Contraception in Cookbooks: Herbal Family Planning in the Early Modern Period and Beyond

When condoms began to somewhat resemble their modern form in the sixteenth century, it was a result of centuries of trial and error. Venereal diseases had plagued people since the time immemorial, and various barrier methods had been tried with limited efficacy. Gabriele Falloppio’s De Morbo Gallico recommended wrapping up in linen sheaths soaked in salt. Other reusable condoms were made from sheep intestines that could be washed between uses, but they were tied on with ribbons, so…silver linings?

As you can imagine, these weren’t particularly effective. Madame de Sévigné described condoms as “an armor against enjoyment and a spiderweb against danger.” If they did succeed in preventing the spread of venereal disease, we can only assume it was because they put people off the idea of sex altogether.

Note that as different types of condoms were being developed, it was with the aim of preventing venereal disease, not pregnancy. Why not?

Because there was already something else available.

Eve’s Herbs

By the sixteenth century, herbal contraception and abortifacients had been fairly common for at least two thousand years, and their use wasn’t that big of a deal. Emmenagogues—herbs that stimulate menstruation when delayed for any reason—were common medicine. Physicians and monks provided them when needed, often as cures for non-specific “stomach issues” that plagued women. Saint Hildegard von Bingen wrote of the medical uses of abortifacient plants in the twelfth century, but she wasn’t the first scholar to tackle the subject.

In the first century AD, Dioscorides of Anazarbus published a medical text that included a list of plants that acted as contraceptives or abortifacients alongside treatments for common problems. The list and its accompanying recipes proved so useful that the text in its entirety continued to be copied and consulted for centuries. Both Galen and Pliny the Elder wrote on methods of limiting family size, and in the second century AD, Soranus’s four-volume work on women’s ailments, Peri Gynaikeion Biblia Tetra, showed an advanced understanding of the difference between contraception and abortion.

But for many in later years, the distinction was unclear and largely unimportant. During the Middle Ages, there was some debate about when life truly began—“ensoulment” at birth rather than conception—so contraception and abortion before about three months were seen as essentially the same thing. As it was something women tended to deal with on their own, it didn’t really concern anyone apart from the women, their medical providers, and their confessors. [Read more about the medieval moral view of abortion here]

The study of common plants with abortifacient properties continued for centuries, but those involved with medicine weren’t the only people preserving that knowledge. Women shared that information with each other, passing it between generations one person at a time until a more efficient method of communication became available.

W3271, frontispiece || engraved title page

Contraception in Cookbooks  

Knowledge of herbal abortifacients not only survived the Middle Ages, but it became more accessible as time went on. As books became more affordable to the general populace, what had mainly been shared between women and among physicians became available to anyone who could read. While family planning was still very much a private matter, coded recipes appeared in popular cookbooks.

Hannah Woolley was a kind of seventeenth century Martha Stewart, writing books on household management to support herself after her husband passed away in 1661. As a servant to a lady during her younger years, Woolley had picked up a number of recipes for food and home remedies as well as invaluable housekeeping tips. She became a household name after self-funding the publication of her first book in 1661, The Ladies Directory, followed by The Cook’s Guide shortly thereafter. Her books flew off the shelves and sold out of multiple printings.

Between the recipes for perfume and preserves, however, there was advice of a more sensitive nature. The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight—published in twelve editions between 1675 and 1720—contained the following:

    1. To bring down the Flowers.

Take of Alligant, Muskadine, or Claret

a pint, burn it, and sweeten it well

with Sugar, put thereto two spoonfuls

of Sallet-Oyl; then take a good Bead of

Amber in powder in a spoon, with some

of the Wine after it: Take this Evening

and Morning.

By the seventeenth century, “bringing down the flowers” was a common euphemism for abortion, or stimulating menstruation that was unexpectedly late. That this recipe was included in the early modern version of The Joy of Cooking gives us some indication of how abortion was viewed in practice: it was a women’s issue best left to women. As before, a woman wasn’t really regarded as pregnant until “quickening,” or the first detectable signs of fetal movement around three-to-five months into a pregnancy. As such, stimulating menstruation early enough was a non-issue.

Though she was respected as an amateur physician, Woolley didn’t concoct this recipe herself; there were more than two hundred plants with known abortifacient properties available in Britain, and this was only one combination. Recipes to “draw down the flowers” or “procure the months” were included in many common books of recipes and herbal remedies, and the ingredients for them could be found growing outdoors or purchased from an apothecary.

Those without access to these cookbooks or household herbals had other ways of finding the same information. Women shared these recipes with each other verbally, and “cunning women” and midwives could also be consulted.

In the 1560s, Elizabeth Francis of Chelmsford was reported as having visited her “grandmother Eve” in Hatfield Peverel, who advised her what herbs to drink to terminate her pregnancy. Alice Butcher reported that similar potions could be obtained from the apothecary in Warrington in 1612. In nineteenth-century Cambridgeshire, it was “Granny” Grey of Littleport to ask for pills of hemlock, rue, and pennyroyal.

Interestingly enough, many abortifacient herbs were anti-estrogenic, which made them effective at preventing pregnancy as well as ending it. A relative of silphium, Queen Anne’s Lace (also known as Wild Carrot) was recorded as a contraceptive as far back as ancient Rome, when its properties were documented by Soranus. Historian John Riddle has reported that the seeds of this plant are a potent contraceptive if harvested in autumn and chewed immediately after sex. Modern clinical studies do support this; the seeds contain estrogen and act as a progesterone blocker, effectively preventing pregnancy in animals.

Additionally, artemisia and juniper were both known to inhibit fertility. There are more than two hundred types of artemisia, among them mugwort, tarragon, and wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe. In the twelfth century, Trotula recommended artemisia as a “menstrual stimulator,” and in the thirteenth century, Arnald of Villanova advised taking it with capers. Like Queen Anne’s Lace, studies have confirmed that it works: artemisia inhibits estrogen production and can prevent ovulation much like pharmaceutical contraceptives.

