Medieval Times: The Question of Birth Control

One’s mind does not leap to the idea of contraception during the Medieval period for a couple of reasons.  First, the Catholic Church, the major influence on much of Western Europe during the period, considered birth control a sin and forbade couples from practicing it.  The second reason is that much more emphasis was placed on having children, both in noble homes to get the much needed male heir and in the lower classes to have additional hands to work the land.  A final reason is the oft held belief that methods were simply not available during this time.

After doing some very interesting research, I found that Medieval women actually often defied the Church and did indeed use a variety of methods to prevent conception and space out or reduce pregnancies.  Below is a partial list of these methods—some of which will probably make you shudder.

1.  Abstinence.  The only method approved by the Church.  Even though couples might go through periods of refraining from sex, they did not last for long.  100% effective, but very hard to maintain the regimen.

2.  Lemons.  A fruit probably only found in wealthy households.  A sponge soaked in lemon800px-Citrus_777 juice and inserted into the vagina acted both as spermicide and pessary (a physical barrier between sperm and cervix).  Casanova reportedly used lemon rind as a cervical cap or diaphragm.

3.  Pessaries.  A medicated vaginal suppository used either to support the uterus or to deliver medication (usually contraceptive).  Pessaries for contraception could contain cedar oil, cabbage leaves, fresh mandrake, nettles, or other plants reputed to prevent conception.

4.  Concoctions.  One recommendation was for women to drink either sheep’s urine or rabbit’s blood to prevent pregnancy.  Not sure how that would work, but just the thought might lead one to reconsider method #1.

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace

5.  Queen Anne’s Lace.  Also called the wild carrot plant.  This was the birth control of choice in Medieval Europe. Women either chewed the seeds to release the essence or ground them up and put them in water and drank it.  The seeds had to be ground up or they were not effective.  There is medical evidence that Queen Anne’s Lace was able to prevent pregnancy because the chemical in the seeds block progesterone synthesis, thus disrupting

Poison Hemlock

Poison Hemlock

implantation.  Other plants used in a similar way included pennyroyal, artemisia, willow, and rue.  The big caveat to using Queen Anne’s Lace is that the plant looks very similar to the deadly poison hemlock.

Birth control has been practiced since ancient times and the medieval period was no exception.  However, I’m sure women today are extremely happy that we need only take a pill instead of implementing these desperate measures.

 

The characters in my medieval trilogy, Time Enough to Love, are not concerned with birth control, although pregnancy does play a role in the second novella, Betrayal.

Betrayal_logo

Betrayal releases tomorrow–so excited!  Be sure to come back for the Release Party here and on multiple blogs across the internet!

 

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17 Responses to Medieval Times: The Question of Birth Control

  1. My own research for a novel discovered the information that pomegranites were once used as diaphragms. I still am trying to figure out how. Have you ever tried to peel a pomegranite? Can’t be done. Would drinking sheep’s urine be any worse than using Premarin, which is made from pregnant mare’s urine? I read recently in Reader’s Digest that there’s a drug out which helps restore men’s testosterone and it’s made from pregnant human female urine. Sounds like what goes around comes around!

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  2. Sue says:

    Contraception goes back to the Egyptians. Women always sought control over their own bodies. Actually the Egyptians had condoms made from cotton- in the museum there

    I can’t imagine where Patricia got that info….

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      I had read about condoms going back to Egyptian times, but apparently they went in and out of fashion. I researched condom use in medieval Europe but they didn’t really start using them there until the 17th century. Perhaps the Church’s influence had something to do with it. Oh, and the condoms were re-usable! LOL

      Thanks so much for coming by, Sue!

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  3. melissakeir says:

    I’m so glad that I’m not alive back then! Besides the fact that my mom would have married me off quickly to get rid of me, I couldn’t have stood any of those methods. Maybe some day in the future, the women will look back and think our pills were horrible but I’m glad I have them and not drinking rabbits blood.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      I’m with you, Melissa! i think I’d have either abstained or just had a lot of kids. The lemons might not have been too bad. But rabbit’s blood? Not on your life! 🙂 Thanks for coming by!

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  4. Sheri Fredricks says:

    I’m amazed at your research! I think I read your blog with my mouth open! It all sounds (and tastes) horrid, but if I had to choose, I suppose #2….And he better be worth it!!!

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      I’m sure you’d only choose one who was worth it, Sheri! 🙂 Yes, two doesn’t seem too unpleasant, I just don’t know how effective it would have been. Thanks so much for coming by!

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  5. Great post. I knew about the lemon used as a cervical cap and penny royal used as a conterceptive, but not about the others.

    Thank you for sharing and good luck with the release. I wish you many sales..

    Janice~

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  6. Rhissanna says:

    Thank you for this. Fascinating! And good luck with the book release!

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  7. Daryl Devore says:

    Drinking sheep’s urine! I love the being in the 21st century!
    Fascinating post.
    Tweeted.

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  8. Gina Danna says:

    Yeah, I remember for a graduate class reading about this. Another method used was having sex standing up – sperm couldn’t stay in or so they thought (plus the church mandated sex lying down). As I recall they also inserted some other gross stuff like wood (to block the cervix) as well as animal dung (ewww!!!!) and wool. Those ideas would make me go back to #1 or just be a nun! Fun post!!!

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  9. Fascinating. Your ability to ferret out nifty details never fails to amaze me. I’m not so sure some of these medieval methods were so bad. Did you know that studies suggest that today’s birth control pills disrupt the estrogen cycle enough to make women prefer men who look less masculine (less facial hair, small of frame, less aggressive)? Metro-sexuals. That, in turn, breeds more children with these characteristics. And yet, perversely, these same women will fantasize about macho men and those are the ones they choose to have affairs with. They just don’t marry them. Quite a complicated situation, and all because of a little ubiquitous pill.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      I had read that women want to marry the less masculine and have fun with the macho-man. Didn’t hear it was linked to the pill. It is fascinating. And I love ferreting out these little facts. A fun perk of writing historical romance. 🙂 Thanks for coming by, Trish!

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