Contraception in History Part I: Aristotle, Hippocrates, and a Whole Lotta Lead

There’s a common misconception (no pun intended) that contraception didn’t exist in any real capacity before the twentieth century. Previous generations were able to control themselves, were not as sex-mad as we are today, and only ever engaged in the act after (heterosexual!) marriage and for the sake of procreation.


I have always believed that people haven’t changed at all over the course of human history, and the more I study, the more I believe this to be true. Sure, the way people make sense of their world changes, as does the way they write about it, but people don’t change. This is particularly true when it comes to sex. Our very existence is proof that every generation since the dawn of man has been powerless against it. More than just a biological urge, it’s a desire and an obsession. As long as mankind has understood that sex can lead to pregnancy, we have sought ways to prevent conception.

This is nothing new. You want proof?


This twelve-thousand year old cave painting from the Grotte des Combarelles in France is believed to be the first depiction of condom use.

Take that, 1960s!

Being a life-long fan of historical romance, I have always been curious about contraception. Assuming the woman didn’t die having her first or second child, how did she avoid having twenty more? Do they all have syphilis? If not, why not? What does syphilis look like?

Assuming I’m not the only person who has ever wondered this (and I might be…), I’m going to write a series of posts of contraception throughout history. If there’s a particular time, place, or aspect that you’re interested in, please let me know.

For now we’ll start in the Ancient World.

Obviously women are all-powerful, but Hippocrates was among the first to believe that women could prevent conception by banishing sperm on command, as he explains in The Sperm, fifth century BCE: “When a woman has intercourse, if she is not going to conceive, then it is her practice to expel the sperm produced by both partners whenever she wishes to do so.”

You read that right, the sperm produced by both partners. While Aristotle and Plato argued that men’s sperm was responsible for producing embryos and that women were little more than a receptacle for it, Hippocrates understood that conception was a complex process involving both partners. Although he might not have been quite right about conception (or lack thereof) at will, he reasoned that both parties had to be involved because children could look like either parent. So far so logical.

Diseases of Women, a Hippocratic treatise, goes on to recommend a sure fire way of dealing with unintended pregnancies: “Shake her by the armpits and give her to drink…the roots of sweet earth almond.”

There is no evidence that the sweet earth almond, also known as the Cyperus esculenthus is anything other than a tasty, tasty nut. It’s a good source of protein, healthy fats, and Vitamins E and C, so it’ll make your skin look great, but it has no known contraceptive or abortive properties.

If that didn’t work (and all signs point to no), he also advised women to jump up and down repeatedly with her heels touching her butt. It’s worth a shot.

While Aristotle underestimated the woman’s contribution to conception, his contraceptive recommendations sound a little more effective. He advised women to: “anoint that part of the womb on which the seed falls with oil of cedar, or with ointment of lead or with frankincense, commingled with olive oil.”

Ah, yes. Lead.

Lead is one explanation for the shockingly low birthrates in Ancient Rome. The aqueducts were made of lead, and it is not unreasonable to suspect that most of the population was suffering from a degree of lead poisoning (more on that here). Lead poisoning causes infertility in men and women, yes, along with behavioral changes, irritability, convulsions, and permanent damage to the central nervous system.

Sound familiar?

Throughout history, lead has been used in a number of common products from paint to eyeliner and has been a well-documented cause of infertility and madness.

So there you have it. If you can’t find someone to vigorously shake you by the armpits, try lead.*

Tune in next Thursday for more on contraception in history. If you can’t wait, read Aine Collier’s The Humble Little Condom: A History for a fun introduction.

*Do not, for the LOVE OF GOD try lead.

Absinthe in Seventeenth Century England (Sort Of)


One of the best things about writing historical fiction is the research. Writing the kind of stories that I like, I get to read about all the best stuff. Sex, contraception, venereal diseases, crime, punishment, madness, poisons and other dodgy substances, exciting underwear, and alcohol. I came across an interesting fact this week that ties my favorite heroine with my favorite shade of green.

Tyburn takes place in 1671. Gin was barely sneaking over from Holland, and would not be produced in England on any scale until 1720. Tea had only been in England for eleven years or so and consumption was still limited. (For more on this, visit the UK Tea & Infusions Association)

Beer and wine were the beverages of choice, and coffee was extremely popular and widely available. Coffee shops were almost as ubiquitous as they are today, and many even sold early condoms under the counter. (Get with the program, Starbucks! I want some Trojans with my chai!)

By the end of the sixteenth century, England was importing significant quantities of brandy from France, and Scotland was producing so much whiskey that production had to be suspended in 1555 and 1579 to prevent grain shortage.

People were also drinking strong waters or aqua vitae. This might sound a bit like Evian, but drinking a bottle of this is more likely to leave you insensible than refreshed. By the end of the seventeenth century, demand for distilled spirits had only increased. The first recorded strongwater houses appear in an act of Parliament in 1657, with several more opening toward the end of the century when relations with the Netherlands improved. These shops sold flavored “waters” or spirits, and one of the most popular of these was aniseed.

What else is flavored with aniseed? That’s right, absinthe.

Wormwood has been used medicinally as far back as ancient Egypt and was used to treat digestive problems in seventeenth century England. In large quantities, this could actually exacerbate digestive problems, as well as causing thirst, restlessness, vertigo, trembling of the limbs, numbness of the extremities, loss of intellect, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, delirium, paralysis, kidney failure, and death.


327px-Absinthe_ParisienneAnise and wormwood were first distilled together in the 1790s by a French doctor living in Switzerland as an all-purpose remedy. The first absinthe distillery was opened in Couvet, Switzerland in 1797, with the second in Pontarlier, France in 1805 under the name Maison Pernod Fils. (Sound familiar?) Absinthe was given to French troops in the 1840s to prevent malaria, and they brought the taste home with them. The rest, as they say, is history.

But that’s another book.

I was pretty excited when I found this because I always envisioned Sally’s public persona to be the embodiment of the Green Fairy. It was too early for absinthe by about a hundred and thirty years, but it’s possible she was drinking something similar.

For the rest of the similarities, you can read Sally’s story in Tyburn.

In the meantime, you can read Jessica Warner’s Craze: Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason for more on the history of gin in Britain. I’m reading it myself right now, and it’s absolutely brilliant.