Hannah Woolley loved it. Her books contain a number of wormwood recipes, including this one, which would have come out a lot like absinthe:

    1. To make Wormwood-Water

Take two Gallons of good Ale, a pound

of Anniseeds, half a pound of Licorise,

and beat them very fine; then take two

good handfuls of the Crops of Wormwood,

and put them into Ale, and let

them stand all Night, and let them stand

in a Limbeck with a moderate Fire.

Licorice is also known to be an effective emmenagogue; it has been used in Asian and Central American medicine for the same purpose. Likewise Artemisia, which is not without its side effects. Wormwood is known to cause hallucinations and changes in consciousness. Ingested in large quantities, it can lead to seizures and kidney failure.

Juniper, an ingredient in gin—enduringly popular since the Gin Craze of the eighteenth century—has been used as a contraceptive since Ancient Rome. Pliny the Elder recommended rubbing crushed juniper berries on the penis before sex to prevent conception. Its popularity continued throughout the Middle Ages; Arabic medical writers Rhazes, Serapion the Elder, and ibn Sina all listed it as an abortifacient, and this knowledge was made more readily available throughout Europe when Gerard of Cremona translated their works in the twelfth century. According to ibn Sina, juniper produced an effect similar to a natural miscarriage, so it could be used without detection.

Medievalpreg

Sit and Drink Pennyroyal Tea

Today most people probably know it from the Nirvana song, but pennyroyal tea has been used as an emmenagogue since antiquity. Aristophanes mentioned it in Lysistrata, and it appears in the Eleusinian Mysteries as kykeon, a ritual beverage drunk in the service of goddesses Demeter and Persephone. Pennyroyal is a fairly common variety of mint with a strong spearmint taste, and its abortifacient properties were known globally. One early depiction that leaves little to the imagination is this illustration of a midwife preparing pennyroyal tea for a pregnant woman in the thirteenth century (above). See that herb? That’s pennyroyal.

Clinical studies have proven its efficacy as an abortifacient, however, pennyroyal is extremely toxic, and it would have been very easy to overdose. Still, its potency and availability made it a very popular method of ending pregnancies.

Drinking pennyroyal tea for this purpose was so common by the early twentieth century that Dr. P.F. Braithwaite wrote a piece for the British Medical Journal in October of 1906 detailing one patient’s experience in hopes of dissuading people from trying it:

On August 5th at 8.15 p.m., I was sent for to see a young married woman who had suddenly been taken ill. It appeared that, having gone a week beyond her time for menstruating, she had taken some “pennyroyal tea,” an infusion she had made herself from threepennyworth of pennyroyal, with threepennyworth of rum added to it. This had no effect on her in any way, so, on the evening I saw her she had taken threepennyworth of “essence of pennyroyal,” procured at the nearest herbalist’s, again adding threepennyworth of rum. (…) Ten minutes after swallowing this essence she began to feel strange and started to go upstairs; feeling worse, however, she sat on the bottom step and began to retch. (…) She then became unconscious.

Dr. Braithwaite was able to revive the woman and induced vomiting with a mixture of mustard and hot water just as she was experience confusion and numbness in her extremities. Fortunately, she survived:

In view of the widespread habit, amongst women of the working classes, of taking preparations of pennyroyal, and their firm belief in the harmlessness of it, the case seemed to me worth recording, as serious illness was indubitably caused by it, even though recovery was never, perhaps, in doubt.

Pennyroyal is a kind of mint that is not particularly difficult to grow. It could be purchased around the world, and as Braithwaite mentions here, its concentrated essence was available without prescription at any herbalist’s shop. No longer just a tea, by the early twentieth century, it was an active ingredient in abortifacient pills around the world, as well as a potent insecticide.

Changing Laws

Abortion first became a criminal offence in Britain in 1803 under the Malicious Stabbings or Shooting Act, more commonly known as Lord Ellenborough’s Act. Though the act was mainly concerned with those assaulted by weapons, it officially changed when life was thought to begin—it was no longer at quickening, but conception. This was well before the Church, which not officially rule that life began at conception until 1869. Early stage abortion went from common practice to serious felony overnight. Organizing or abetting an abortion became a capital offense, so doctors who would have previously been sympathetic distanced themselves for their own protection. Once again, women were on their own.

As print media became increasingly accessible, advertisements for various mysterious-sounding women’s remedies began to appear in papers with increasing frequency. While once women might have had to visit the village “wise women” for assistance in identifying and preparing herbs, now those same concoctions were available in pill form through the mail. One popular brand was Widow Welch’s Pills. It would have contained a herbal abortifacient like pennyroyal, and it was sold as a cure for “female obstruction” into the twentieth century.

Similar to Widow Beecham's_pills_advertWelch’s were “French Periodical Pills,” “Farrer’s Catholic Pills,” and “Madame Drunette’s Lunar Pills,” also advertised in newspapers and women’s magazines. As in previous centuries, they were often advertised as menstrual regulators. In 1868, a medical journal writer replied to ads offering relief to women “temporarily indisposed” and discovered that more than half of them were discreetly advertising abortion. Beecham’s Pills (right) were marketed as a laxative from 1842, and the company spent nearly £100,000 on advertising by 1880, boasting that they sold six million boxes annually. Over-the-counter pills with the same active ingredients were available in Britain, Australia, Europe, and North America.

While abortions laws remained restrictive in Britain throughout the nineteenth century, they were not punished so severely in the United States. If caught, terminating a pregnancy within the first few months was at most a misdemeanor. Over-the-counter menstrual regulators like Widow Welch’s did very well in the States, and during the 1860s, abortion services were also available in bigger cities, including New York, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Louisville, Chicago, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, it is estimated that a shocking 25% of all pregnancies in the United States ended in abortion.

