5 Birth Control Methods In The Medieval Period

How did people avoid pregnancy in a period where extra and pre-marital sex was condemned? Read on to discover five methods of birth control in the Medieval Period.

Jul 27, 2021By Philippa Ogden
5 birth control methods medieval period
Birth scene with a midwife presenting the newborn to the mother, 1490, British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts; with a standing physician and pregnant woman, c. 1285, British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

 

The study of history highlights the differences and disparity of knowledge between the past and the present, yet certain practices across all cultures have remained unchanged. What unites all individuals, for example, is our need to eat, stay hydrated, and procreate. Whether they are enacted out of necessity or for the sole purpose of pleasure, this trio exists as some of life’s most obvious bare necessities and form the robust foundations for the continuation of a population. This article will speak to different forms of birth control in the Medieval Period, a form of medicine that societies continue to dispute today.

 

When considering sex in history, there tends to be a rather generalist view that it was a taboo subject. Past societies had limited knowledge pertaining to contraception, birth control, and even the act of sexual intercourse itself. Though comprehension of these subjects was undoubtedly less compared to the present day, the notion that people in the past were uninformed is simply not true.

 

One era particularly demonstrative of this notion is the Medieval period, where medicine (including sexual medicine) is typically considered as something that was dictated by superstition and magic and practiced by occupations tinged with elements of the fantastical such as herbalists, witches, quacks, and charlatans.

 

medieval period medical herbs
Image showing various herbs, with a display of their medicinal and occult qualities, 1850, The Wellcome Collection

 

However, this is incorrect. Medieval historians have extensively studied sex and contraception, while the critical examination of contemporary sources from this period has demonstrated that society had a relatively good understanding of these topics and employed an extensive range of birth control practices.

 

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Despite certain artistic and literary representations that suggest otherwise, the idea that all of society abided by Canon law and engaged in sex for procreational purposes is not true.

 

In a time that pedaled ideas of chivalry and romanticism yet simultaneously made marriage unattainable for many due to factors such as larger families, primogeniture, and pressure to work within the church, it is unrealistic to assume that everyone stayed celibate. Similarly to today, a large proportion of society in the Medieval period would have engaged in both extra-marital and other forms of “sinful” sex for lots of different reasons. Prostitution, for example, is an ancient practice that was legal, and concubinage amongst clergy was present until as late as the 12th century.

 

Birth Control Methods In The Medieval Period

miniature marriage illuminated manuscript medieval period
Minature of a marriage, 13th-14th century, British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

 

With such a high rate of sex going on, this raises an obvious question: What birth control methods were being used in the Medieval period?  Read on to discover the various physical and herbal ways that women in this period attempted to avoid unwanted pregnancy.

 

5. Menstrual Regulation

artemisia illuminated manuscript
Miniature of artemisia, or mugwort, c. 1390-1404, British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

 

Given that lack of menstruation is one of the main symptoms of pregnancy, it is no wonder that it features in some birth control methods. Even now, there are apps invented for women to input their days of menstruation in order to tell when they are most fertile, and by proxy, when they are most likely to fall pregnant when having unprotected sex.

 

In the Medieval period, women managed their periods similarly. They used them as a marker to establish whether contraception has been successful. However, as they could not ascertain the exact moment of conception, there was no distinction between preventing pregnancy through contraception or ending one through abortion. Instead, remedies to “evoke the menses” were widely used. Recipes for various concoctions to essentially encourage abortion were shared between women and even were present in some household handbooks.

 

These would have been particularly popular, as they were normally made from a variation of household or easily sourced ingredients. Whilst some ingredients would have had little effect; many remedies contained particular herbs or plants that to this day are recommended as avoided by pregnant women due to their potency and potential as a fertility inhibitor. These included ingredients such as parsley, Queen Anne’s lace and pennyroyal. Other herbs and spices commonly used included arum, opium, artemisia, pepper, licorice, and peony which were mixed with varying levels of complexity and incorporated methods such as straining and steeping.

 

4. Physical Barriers

portrait avicenna birth control methods
Portrait of Avicenna, Wellcome Collection,

 

Similar to the condoms used today, physical methods were greatly relied on as a method of birth control in the Medieval period. In addition to being the ingredients that were stirred, steeped, and sprinkled into ingestible remedies, herbs were also recognized as physical barriers against conception and used as pessaries. In the eleventh century medical encyclopedia, the Canon of Medicine Avicenna, recommends inserting mint within the cervix before engaging in intercourse.

 

Although stuffing herbs in such a delicate area are unfathomable by today’s standards, it does indicate that people had a relatively good understanding of the female anatomy in relation to conception. The cervix, after all, remains a key area that modern birth control is orientated around and is the space to which an IUD (intrauterine device) is inserted.

