MENSTRUATION - PREMENSTRUAL TENSION - THE WANDERING
WOMB - FEMININE HYGIENE PRODUCTS
Surprisingly, we do know a little about that certain time of the
month thanks to medical treatices like those attributed to Trotula.
An English copy from the early 15th century advises that:
Women have purgations from
the time of twelve winters to the time of 50 winters, although
some women have it longer, especially those with a high complexion
who are well-nourished with hot meats and hot drinks and live
very much in leisure.
Some doctors called menstruation
a sickness although it was generally agreed that it was a punishment
from God upon women to pay for Eve's original sin in the Garden
of Eden and was therefore deserved and not in any way in need
of medical relief. If a woman suffered with cramps or excessive
flow, it was because God willed it. It was also seen as extremely
significant that holy women were often found to not menstruate,
thus substantiating the belief of regular women were sinners who
deserved their lot.
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.
Either way, troubles associated with menstruation were seen to
be something that was not in need of any medical intervention.
Those who were more medically minded
believed that the menses bloodletting 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-
Contact with it turns new wine
sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seeds in
gardens dry up, the fruit of the trees fall off, the bright
surface of mirrors in which it is merely reflected is dimmed,
the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of
bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and
a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad
and infects their bites with incurable poison.
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
As with our modern society, premenstrual tension was not undiagnosed.
Known as melancholia, very little effort was spent in seeking
causes or cures as it was once again seen as God's natural design
for the female and therefore not necessary of change. In spite
of this, many herbal remedies were widely known and used.
The astringent leaves of Lady's Mantle alchemilla vulgaris,
at left, were helpful with profuse menstruation. Thyme thymus
species was used for 'women's complaints' and as an ointment
for skin troubles. Fresh leaves of Woodruff asperula odorata
(shown at right) made into tea and drunk was recommended for nausea.
Aldobrandino of Siena produced a
work Regime du Corps which included advice on feminine
hygiene, skincare and gynecology. 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.
theory of the wandering womb
Medical practitioners during the middle ages failed to agree on
a rather unusual point connected to feminine complaints- whether
the womb was stationary or whether it wandered around inside the
body causing a variety of other ailments- including vomiting if
it stopped at the heart, and loss of voice and an ashen complexion
if it stopped at the liver. The stress of a wandering womb was
usually believed to be the cause of hysteria. Indeed the word
hysterical translates loosely as madness of the womb. Even
physicians who did not adhere to the theory of the wandering womb,
agreed that hysteria was a solely female complaint and was probably
caused by a lack of intercourse when uterine secretions built
up and were not released, thereby causing the entire body to be
There is very little information about what was used for a woman's
monthly period written. Trotula mentions wads of cotton being
used for the cleansing of the inner canals of the woman's vulva
prior to sexual intercourse with her husband, but it is unlikely
that a similar cotton wadding may have been used for a kind of
medieval tampon as the belief in letting the menses flow and drain
from the body prevailed. To plug up the flow of menstrual blood
would be seen as both dangerous and injurious to the woman. Obviously,
some device was necessary, so this leaves the alternate as a stuffed
sanitary pad or napkin of some kind as a logical conclusion.
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 wool's water-dispelling
qualities, it is also an unlikely stuffing for a sanitary pad.
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 renown 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
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:
When the body was laid in the
grave there must have been lying on the back of os coccygis
... a strip of sealskin to which was fastened a redbrown woolen
cord to keep the sealskin in place, while in front on mons pubis
it was also kept in place by a couple of woollen cords which
probably passed up to a cord or belt about the hip-region, thus
representing a kind of bandage passing from mons pubis between
femora down before pudenda and anus and up between nates in
the sacral region.
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.