Takeaways

Herbal contraception certainly had its drawbacks. For one thing, it wasn’t always effective. For another, it could prove to be fatal. Many herbs succeeded in inducing miscarriage because they were essentially poison taken in low doses. Taking them wouldn’t have been as simple or painless as taking a prescription contraceptive; it’s no coincidence that many early recipes to stimulate menstruation included opium or alcohol for the pain. That people continued to use them for thousands of years despite the risk of kidney failure, damage to the nervous system, cardiac arrest, or death only shows that despite legislation and social stigma, women have always found ways to control their own reproductive destinies.

Abstinence is not a workable solution, and it never has been. If anyone tries to tell you that people in the past simply did not have sex unless it was for procreation and that contraception of any kind didn’t exist, remember Hannah Woolley. Imagine her books selling out, printing after printing until they reached kitchens across Britain and beyond, providing the recipes many women needed but no one ever talked about. Remember that sourcing pennyroyal was as easy as going to the market. Think of Widow Welch’s and the dozens of other over-the-counter menstrual regulators that sold by the millions well into the twentieth century.

People have always liked sex and, for good or ill, found ways to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Sex in history isn’t always as it appears, and even the most devout, respected, well-behaved figures had their secrets.

Jessica Cale

 

Sources

Braithwaite, P. F. “A Case Of Poisoning By Pennyroyal: Recovery.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 2, no. 2388, 1906.

Brundage, James. Sex and Canon Law. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696, Issue 1996.

Burchard of Worms. Decretum (c. 1008).

Burford, EJ. Bawds and Lodgings, a History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675.

Cadden, Joan. Western Medicine and Natural Philosophy. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696, Issue 1996.

Chamberlain, Geoffrey. British Maternal Mortality in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 2006 Nov; 99(11).

Gaddesden, John. Rosa anglica practica medicine. Venice, Bonetus Locatellus, 1516.

Gies, Frances and Joseph. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages.

Hobson, James. Dark Days of Georgian Britain: Rethinking the Regency.

Nelson, Sarah E. “Persephone’s Seeds: Abortifacients and Contraceptives in Ancient Greek Medicine and Their Recent Scientific Appraisal.” Pharmacy in History, vol. 51, no. 2, 2009.

Payer, Pierre J. Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996.

Riddle, John M. Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696, Issue 1996.

Riddle, John M. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West.

Sweet, Victoria. Hildegard of Bingen and the Greening of Medieval Medicine. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 73, no. 3, 1999.

Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History.

Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London: From Roman Londinium to the Swinging City—Lust, Vice, and Desire Across the Ages.

Falloppio, Gabriele. De Morbo Gallico.

Woolley, Hannah. The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight. 1670.

Sex, Contraception, and Abortion in Medieval England

617px-Artemisia_absinthium_(Köhler)

Artemisia absinthum (Wormwood)

Centuries of nostalgic medievalism have given us some funny ideas about sexuality in the Middle Ages. We know religion ruled, no one married for love, and sex was for procreation only…right?

Not so much. When studying the Middle Ages, you need to consider the sources. Every author had a bias and could only write what they saw. Most of our modern ideas about sexuality come from Canon Law, but people did not obey all of the laws of the Church in the Middle Ages any more than they do today. To get a better idea of what life was really like, we have to draw on other sources as well.

Today we’re going to jump into the deep end with medieval contraception and abortion. The popular assumption is that contraception did not exist and abortion must have been a serious crime, if it happened at all. The issue with this argument is that we take for granted that they must have had a similar understanding of pregnancy and a greater sense of religious morality when it came to the issue of contraception and abortion. To get to the bottom of this, we have to throw out these assumptions and start at the beginning.

Sex

Fornication was still a sin, but it was one most were guilty of. When primogeniture became the rule in the eleventh century, it created a whole class of people were unlikely to ever marry. Noble families with multiple children could only pass on their property to the eldest. The rest of the children would remain in the household even as adults until they married other property-holding people or until circumstances changed. Many entered the Church, where marriage and concubinage among the clergy was still common until the twelfth century. Wealthy families might equip younger sons as knights. Knights could not be expected to marry until they inherited property or came by it through other means; most younger sons never married at all. As for daughters, the pool of landed noblemen to marry was pathetically small. With larger families and fewer opportunities for marriage, much of the nobility never married. To assume they all remained celibate in a culture that all but deified love and had a popular handbook for conducting romantic, sexual, and frequently extramarital relationships is naïve at best. (1)

As for the lower classes, marriage was almost a fluid concept. It was common for people to marry in secret, and these marriages were every bit as valid as any performed outside a church. According to Gratian’s Decretum, all it took to make a marriage legal was three things: love, sex, and consent. As long as the love and consent were there, sexual relationships including those with concubines could be considered informal marriages.

Because the line between fornication and legal marriage was a bit blurry, fornication was more or less accepted in practice. Who’s to say the consenting couple did not marry in secret? Many penitentials appearing during and after the twelfth century classified sex outside of marriage as only a minor sin. Members of the Synod of Angers in 1217 stated unequivocally that they personally knew many confessors who gave no penance for it at all. In practice, the Church tolerated fornication as long as there was no adultery being committed.

Prostitution was legal and common. Although the Church did not condone it, this did not stop it from regulating and profiting from it (see Prostitution and the Church in Medieval Southwark). After all, someone had to see to the needs of the scores of unmarried men and those who had entered the Church out of necessity rather than desire. The Church viewed prostitution as a necessary evil. While active sex workers could not be viewed as respectable members of society, they nevertheless performed an important public service.