 

3. Spermicide

miniature bees honeycomb
Miniature of a marabium, or white horehound plant and bees on a honeycomb, illustrating mel, or honey, c. 1280- c. 1310, British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

 

The recognition that physical barriers minimize the risk of pregnancy also prompted the creation of early forms of spermicide within the Medieval period. A far cry away from modern spermicides of today that use the chemical nonoxynol-9 as the active ingredient, the medieval equivalent recommended mixtures made from pulped plants, leaves, and even animal dung. The Canon of Medicine Avicenna, for example, referred to cedar as something which “corrupts sperm” and thus “prohibits impregnation.” Such unconventional methods are also echoed in other, non-medical texts of the period such as Chaucer’s Parsons Tale where the ingestion of specific herbs and placement of tangible barriers to stop conception are presented as a sin.

 

Other vaginal contraceptives employed in the Medieval period included inserts of cloth soaked in honey or vinegar. The belief in various sweeteners and fermented fruits as effective birth control methods can be traced as far back to the Egyptian period, where a spermicidal recipe from 1521 BC directed the reader to “mix grated Acacia leaves and honey and soak a gauze to be inserted into the vagina.” Although peculiar to the modern ears, this unconventional concoction may have been fairly successful due to both the stickiness of the honey, which would prevent sperm motility, and the acacia lactic acid present in the sap, which is effective as a spermicide.

 

2. Concealment 

l escoles des filles birth control methods
Frontispiece and title page for an edition of L’ Escole des Filles ou la Philosophie des Dames, (falsely) dated 1668, Biblio Curiosa

 

Another birth control method in the Medieval period was less preventative, and more about damage control by concealing both pregnancy and birth. Pregnancy out of wedlock was very much condemned by the church and would have tarnished most women’s reputation and chances of marrying well. This, therefore, meant many felt pressured to hide the fact they were with a child or had given birth.

 

For example, in the 17th-century French libertine novel  L’ecole des filles, a woman is presented as telling a sixteen-year-old girl about sex education. When the subject of pregnancy arises, instead of emphasizing any contraceptives, she instead states:

 

“[…] moreover, to remove any worry, there is one more thing to consider, it is that this mishap is not so extraordinary that one should fear it so much. There are so many pregnant girls who never attract notice, thanks to certain corsets and dresses made to order, which they use, and which do not prevent them from having a good time with those who made them pregnant.” 

 

Following this perspective of pregnancy as little more than an inconvenience, the woman then goes onto list the varying ways in which the physical symptoms of pregnancy, and birth itself, can be accounted for, explaining: “[…] and during that interval, you can simulate illness, trips, pilgrimages. When the time comes, you will identify a midwife who is obliged in conscience to keep the fact hidden.” The woman concludes that by following the instructions, the child would eventually be taken away and the mother can resume her pre-child life and “be merry as a lark.” 

 

Of course, this perspective of pregnancy and birth represents a  particular middle-class experience and offers insight into the privilege that money offered women who found themselves with an unwanted pregnancy. The options and reality for the majority of working-class women in the Medieval period were far more limited as they could not afford the luxury of simply purchasing a new, larger dress or going abroad for nine months. As such, there was no way to hide, and it was unlikely that they could emerge unscathed and unjudged in a period where both the church and society continued to vilify illegitimate birth and the women associated.  Pregnancy for most women had to be managed or hidden and often resulted in sad cases of infanticide.

 

1. The Catholic Church

birth scene with a midwife presenting the newborn to the mother
Detail of a historiated initial ‘C'(um), with a birth scene with a midwife presenting the newborn to the mother, 1490, British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

 

Although it is unrealistic that most of society remained celibate, there would have been a small proportion of people in the Medieval period who avoided unwanted pregnancies by avoiding sex outside of marriage. As the church viewed sex as a necessity to procreation, extra-marital or sex before marriage was not encouraged and had social repercussions not only for the parents but the child too, whereby in many cases they would not have been seen as legitimate. Therefore religion in this context, acted as a form of contraception as it played a huge part in influencing people’s personal decisions regarding their body and sex.

 

Religious values also were a factor in when people chose to have sex. Just as people consciously come off birth control when trying for a child, it also dictated for many, when sex was appropriate. To this date, the Catholic Church sees procreation as an essential of marriage, and entering into an intentionally childless invalidates its sacrament. This is a view dating back as far as Pope Gregory IX and his decretal dating between the early and mid-thirteenth century, which states that marriages with the intent to avoid offspring were null.

 

Sex Education In The Medieval Period

standing physician pregnant woman medieval period
Detail of historiated initial ‘P'(our) of a standing physician and pregnant woman, c. 1285, British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

 

Although this period’s general knowledge of sex education and anatomy may be limited compared to the modern-day, they nevertheless had a good understanding of how pregnancy could potentially be avoided. As has been explored, there was a wide variety of both physical and moral birth control methods employed by Medieval society in bids to regulate their bodies, prevent pregnancy and ultimately, have some control over their fate.

 

If you enjoy discovering more about the Medieval period, check out our article on five of the most impressive Medieval Castles, and find out why Baby Jesus was portrayed in a particular stylistic way within this period here.



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By Philippa OgdenPhilippa Ogden has a passion for history and holds a MA in the History of Medicine from Newcastle University. She is particularly interested in perceptions of the body within the early modern period. In her spare time, she is a keen musician who plays old-time and bluegrass fiddle in her hometown of North-East England.