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