Outside of the Church, many medieval writers, such as Albertus Magnus and Constantine the African, viewed sex as a crucial component to overall health on equal footing with food, sleep, and exercise. Sexual release was believed to be the best way to get rid of toxic humors and abstinence could lead to weakness, illness, madness, and death. Sexual enjoyment was necessary for men and women, and was an essential component to conception.

Sex happened. Penitentials were distributed throughout the Church to prescribe penance for every vice we can imagine today (and a fair few we can’t). Troubadours sang about it in their filthy, filthy songs. Pregnancy was inevitable and dangerous. So how did they deal with it?

Menstrual Regulators

It sounds obvious, but people in the Middle Ages did not have the same understanding of pregnancy that we have today. As they could not pinpoint the moment of conception, there was no distinction between the prevention of pregnancy (contraception) and the ending of one (abortion). “Remedies to regulate the menstrual cycle” were common and arguably more widely accepted than they are now. Recipes were recorded in medical texts, shared between women, and they appeared in household handbooks. They could be made at home with a few ingredients most women would recognize.

This ninth century recipe appeared in the Lorsch Manuscript, a medical treatise written by Benedictine monks:

A Cure for All Kinds of Stomach Aches
For women who cannot purge themselves, it moves the menses.

8 oz. white pepper
8 oz. ginger
6 oz. parsley
2 oz. celery seeds
6 oz. caraway
6 oz. spignel seeds
2 oz. fennel
2 oz. geranium/ or, giant fennel
8 oz. cumin
6 oz. anise
6 oz. opium poppy

These recipes did not come out of the blue. There is evidence that similar abortifacients had been used as far back as ancient Egypt. Pepper had been used since the Roman period as a contraceptive, and fennel is related to silphium, the ancient plant farmed to extinction for its contraceptive properties. The other ingredients have been found to have antifertility effects, and the opium was used as a sedative. Other similar recipes were employed throughout the period and beyond; menstrual regulators using the same ingredients continued to be sold as late as the nineteenth century.

Juniperus_communis,_Common_juniper_(3543483554)

Juniper

In addition to those mentioned above, artemisa and juniper were both known to inhibit fertility. Artemisia is a genus of plant in the daisy family asteraceae. There are more than two hundred types of artemisia, among them mugwort, tarragon, and wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe centuries later. In the twelfth century, Trotula recommended artemisia as a “menstrual stimulator” and in the thirteenth century, Arnald of Villanova advised taking it with capers for maximum efficacy. Modern medicine has confirmed its use: artemisia inhibits estrogen production and can prevent ovulation much like pharmaceutical contraceptives today.

Artemisia was not without its side effects. Wormwood is a notorious toxin known to cause hallucinations and changes in consciousness. Ingested in large quantities, it can cause seizures and kidney failure. (2)

Juniper had been used as a contraceptive since the Roman period. Pliny the Elder recommended rubbing crushed juniper berries on the penis before sex to prevent conception. Its popularity continued throughout the Middle Ages; Arabic medical writers Rhazes, Serapion the Elder, and ibn Sina all list it as an abortifacient, and this knowledge was made more readily available throughout Europe when Gerard of Cremona translated their words in the twelfth century. According to ibn Sina, juniper produced an effect very similar to a natural miscarriage, and so it could be employed without detection.

Historian John Riddle argues that all women knew which plants inhibited fertility and how to use them effectively. They were under no illusions as to their purpose. Although most of what we know about medieval contraception and abortion does come from medical texts written by men, they would have come by the information from women who were using it on a regular basis.

Morality

In the ancient world and even the early Christian Church, abortion was not considered immoral. Although it is often interpreted differently today, the medieval church followed the guidelines of the Bible in believing that life began at birth (Genesis 2:7). St. Thomas Aquinas argued that souls are created by God, not by man, and that the soul did not enter the body until the infant drew its first breath.

Abortion or “menstrual regulation” was not explicitly mentioned in the Bible except to recommend it in the case of suspected unfaithful wives (Numbers 5:11-31) (3), and whether or not it was immoral in the Middle Ages depended on who was asked.

Burchard of Worms’ Decretum tackled the issue of abortion in the section titled Concerning Women’s Vices. Burchard unequivocally opposed it, but the penance recommended varied. To Burchard, the severity of the sin was not dependent on the act itself, but the status of the woman and the circumstances of conception. The worst crime was that resulting from adultery. For this he orders seven years of abstinence and a lifetime of “tears and humility.” Abortion stemming from fornication was also bad (penance for ten years on fast days), unless the woman was poor or a sex worker (statistically likely). If the woman was poor and acted because she would not be able to feed a child, it was understandable and no penance was prescribed.

Regardless of the Church’s recommendations, abortion was not actually illegal. In fact, the first law that made abortion illegal in the English-speaking world did not come until the Ellenborough Act of 1803, and even that only outlawed abortions obtained by taking “noxious and destructive substances.” It was not until 1869 that the Catholic Church decided that life began at conception.

Conclusions

If there is one thing we should take away from this, it is that when it came to sex, the Middle Ages were not as different from today as we often assume. People married for love, they had sex for fun, and family planning existed and was used more or less effectively. Due to centuries of literature and art portraying the Middle Ages as an idealized time of chastity and moral superiority, we have come to collectively accept a fiction that bears only a passing resemblance to a much more complicated truth.

Through this Contraception in History series, I have tried to show that although reproduction has been the primary purpose of sex throughout history, it was not the only purpose, and people have always found ways to take their reproductive destinies into their own hands.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Brundage, James. Sex and Canon Law. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 33-50.
Burchard of Worms. Decretum (c. 1008).
Burford, EJ. Bawds and Lodgings, a History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. London, Peter Owen, 1976
Cadden, Joan. Western Medicine and Natural Philosophy. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 51-80.
Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. Translated by John Jay Parry. New York, Columbia University Press, 1960
Gaddesden, John. Rosa anglica practica medicine. Venice, Bonetus Locatellus, 1516.
Gies, Frances and Joseph. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages. New York, Harper & Row, 1987
Payer, Pierre J. Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 3-32.
Riddle, John M. Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 261-274.
Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. New York, Stein and Day, 1992

1. See The Art of Courtly Love.

2. Fun fact: Nicholas Culpeper claimed that wormwood was the key to understanding his 1651 book The English Physitian. Unlike the rest of the book, the entry for wormwood is a stream-of-consciousness ramble that reads like someone who was ingesting it at the time.

