And Other Strange Medieval Ideas about Women and Sex
That’s what Aristotle said about women. Sure we know it’s not true, but in the Middle Ages it made perfect sense. After all, wasn’t it a woman who took the first bite of that infamous apple? Women are smaller and weaker, they said. Call them delicate if you want but they are certainly more envious and full of malice. Aristotle was so right when he said we men have bigger brains.
Boy, those guys were smart, weren’t they? And they were truly enlightened on the whole process of fertility and menstruation. You may think you understand these things — but you know nothing. Don’t worry though, I’m here to fill you in.
Gas Masks On
First off, you need to know a woman on her period is as dangerous as a dragon. Take the book De Secretis Mulierum, written by a man of course. It claims that menstruating women “give off harmful fumes that poison the eyes of children lying in their cradles by a glance”. You also need to be prepared if you happen to get pregnant while on your period. Children conceived in such a manner “tend to have epilepsy and leprosy because menstrual matter is extremely venomous.”
We know this is true because medieval guys put together some simple facts. Men, the stronger and more worthy of the two sexes, are ruled by heat and dryness. Women, on the other hand, are much weaker and ruled by coldness and humidity. That makes us much more prone to diseases, especially in areas — eh-hem — “devoted to the work of nature.” We just don’t have enough heat to dry up all those bad humors. Menses is the only way our bodies can find to purge them. In fact, the balance of cold and heat has a lot to do with how long it takes for a woman to enter menopause. A thin woman can remain fertile up to 50 years. Too moist and fertility might linger until 60 or 65. For the moderately fat, menses will probably only last until you’re 35.
The Strange Ways of the Womb
Now, the woman with an average cycle length is in good shape. Those excess humors are going right out of her body and she’ll be nice and healthy. If things get off kilter, however, watch out. Problems such as decreased appetite, vomiting and weird cravings for things like earth, coals, and chalk may appear. If periods are lacking, then you’ve got a problem with your blood. It’s congealed or coagulated. Don’t worry, it will get out somewhere. Maybe your mouth, nose, or in your spit. If too much time passes, you’ll see blood in the urine. It could be flat out red or “the color of water in which fresh meat has been washed.” There’s also the possibility of your face turning green, so better carry a heavy duty concealer in your purse at all times.
If your bleeding is long and heavy, it’s because you have wide open veins in your womb. It seems some of them just randomly bust and that obviously causes excess blood flow. This condition can be easily cured by bloodletting from the hand or arm. Dietary changes can help too. Try eating Hens cooked in pastry, fresh fish cooked in vinegar and some nice barley bread.
When you think about it it’s inevitable we have these problems. According to the ancient Greek physician and philosopher Galen, another respected voice for medievals, a lot of that coldness is in our wombs. It’s for this reason women need to have sex often. Without hot male sperm to warm them up a woman’s “seed” will solidify and our wombs will actually suffocate.
Tried-and-True Advice For Pregnancy
Of course, the side effects of all that sex are often children, although infertility was an issue in medieval times as well. If you’ve had your fair share of marital relations and have yet to conceive, try this simple test found in the Trotula, another medieval medical guide. You and your partner pee in a pot. If within ten days worms appear your destined to be infertile. The Liber de Diversis Medicinis suggests a man could try drinking a mixture of catnip tea and wine on an empty stomach for three days to increase his fertility. Another recipe calls for wine to be mixed with dried and ground pig testicles.
When a woman is pregnant one should take care not to talk to her about things she can’t have. For instance, don’t say “how would you fancy a nice chocolate sundae with whipped cream, nuts, and a pickled herring on top?” and then tell her you don’t have one. If she decides she really wants it and you can’t get it for her, she could have a miscarriage. Now, this does have a limit. If she wants coals or chalk just give her beans cooked with sugar. That should set her right until after delivery, at which time other remedies can be applied.
Worry-Free Birth Control
For those wanting to avoid pregnancy, the medievals came up with a couple of simple ways to handle that as well. Just carry the womb of a goat that has never conceived directly against your flesh. Alternatively, you could cut the testicles off a male weasel then release him back into the wild. You can then place the testicles in a goose skin pouch and carry them against your bosom. I didn’t find any statistics, but I’m sure these methods are 100 percent effective.
What man is going to want to have sex with a woman bedecked in weasel testicles and goat wombs?
Unless of course, it’s the man who drank pig testicles.
Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook edited by Emilie Amt