previously mentioned withdrawal - to the magical/belief based.
In many medical texts of the time, there were lists of mixtures designed to hurry the menses or cleanse the womb. These mixtures were usable to end an unwanted pregnancy (something which both slowed the menses and filled the womb) alongside their stated purposes. One version of the Antidotarium has several recipes for quickening the menses utilizing a number of herbs including arum, birthwort, artemisia, century plant, lupine, pepper, Queen Anne’s lace, myrrh, licorice, pennyroyal, rue, peony, parsley, and cypress. The efficacy of these mixtures would depend on the amounts of certain herbs included as some such as pepper have little effect on a pregnant woman while many others - pennyroyal, parsley, and Queen Anne’s lace, for instance, are so effective that modern women are recommended to avoid them. Many of these herbs, when taken in the concentrations necessary to induce miscarriage, were dangerous to the women taking them. There is at least one recorded court case, from the 15th century, of a woman dying from ingesting herbs for this purpose.
Physical MethodsHerbs were also seen as physical barriers for conception or pessaries. In the Canon of Medicine Avicenna recommends using mint inserted against the cervix prior to intercourse. He also makes mention of an early spermicide, specifically recommending the use of cedar oil as it “corrupts the sperm” and “prohibits impregnation”.Other mixtures of pulped plants or leaves are also mentioned as pessaries as well as the dung of various animals.These methods are mentioned in non-medical texts of the period as well, including an appearance in Chaucer. In the Parson’s Tale both the drinking of poisonous herbs and the placement of material things to prevent conception are listed among the sins, implying that these references would have been clear to Chaucer’s audience.
Magical methods fall into a few main categories, sympathetic magic which revolves around using pieces of sterile plants and animals in an attempt to absorb some of that aspect. The majority of advice for sympathetic magic calls for small bits of mules to be were worn on the body during intercourse or eaten beforehand in preparation. Over time this practice evolved until wearing the piece of mule was no longer necessary and a mule skin hung over a bed was deemed sufficient. Another item utilized was the bark of trees like the willow which was also used for willow bark tea as an anaphrodisiac, that is a substance to kill the libido, designed to cool the passions of the blood – a theory probably associated with the true fever relieving properties of the beverage. The white poplar was used for the same purpose combined with the testicle of a mule in a mixture from a 13th-century medical text.
German women had other magical methods to rely on, including sitting or lying on a certain number of fingers which corresponded with the number of years they wished to be sterile, spitting into the mouth of a frog three times, or going to the grave of a sister (presuming of course that the woman had one) and calling out three times that she did not have children. While these practices seem rather innocent to the modern reader others were less so including those which called for using the paw of a female weasel cut off while the animal was still alive or the finger and anus of a dead fetus.
Finally, if a woman ended up pregnant despite these preventative efforts there were options available after the birth of the child. While contemporary writers decried the frequency of infanticide the records of the time show the cases as being few and far between. For example, out of approximately 4000 homicides from the 14th-century, there were only two which were of infants. Exposure and Oblation were two different sides of the same coin in that they were ways that parents removed unwanted children or those children they could not support. Exposure was the abandonment of children in such a way that they could possibly be adopted into another family. In this practice, the parents were still able to come back at a later point and reclaim their child – something which was a pivotal point in the development of many folk heroes. This allowed parents who were down on their luck or who believed a change in circumstances might occur the opportunity to remain a part of their child’s life. Oblation, on the other hand, was the giving up of a child to the church, usually along with a large gift. These children had no choice in many cases about taking vows and joining the church and their parents were not allowed to reclaim them at a later point. Both practices were heavily used and existed on the edge of cultural acceptance.
As with today, the reasons why individuals used methods of contraception were many. Church officials recorded their use for reasons including the obvious - that a family simply could not support another mouth to feed to the less serious, the desire to preserve the beauty of a young wife or mistress. The use of contraception is one which serves as a connection between the past and today, a reminder of the commonality of experiences which can be found between people of different eras, regions, and religions.
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- Shirley Green, The curious history of contraception, New York: St. Martin's Press, (1971), 117
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- John M. Riddle, Eve's herbs: a history of contraception and abortion in the West, Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1997), 95.
- Barbara Hanawalt, "Childrearing among the Lower Classes of Late Medieval England." The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 8, no. 1 (1977), 9.
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- Hanawalt, 27
- John Eastburn Boswell, "Expositio and Oblatio: The Abandonment of Children and the Ancient and Medieval Family." The American Historical Review 89, no. 1 (1984): 10-33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1855916.
- P. P. A. Biller,"Birth-Control in the West in the Thirteenth and Early Fourteenth Centuries." Past & Present, no. 94 (1982): 16.