3. It is very possible the bitter waters in this verse refer to wormwood, a notoriously bitter substance known to induce miscarriage.

If you would like to know more about Contraception in History, see below for the rest of the series:

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

Contraception in History II. Contraception in Ancient Egypt: Hormonal Birth Control, Pregnancy Tests, and Crocodile Dung. 

Contraception in History III. Ancient Birth Control: Silphium and the Origin of the Heart Shape

Contraception in History IV. Minos, Pasiphae, and the Most Metal Euphemism for V.D. Ever

Contraception in History V. “Love’s Pleasing Paths in Blest Security”: Seventeenth Century Condoms

 

Contraception in Ancient Egypt: Hormonal Birth Control, Pregnancy Tests, and Crocodile Dung

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Cleopatra. John William Waterhouse, 1888.

Ancient Egypt was a remarkably advanced society. They had one of the first known written languages, the earliest form of paper, a 365-day calendar, toothpaste, and breath mints. Egyptians even invented eye makeup as far back as 4000 BC by combining soot and galena to create kohl. It was worn by both men and women for status as well to protect the wearer from the evil eye.

Preferring small families, they also invented enough different methods of contraception that you’d be forgiven for wondering if someone in a TARDIS gifted them with the secrets of the universe (or at least a modern health textbook).

For those who were really serious about avoiding pregnancy, hieroglyphs from the second century CE recommend castration for either gender. Surgeries such as the ovariotomy (the removal of the ovaries) were also available, if mercifully rare.

Most people depended on much less invasive forms of contraception. One of the most common was spermicide administered in a sort of tampon made of linen and soaked in acidic oils. Some minerals found in the water also had spermicidal properties when mixed with sour milk, which had the added benefit of making the vagina more acidic to make conception less likely.

Pessaries blocking the entrance to the cervix altogether could be made from the sap of the acacia tree, another natural substance with proven spermicidal properties. The modern equivalent of this would be using a diaphragm with nonoxynol-9. For a back-up method, certain plant extracts could be eaten to alter hormonal balance and inhibit ovulation, much like the birth control pills used today.

For the more adventurous woman, a medical papyrus from 1850 BCE assures us that: “Crocodile dung mixed with honey and placed in the vagina of a woman prevents contraception…”

I can only assume that this one worked by putting all parties off of sex altogether.

Unfortunately, the Egyptians had not yet invented statistics to help us to quantify the success rate of these methods, but in the event that they failed, the recipes for herbal abortificients were passed down from generation to generation.

If all of this isn’t mind-blowing enough, the Egyptians even had the first urine-based pregnancy test. Women were told to pee on some barley and emmer every day and if they grew, she was pregnant. Amazingly enough, modern tests have actually confirmed that this was a fairly accurate way to detect pregnancy.

Sadly, this kind of pregnancy test fell into disuse and the next one was not introduced until 1929.

Condoms even existed, but they were more for show than contraception. Many have been found in the tombs of aristocrats for use in the next world. Fully prepared for one crazy party, they were entombed with sheaths made of animal skin dyed bright colors and trimmed in fur.

Also strap-ons made of mother of pearl. You know, just in case.

 Jessica Cale

“Love’s Pleasing Paths in Blest Security”: Seventeenth Century Condoms

William_Hogarth_-_After_-_Google_Art_Project

After. William Hogarth, 1730.

As you’re reading my series, you might notice that condoms (or “cundums”) are present. “Now, Jess,” you might be thinking to yourself, “I know you’re obsessed with contraception, but were people really using condoms in 1671?”

Yes, reader. Yes, they were.

The invention of modern condoms has been attributed to many people, and one of the front runners was Gabriele Fallopio (three guesses what he gave his name to) who recommended linen sheaths soaked in salt and herbs to prevent disease in his De Morbo Gallico (1564), a treatise against syphilis (translation: About the French Disease).

He was hardly the first person to use them for this purpose. Condoms have been used in various forms as far back as ancient Egypt (and beyond, if you believe that cave painting). By the Restoration, a Colonel Quondam, believed to have been a physician in the Royalist army, was rumored to have invented one made of animal gut for the notoriously amorous Charles II.

The first known mention of using sheep’s innards as a barrier method dates back to Minos, but we’ll let him have this one.

The process of producing condoms made of sheep intestines was lengthy. In The Sexual History of London, Catharine Arnold writes:

4a54b-condom2b1640

This is a condom from 1640. Check your expiration dates, folks.

“(The) process involved soaking sheep’s intestines in water for a number of hours, then turning them inside out and macerating them again in a weak alkaline solution, changed every twelve hours. The intestines were then scraped carefully to remove the mucous membrane, leaving the peritoneal and muscular coats, and exposed to the vapor of burning brimstone. Next they were washed in soap and water, inflated, dried, and cut into eight-inch lengths. Finally, the open end was finished with a ribbon that could be tied around the base of the penis, and the condom had to be soaked in water to make it supple before use. After use, it could be washed and hung up to dry, ready for another excursion.”

Condoms became incredibly popular and were even lauded by the Earl of Rochester in 1667 as a protection against both disease and pregnancy in his Panegyrick Upon Cundums:

Happy the Man, who in his Pocket keeps,
Whether with green or scarlet Ribband bound,
A well made Cundum — He, nor dreads the Ills
Of Shankers or Cordee, or Bubos dire!”
Thrice happy he — (for when in lewd Embrace
Of Transport-feigning Whore, Creature obscene!
The cold insipid Purchase of a Crown!
Bless’d Chance! Sight seldom seen! and mostly given
By Templar or Oxonian — Best Support
Of Drury and her starv’d Inhabitants

He later died of syphilis.

