Hello all! This week we are going to be exploring menstrual bleeding in the Middle Ages. Drawing greater attention to what life was like for these women and what the general consensus surrounding periods was during this time.
While we may think that life was beyond awful for women during the Middle Ages suffering from their periods, there are some evolutionary or biological factors which may have contributed to why life wasn’t as ‘medieval’ for women as we may have originally thought. For starters, medieval women didn’t have as many periods as we do today. They also had more children during this time and breastfed their children longer, stopping or lessening the bleeding. This was because women during this time reached menopause much earlier, usually in their late thirties. As a result, they had fewer regular monthly periods. As we know, the nutrition of an average person during the Middle Ages was not the best. This, coupled with hard work meant that their body fat was generally very low. Biologically speaking a woman must have the right amount of body fat in order for her reproductive system and subsequently her period to work in harmony. If her body fat did become very low, then eventually menstruation would stop altogether. In modern day society this is comparable with women who are suffering from eating disorders many causes of bulimia or anorexia to name just two ended up experiencing this drastic change. Competitive athletes like runners or gymnasts are also prone to the stoppage of menstruation.
So, now that we have a vague idea of what an average woman’s menstrual cycle was like we can now move on to how they actually dealt with it one a more practical level. I don’t know about you but I always envisaged medieval women as either free bleeding or using manky old rags. However this was not the case. Like us, they used pads which were made of scrap fabric or a rag. Usually cotton was the preferable material as it absorbed fluid much more effectively than wool. Archaeological research tells us that some women may have worn garments similar to the usual knicker in order to hold the menstrual pad in place. Sphagnum cymbifolium which was ‘bog mass’ was used as the stuffing for menstrual pads as well as toilet paper and for dressing wounds. Blood is blood I suppose no matter where it comes from! They also wound cotton fabric around a twig and used it as a proto tampon. I can’t imagine how comfortable shoving a twig up there would be, hopefully there weren’t any splinters, ouch! It would be interesting to see whether using a twig had an adverse effect on these women, the possibility of it scraping the woman’s insides was I imagine quite high. Another topic for another post I think.
As we can see from what these women used they weren’t exactly what I call foolproof. Even in today’s society sanitary products are not one hundred percent leak proof. As a result, women who were on their period were worried about leaking through their clothes and potentially offending the male sex. So much so that they carried nutmegs and bunches of nosegays (flowers) to conceal any arising odour. There was a great deal of religious shame relating to periods during the medieval period which brought negative connotations whenever menstruation was mentioned or acknowledged. Members of society believe that menstrual cramps were a reminder of eves original sin. As a result pain relief was unavailable as the church believed that women were deserving of the pain. Ultimately the church vowed the menstruating woman as unclean and unworthy. Interestingly women who where of a holy nature took part in fasting and adopted a very abstemious way of life found that their periods naturally stopped. While this was obviously down to the lack of body fat other members of the church took it as a sign from god instead. Women were not allowed to take holy communion during menstruation and couples should refrain from sexual intercourse as any children born would be red haired and puny. Menstrual blood was said to
- damage the penis
- turn wine sour
- make fruit fall from trees
- kill beehives
- give dogs rabies
- make crops barren
Other methods of treatment included the more bizarre categories like toads and frogs. These were said to cure a heavy flow by boiling the toad and wearing its ashes near the vagina. There is little evidence to support how many women actually went through with this procedure but I think it’s fair to say that the majority, in all probability most likely resisted this one. Similarly, in order to subside a particularly heavy flow women were advised to take the hair from an animals head and bind it to a green or young tree. Because so many women shared the same concerns, red was deemed a popular colour for medieval petticoats, genius! This was especially helpful for those women who chose to free bleed letting the blood run down their clothes and legs.
I think it’s fair to say that we’ve come a pretty long way since the middle ages. While sanitary protection and pain relief have obviously advanced, period poverty and period prejudice are still rife in today’s society. Normalising periods is the first step to an open and honest discussion without fear of stigma or taboo. I hope you enjoyed this post let me know your thoughts down below.