Ailments and Cures of Medieval Women

By P. P. and M. W.

Medieval birthing chair



The Medieval period in Europe lasted from about 476 CE to 1450 CE. This was between the Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages, cures for many common ailments were both realistic and far-fetched to the point of absurdity. It is these absurd cures that fascinate many people. This was because the ailments of women typically dealt with menstruation, sexual intercourse, contraceptives, preganacy, and other miscellaneous common occurrences.

Menstruation

Menstruation in the medieval period was viewed by men, "Not as a natural bodily process, but as something much more sinister." (Evans, 1997, p.2) Because men lacked this "power," they viewed women as suspicious and powerful when, in actuality, it was no power at all. Male wonderment paired with ignorance lead to many myths and distorted views of menstruation that date back to biblical times. For example,

When a woman has a discharge and the discharge form her body is blood, she will remain in a state of menstrual pollution for seven days. Anyone who touches her will be unclean. Anything that she lies on in this state will be unclean; Anyone who touches her bed must wash clothing and body. If a man goes so far as to sleep with her, he will contract her menstrual pollution and be unclean for seven days. Once she is cured of her discharge, she will allow seven days to go by; after that she will be clean. On the eighth day she will take two turtledoves or two young pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The priest will offer one of them as a sacrifice for the sin and the other as a burnt offering." (Leviticus 15:19-30)
This is important because the medieval period was a very religious time, and the fact that this was stated in the bible influenced the thoughts and actions of many medieval people. This natural bodily function was considered unclean, and as a result of this, women did not have intercourse during menstruation and went throught a certain degree of cleansing afterward.

Much like today, women in the Middle Ages were concearned with "the stopping of the blood that women should have in their purgation's and be purged of." (Rowland,1981, p.167) In other words, they wanted to stop the menstrual fluid from dirtying their clothing and everything else. Often times they would use suppositories that they made themselves from cotton which were then placed within a woman's "privy member." (Rowland) According to Rowland, the suppositories, which were much like the tampons of today, were fastened with a thread around one of her thighs to prevent the suppository from being drawn into the woman's uterus completely. A typical suppository was made in this fashion:

Take half a drachma of triacle diatesseron, the same amounts of cockle flour and myrrh, and grind them together with bull's gall in which savin or rue has been rotted. Then cover the mixture with cotton and thereof make a suppository as large as your little finger and put it in your privy member, but first annoint it with clean honey and oil together, sprinkle powder of scammony on it, and put it in the privy member; one can do the same with lupin root, and that is much better. (Rowland, 1981, p.264)

During menstraution, when women became bloated, which was due to the use of such suppositories, they would first be bled under the ankle, and then they would apply cold plasters, a form of repellent, to drive the matters away.

Sexual Intercourse

In the Middle Ages, sexual intercourse was considered a moral sin by law, and contradictorilly a cure according to old wives' tales. It was a moral sin for women to be promiscuous. At the same time, however, it was said to be a cure for the young female's desire which was caused by a retention of spoiled and poisonous menstrual fluid. Sexual intercourse was also said to be a cure for what was know as suffocation of the uterus. This occured when "a woman's heart and lungs are thrust together by the uterus so that the woman seems dead except for her breathing, and some call it a heart attack because it is a malady of the heart." (Rowland, 1981, p.179)

During sexual intercourse, the medieval men and women used contraceptives as most people do today to avoid pregnancy. One such contraceptive that was used in the Middle Ages but is no longer used was that of Queen Anne's Lace seeds. "Each time those women have sexual intercourse, those who wish not to be with child put a teaspoonful of the seeds, saved from the autumn harvest, in a glass of water and drink it." (Riddle, 1992, p.325) To determine if this form of contraception worked, medieval physicians performed experiments with mice, and it was viewed as a promising substance to prevent preganancy.

Pregnancy

Due to the fact that doctors did not analyze amniotic fliud in the Middle Ages, the surest way to know if a woman was pregnant was to examine her urine. There were also, however, other less effective ways to determine if a woman was pregnant. One was to have her drink mead before she went to bed. If her stomach hurt when she woke up, then she was pregnant. According to John Doe, (1982) there were two ways to determine the sex of a woman's child. One way was to ask the woman to stick out her hand. If she produced the right, then the child would be a boy; but, if the left was produced, then she would have a girl. The other way was to place a drop of the mother's milk in pure spring water. If the milk floated, the the child would be a girl; but if it sunk, the child would be a boy.

In the Middle Ages there were two different forms of childbirth. One was "natural,"and the other was "unnatural." Natural birth occured when the, child came out head first. Unnatural birth occured when the child was not positioned head first in the womb.When the child was in an unnatural position it was the job of the midwife to correct the positioning so that the child could be born naturally. When natural labor was impossible because the child would not come out, pepper was the common drug used to induce labor.

Abortion

Planned abortion was a fairly normal idea in the Middle Ages. Abortions were much desired, but unlike today, were hard to come by. This was because before a doctor could begin to practice, he had to take an oath not to preform an abortion or to give a woman means to produce one herself. To abort a fetus at three months, the following receipe was used:

1drachma each of cardamom seeds, wallflower (or stock,) myrrh, and wormwood. Let a woman insert it before taking a bath and drink pennyroyal wine. (Riddle, 1992, p.62)
To abort a child, one woman even drank deadly poisons and dangerous draughts to destroy the fetus in her womb. While this did kill the fetus, it also killed the woman which was most likely not her goal. In addition to abortions, there were some natural anti-fertility medicines to avoid pregnancy. Some of these included fenugreek, mallow, pennyroyal, rue, birthwort, cyperus, arum root, cassia, reed, valerian, calamint root, and myrrh. These were prescribed as vaginal suppositories. According to Talbot, (1967) for those women who chose to keep their children, after the child was born he or she was placed in a dark room with his or her eyes shielded from the harsh light of day.

Miscellaneous Ailments

The people of the Middle Ages also had cures for some common ailments. The most common of these were migraine headaches for which the symptoms were blindness, intense points of light in the vision field, sickness, temporary paralysis, and more blindness. The most famous migraine sufferer was Hildegard von Bingen who often had visions, which many people today recognize as hallucinations associated with her migraine headaches. Strangely enough, the medieval physicians had no cure for migraines except to wait them out and deal with them.

Some other remedies to common ailments were:

To relieve toothaches-root of pellitory, to improve eyesight- add a drop of dew to the gall bladder of a nightingale caught before daybreak and annoint it to the eyelashes,(Weaver, 1996, p.1) to enhance the flow of bile from the liver-dandelions, to help with child birth-Lady's Mantle, to help with burns, sprains, and cramps-St. John's Wort, for bee stings-Waybread, and as a laxative-seeds of a related species to psycllium. (Brogan, 1997, p.2)

Some of these cures of he Middle Ages may seem somewhat far-fetched to us in th twentieth century, but many actually relieved pain. All of these were invented and used in everyday life by women for the purpose of treating and preventing the ailments that faced them each day.


References