Rochester definitely had the right idea, but at the time, there was a popular belief that venereal disease could not be spread between men, so some men took to entertaining themselves with their own sex to avoid disease, with small groups even swearing off women altogether. That sounds like a great excuse to me and will be the subject of an altogether different post.

But we’ll get there.

In the meantime, you can read Rochester’s Panegyrick Upon Cundums in its entirety here, and I recommend you do. It’s amazing. I’ll leave you with another little excerpt. Rochester makes a guest appearance in Tyburn, and Sally could be somewhere in this passage:

That when replete with Love, and spur’d by Lust,
You seek the Fair-one in her Cobweb Haunts,
Or when allur’d by Touch of passing Wench,
Or caught by Smile insidious of the Nymph
Who in Green Box at Playhouse nightly flaunts,
And fondly calls thee to Love’s luscious Feast,
Be cautious, stay a while ’till fitly arm’d
With Cundum Shield, at Rummer best supply’d,
Or never-failing Rose; so you may thrum
Th’ ecstatic Harlot, and each joyous Night
Crown with fresh Raptures; ’till at least unhurt,
And sated with the Banquet, you retire.
By me forwarn’d thus may you ever treat
Love’s pleasing Paths in blest Security.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London: From Roman Londinium to the Swinging City—Lust, Vice, and Desire Across the Ages.

Fallopio, Gabriele. De Morbo Gallico.

Wilmot, John. A Panegyrick upon Cundums.

Previously published on authorjessicacale.com

Ancient Birth Control: Silphium and the Origin of the Heart Shape

Cyrene_and_Cattle_-_Edward_Calvert

Cyrene and the Cattle, Edward Calvert. Beloved of Apollo, Cyrene was the mythological namesake of Cyrene in Libya.

Silphium was a type of giant fennel that grew in Cyrenaica (present-day Libya) between the sixth century BCE and the first century CE. It was so central to the economy of Cyrene that most of their coins had images of the plant or its seeds. It was delicious, smelled wonderful, and could treat everything from sore throats and indigestion to snake bites and epilepsy. It was its other uses, however, that made it famous and caused its eventual extinction.

Silphium was known throughout the Mediterranean as a highly effective contraceptive and abortifacient. It was regarded as “worth its weight in silver,” and was believed to be a gift of Apollo. The Egyptians and the Knossos Minoans had a special glyph for it. Even Catullus, my favorite of all of the classical perverts, alluded to it in his naughty, naughty poems:

You ask, Lesbia, how many kisses might
You give to satisfy me and beyond.
Greater than the number of African sands that
Lie in silphum-bearing Cyrene between the
Sacred sepulcher of ancient Battus
And the oracle of agitated Jove,
Or than the many stars that, when night
Is still, see the secret loves of men.
It is enough and beyond to love-stricken
Catullus for you to kiss so many kisses
Which neither busybodies can count,
Nor can evil tongues curse. (Catullus 7)

Apollo_Kitharoidos_BM_1380

Apollo Kitharoidos from Cyrene. Silphium was thought to be a gift from Apollo. You’re welcome.

Pausanius’ Description of Greece leaves little doubt as to what it was used for in his story of Dioscuri meeting Phormion’s daughter:

“By the next day this maiden and all her girlish apparel had disappeared, and in the room were found images of the Dioscuri, a table, and silphium upon it.”

Given the fact that the plant looked more or less like a big modern-day fennel, it probably wasn’t there for decorative purposes.

Women were commonly advised to mix the juice from a small amount of silphium with water to “regulate their menstrual cycles”. Silphium water was also effective when applied to wool and used as a pessary. Its effectiveness was unquestioned and may even help to explain the exceptionally low birth rates in Ancient Rome. (The other explanation? Lead poisoning. See Contraception in History, Part I)

Unfortunately, silphium was a very temperamental plant and could only really grow on one narrow coastal area about a hundred miles long. That doesn’t sound like so much when you consider that this plant provided contraception to much of the ancient world. It was thought to be farmed to extinction within six hundred years.

Although Pliny the Elder reported the plant extinct by the first century CE, we have not been able to positively identify it, so it is impossible to know for certain whether this is truly the case or if it was as effective as it was believed to be. Related plants have been used for similar purposes over the years with mixed results. Asafoetida was once used as a poor substitute, but these days it has been consigned to the spice rack.

Silphium

Ancient coin from Cyrene depicting a silphium seed

Many explanations have been given for the origins of the heart symbol over the years. Actual human hearts are not particularly heart-shaped, and as for the upside-down heart shape of a woman’s arse? Please. One more likely explanation is that it comes from the image of the silphium seed that was etched onto coins and known by sight throughout the Mediterranean world. If there was a plant you could eat that provided effective contraception without otherwise killing you, you’d want to know what it looked like, too.

And what does it look like? A heart. (right) 

Upside-down arse, indeed!

Jessica Cale

Sources

Bellows, Alan. The Birth Control of Yesteryear.

Catullus, Poem 7.

Pausanias, Description of Greece.

Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories.

[An earlier version of this appeared on authorjessicacale.com.] 

Syphilis: Zoonotic Pestilence or New World Souvenir?

mercury preparation for syphilis

Depiction of mercury treatments for syphilis.

The “French Disease”

In 1494, France was at war with Naples when the French camp was struck by a terrible disease.
It began with genital sores, spread to a general rash, then caused abscesses and scabs all over the body. Boils as big as acorns, they said, that burst leaving rotting flesh and a disgusting odour. Sufferers also had fever, headaches, sore throats, and painful joints and bones. The disease was disabling, ugly, and terrifying. And people noticed almost from the first that it (usually) started on the genitals, and appeared to be spread by sexual congress.

