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Medieval Feminine Hygiene
The menstrual cycle and what to do about it
MENSTRUATION - PRE-MENSTRUAL TENSION - THE WANDERING WOMB - FEMININE HYGIENE PRODUCTS
- - ADULT THEMES - -
In reality, the extremely frugal diets
of very pious women were probably the underlying cause for the lack
of menses. With a strict monastic diet and lack of proper nourishment,
the body could not longer sustain a pregnancy or reproduce and the menses
stopped. If a woman left the harsh religious life and returned to the
secular world and diet, her menses would return. Again, this was seen
as an undisputed sign from God of the holiness of nuns and the worldliness
of other women generally. Another possible reason for the lack of menses
in holy women is that many wealthy women only turned to a life of religious
contemplation very late in life and were possibly post-menopausal.
Those who were more medically minded believed that the menses blood-letting started at the head and traveled throughout the body collecting poisonous wastes and humors. A popular belief was that sex with a menstruating woman would kill or mutilate the semen and produce horribly deformed offspring or children with red hair or leprosy. Just the gaze of an old woman who still had her periods was thought to be poisonous- the vapours being emitted from her eyes.
It was also believed by some that the touch of a menstruating woman would cause a plant to die- a belief which was probably not shared by landowners who required women to work alongside men in the garden and would not have wished to lose days of productivity each month. Pliny the Elder, in the first century, declared that the menstrual fluid was most potent-
Pliny reported that the poisonous properties
of menstruating women could be put to good use. If menstruating women
go round the cornfield naked, it would act as a powerful insecticide,
he wrote. Caterpillars, worms, beetles and other vermin were expected
to be eliminated. During plagues of insects, Pliny had read, menstruating
women had been instructed to walk around the fields with their clothes
pulled up above their buttocks. He does not note whether this proved
a successful remedy or not.
Aldobrandino of Siena produced a work Regime du Corps which included advice on feminine hygiene, skincare and gynaecology. According to the 14th century manuscript, Tacuinum Sanitatis, fennel was particularly useful for menstruation. It also advises that acorns would prevent menstruation from occurring, but does not indicate how the acorns should be eaten. It goes on to say that this could be countered by having the acorns roasted with sugar.
of the wandering womb
A pad of linen fabric seems possible, but when filled with linen wadding would make a pad which would be unlikely to launder well for reuse. The filling would probably not wash well and dry badly in the winters. Since the lower classes also menstruate, it seems that when considering a reusable, washable pad, this was not the answer. It seems that due to wools water-dispelling qualities, it is also an unlikely stuffing for a sanitary pad.
In the middle ages, sphagnum moss sphagnum cymbifolium, shown at right, was used for toilet paper and was also believed by surgeons to have antiseptic properties. It was also known by the name Blood Moss and was used during the crusades by physicians to stem blood flow in battle wounds. It was reknown for its sponge-like absorbent qualities and ability to be rinsed out and reused. A Gaelic Chronicle of 1014 relates that the wounded in the battle of Clontarf stuffed their wounds with moss, and the Highlanders after Flodden tended to their bleeding wounds by filling them with bog moss.
It occurs to me that this might make an exceptionally good filling for a sanitary pad- absorbent, reusable, washable, almost instantly driable and freely available to both wealthy and the lower classes alike in almost all geographic locations. The benefit of antiseptic properties from a woman's poisonous menstrual blood would possibly be seen as an added bonus.
Although there is no concrete proof, it is entirely possible that medieval women used moss-stuffed napkins as sanitary pads. We know that moss is very like a very fine sponge. It easily and quickly absorbs liquid and retains it. Water can be squeezed out and the moss does not collapse and is ready for reuse. A pad of sphagnum moss would absorb the blood in lateral directions well as above and retain it until fully saturated.
In a forum discussion in January, 2006, Robin Netherton discusses an interesting find from a burial at Herjofsnes. It concerns a pad, possibly used for incontinence. It is made of sealskin, wool and has traces of moss in the filling. Her conclusions are:
It shows that the possible use of a pad for both incontinence and other bodily fluids was known. Indeed, before the advent of the self-adhesive sanitary pad, napkins were similarly suspended, although from modern elasticised suspenders.
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