The Italian kingdoms joined forces and threw out the French, who took the disease home with them, and from there it spread to plague the world until this day.

Where did it come from?

Syphilis. The French Disease. The Pox. The Great Imitator (because it looks like many other illnesses and is hard to diagnose). The French call it the Neopolitan Disease. It is caused by a bacterium that is closely related to the tropical diseases yaws and bejel.

Scientists theorise that somewhere in the late 15th Century, perhaps right there in the French camp outside of Naples, a few slightly daring yaws bacteria found the conditions just right to change their method of transmission. No longer merely skin-to-skin contact, but a very specific type of contact: from sores to mucus membranes in the genitals, anus, or mouth.

They’ve found a couple of possible sources.

One was the pre-Columbian New World, where yaws was widespread. Did one of Columbus’s sailors carry it back? It would have had to have been the first or second voyage to be outside of Naples in 1494.

The other is zoonotic. Six out of every ten human infectious diseases started in animals. Was syphilis one of them? Monkeys in Africa suffer from closely related diseases, at least one of which is sexually transmitted.

Gerard de Lairesse

Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse. Rembrandt, 1665. Gerard de Lairesse was an artist who suffered from congenital syphilis.

Mild is a relative term

At first, syphilis killed sufferers within a few months, but killing the host immediately is a bad strategy when you’re a bacterium. Especially when you’re a frail little bacterium that can’t live outside of warm, moist mucus membranes.

So, syphilis adapted. Soon, few people died immediately. The first sore (or chancre) appears between ten days to three months after contact. About ten weeks after it heals, the rash appears, and the other symptoms mentioned above. These symptoms last for several weeks and tend to disappear without treatment, but reoccur several times over the next two years.

For more than half of sufferers, that’s it. The disease has run its course. But it is a sneaky little thing. It is still lurking, and a third or more of those who contract the disease will develop late complications up to thirty years after the original chancre. These are the ones to fear. During the latent phase, the disease is cheerfully eating away at the heart, eyes, brain, nervous system, bones, joints, or almost any other part of the body.

The sufferer can look forward to years, even decades, of mental illness, blindness, other neurological problems, or heart disease, and eventually the blessed relief of death.

How was it treated?

Until the invention of antibiotics, the treatment was as bad as the cure. Physicians and apothecaries prescribed mercury in ointments, steam baths, pills, and other forms. Mercury is a poison, and can
cause hair loss, ulcers, nerve damage, madness, and death. (see image above)

Syphilis was the impetus for the adoption of condoms, their birth control effect noticed later and little regarded (since conception was a woman’s problem). The first clear description is of linen sheaths soaked in a chemical solution and allowed to dry before use. Animal intestines and bladder, and fine leather condoms also appear in the literature.

They were sold in pubs, apothecaries, open-air markets, and at the theatre, and undoubtedly every wise prostitute kept a stock.

Not having sex—or at least not having sex with multiple partners—would have been a more effective solution, but it appears few of society’s finest took notice of that!

Syphilis in romantic fiction

Those of us who write rakes would do well to remember how easy it was to catch the pox. Indeed, in some circles it was a rite of passage!

“I’ve got the pox!” crowed the novelist de Maupassant in his 20s. “At last! The real thing!” He did his part as a carrier by having sex with six prostitutes in quick succession while friends watched on. (Perrottet)

The mind boggles.

We can, I am sure, have fun with the symptoms and the treatment, though we’d do well to remember that it was not an immediate death sentence, and suicide might be considered an overreaction to the first active stage, when most people got better and were never troubled again.

Scattered across a few of the books I’m writing, I have my own syphilitic character in the final stage, suffering from slow deterioration of his mental facilities and occasional bouts of madness, though his condition is a secret from all but his wife, his doctor, and his heir.

Watch this space!

Jude Knight is the pen name of Judy Knighton. After a career in commercial writing, editing, and publishing, Jude is returning to her first love, fiction. She writes strong determined heroines, heroes with the sense to appreciate them, and villains you’ll love to loathe.

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References

Cohen, Ann and Perlin, David. Syphilis: A Sexual Scourge with a Long History. Infoplease.

Harper, Kristen, Zuckerman, Molly, and Armelagos, George. Syphilis: Then and Now. The Scientist. 

Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. Syphilis. 

Mroczkowski, Tomasz F. History, Sex and Syphilis: Famous Syphilitics and Their Private Lives.

Perrottet, Tony. When Syphilis Was Tres Chic. The Smart Set. 

Syphilis: Genius, Madness, and The Sickness of Naples

Syphilis. Woodcut series, 1496. The Virgin Mary
and Christ child bless the afflicted.

I don’t mind telling you that I’ve been looking forward to this post. As you’ve probably noticed by now, I’m very interested in sex and contraception in history, so the history of venereal diseases is kind of where I live. Syphilis is my favorite. 

Okay, so if you were on the fence, now you’ve probably decided that I’m completely mental. How can someone have a favorite venereal disease? Stick with me here! Syphilis helped to shape the modern world through the measures taken to prevent it (such as the development condoms), and the effects it had on the mental health of influential people, both good and bad. No other venereal disease, as far as I’m aware, has ever been accused (with some justification) of creating genius

So let’s take a look. 

History

The first known case of syphilis was documented by Dr. Pintor in 1493 in Rome. He called it the Morbus Gallicus (The French Disease), and assumed that it had been carried to Italy by the French Army. When the French began to notice it, they called it mal de Naples (the sickness of Naples). Emperor Maximilian officially referred to it as malum franciscum in 1495, (1,3) but soon it was known by an altogether simpler name: 

The Pox. 

It was called this because of the noticeable effects the disease had on the skin of the afflicted, leaving lesions and decaying soft tissues that were sometimes mistaken for leprosy. The name syphilis comes from a Greek legend about a peasant Apollo had punished with poor health and lesions all over his body: the peasant’s name was Syphilus, and he could only be cured (rather chillingly) by Mercury. (1)

Syphilis. Durer, 1496.

The Disease

The first stage was a chancre on or near the genitals, followed by rashes and open sores during the second. The afflicted would experience pain with erection, swelling of the lymph glands, splitting headaches, and other pains throughout the body. At this point, the soft tissues of the nose and palate could begin to rot, and the teeth and hair would loosen and fall out. (3) Lesions and tumors could consume the nasal bones and the tissues of the face until the flesh was literally falling from the bones, sometimes even leaving the brain exposed to open air. (1,3)

If this stage was survived, the disease could lie dormant for up to 30 years, but could still be easily transmitted. If one was lucky enough to make it until the third and final stage of syphilis, they could look forward to madness and paralysis. 

It was seen as primarily a male problem, but no one was safe from it. It was often passed to unsuspecting spouses (and any children conceived) during periods of remission. (2) Often asymptomatic, it could go unnoticed for years, and could be passed on without any sexual contact at all; from parents to children, and from wet nurses to infants. It could even be transmitted through kissing or sharing cups. (1)

It was incredibly contagious and impossible to cure, and some historians estimate that as many as a fifth of the population may have been infected at any one time. (1)

Treatment

Syphilis was treated at the second stage with mercury in every form from enemas, ointments, and pills to steam baths or “sweats” in mercury vapor. This treatment was somewhat successful, although it was known even at the time to cause madness. Less common treatments included confining the afflicted to a sweat room to breathe guaiac vapor, “excising the sores and cauterizing the wounds,” and celibacy aided by the placement of nettles in one’s codpiece. (1)

Syphilis. Woodcut Series, 1496.


Where did it come from?

It is generally believed that Columbus had brought the disease back with him from the Americas. It existed in the Americas before Columbus arrived, and the timing certainly was convenient. Some Renaissance thinkers suspected it had something to do with astrology (see right and above left), while others thought it was derived from leprosy. Francis Bacon believed that it was a result of cannibalism. (1)

Outbursts of Genius and Madness

The tertiary stage of syphilis is well known to cause mental issues including creative genius and paranoid madness. Many of history’s greatest personalities had the disease, such as Cesare Borgia, Casanova, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, and Beau Brummell, but so did larger-than-life figures such as Henry VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte, Ivan the Terrible, and maybe even Hitler. The jury’s out on how much influence the disease has on the creative process, but the manic bursts of divine inspiration it is known to have caused certainly must have had some effect on Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Keats, Manet, Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant, and possibly Oscar Wilde. (2)

Was syphilis at least partially responsible for some of history’s greatest works of art? Maybe. Whichever side we choose in that particular debate, we can at least appreciate the prevalence of syphilis led to the development and popularization of condoms, and that’s no small achievement. 

Syphilis is actually a subject that comes up a couple of times in The Southwark Saga. Sally’s (fictional) friend, Bettie, has it in Tyburn, and so does his crush, the very non-fictional Earl of Rochester. In Virtue’s Lady, Lord Lewes, Jane’s betrothed, has it, and has buried multiple wives and children because of it. No wonder she wants to run away! It’s by no means a huge part of either book, but with one in five people in London being afflicted by it at any one point in time, it would be weird not to mention it.

For a really fantastic article on this subject, be sure to read Sarah Dunant’s piece, Syphilis, sex and fear: How the French disease conquered the world in the Guardian. 

You can also read Gabriello Fallopio’s 1564 treatise against syphilis, De Morbo Gallico (translation: About the French disease) online here.

Sources

1. Catharine Arnold, The Sexual History of London. 
2. Deborah Hayden, The Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis.
3. Liza Picard, Restoration London.

Contraception in History IV: Minos, Pasiphae, and the Most Metal Euphemism for V.D. Ever

One of the earliest mentions of condoms as we know them dates back to 150 CE to Antoninus Liberalis’ telling of the legend of Minos and Pasiphae. 

Pasiphae and the Minotaur
Minos was the mythological king of Knossos and the son of Zeus and Europa. He is probably best known for the labyrinth he used to feed children to the Minotaur, the lovechild (lovebeast?) his wife had with a particularly good-looking bull. Every nine years he would put fourteen Athenian children into the labyrinth to get lost and eventually eaten by this giant bull-creature until the Minotaur was eventually killed by Theseus with the help of Minos’ human daughter, Ariadne. 

His wife, Pasiphae, was the immortal daughter of Helios. As the daughter of the sun god, she had magical powers, and used these to cast a spell on Minos when she discovered he had been unfaithful to her. Instead of just turning him into a frog or a better-looking bull, she cursed him to have serpents and scorpions in his semen. 

(This was in no way an explanation for something nasty he picked up from one of his many, many lovers.**)

The idea was that the serpents and scorpions would kill his other lovers (and they did), but that Pasiphae would be protected because she was immortal. 

She also had a condom made out of a goat’s bladder. 

The goat’s bladder was used as female condom because it was put inside Pasiphae to protect her from the killer scorpions, as opposed to protecting Minos from her. It was used to prevent the spread of infection rather than pregnancy, and condoms would continue to be used mainly to protect men from contracting diseases for centuries.

Pasiphae managed to conceive while using the goat’s bladder as a sort of scorpion-filter, though why anyone would want to have kids with that guy is beyond me. King of Crete or not, he cheated on her, imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus as a thank you for building him a labyrinth, and kept her half-beast son in a weird basement where he fed him live children.

All things considered, I can see why that bull might have seemed like a good idea at the time. 

**That’s exactly what this was.

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.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

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?

firstcondompicture

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.