Today, I am pleased to welcome Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety, authors of “The Medieval Vagina: An Hysterical and Historical Look at All Things Vaginal During the Middle Ages.”
Blood, which the warrior/hunter man of ancient times associated with injury and death, took on a paradoxical quality in women. This blood meant life, though this may not have been widely known in medieval times. What was known was that menstrual blood was a powerful and toxic substance, laden with an evil, magical quality. As with many other aspects of life, the object of a society’s fear and ignorance became the subject of myths and legends which, of course, did nothing to advance scientific and medical inquiry. These stories and legends served only to perpetuate the idea that womanly blood held sinister magic, thus reinforcing the wide held belief that all females should be handled with suspicion and kept in a subservient role.
We can trace back much of the misconceptions about menstrual blood back to the first century writings of Pliny the Elder, a man who claimed to have a deep understanding of the female body. His ideas, as crazy as they seem today, were viewed as indisputable facts for centuries. He claimed that contact with menstrual blood could wreak all sorts of havoc including cause rust on bronze and iron objects, drive dogs mad, turn wine sour, kill off hives of bees, cause unripe fruit to fall from the trees, turn sharp blades dull, and shrivel seedlings.
Always an enterprising philosopher, Pliny even proposed harnessing the poisonous power of female menses for the greater good. He suggested that menstruating women stroll around the farmers’ field stark naked, using their evil, bloody power to kill off the destructive worms, beetles, mice, and moths. This idea, he claimed, was taken from unnamed ancient writings he once read in which plagues of insects were banished by hordes of menstruating women who did nothing more than walk through the streets with their skirts hiked up to their waists.
Pliny the Elder can’t be blamed for all of the falsehoods that surrounded menstruating women in medieval times. There were certainly plenty of other myths and rumors circulating that supported the idea that menstrual blood was powerful magic. Menstrual blood was thought to be corrosive in nature; therefore it could eat through a man’s penis if he were tempted to engage in sexual intercourse at an inappropriate time of the month. Another popularly held belief was that if a couple had sex while the woman was on her period, the resulting child would be dim-witted, puny and red-headed. Menstruating women were blamed for cases of medieval Sudden Infant Death Syndrome for it was thought they could poison a sleeping infant with just their mere proximity.
Medieval medical lore was concerned not only with the existence of menstrual discharge but the quantity of it as well. Too much or too little monthly flow was to blame for a range of problems. A heavy flow, for example, could drown a man’s seed and lead to stillborn babies or malformed fetuses. Light or absent periods could cause a woman to become too masculine, flat-chested and barren. This was seen as such a pressing problem that numerous medical texts of the Middle Ages devoted pages to remedies that could bring on menstrual bleeding, although some scholars contend that these recipes could also be viewed as euphemisms for contraception or drug-induced abortions. If a medieval woman sought to induce menstruation, she was advised to drink any one of a variety of concoctions such as rue, savin and hyssop, figs, garlic seeds, St. John’s wort, myrrh, Shepard’s purse, or Bishop’s weed. If that didn’t work, these same ingredients could be made into a pessary and inserted into the vagina. Saffron and hazelnuts were also used to make pessaries. With all of these, very specific directions were carefully outlined to ensure success. Rue, for example, could be safely consumed in the evening but could be deadly if drank in the morning.
Monthly bleed, at least from a Christian standpoint, was seen as a curse bestowed on all females as punishment for Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Every drop of menstrual blood was a reminder that all women, beginning with the very first woman, are untrustworthy, manipulative liars. The folklore and myths that sprang forth from this attitude only served to foster the misogynistic beliefs of the day.
Men have always been rather skittish when it comes to womanly bleeding and this is especially true of the medieval man. Menstruation was eyed with fear and disgust and these attitudes transformed into myths and misconceptions. And in keeping with the prevailing beliefs of the time, these misconceptions contained more than a hint of misogyny. Menstruation, rather than being viewed as a requirement for procreation or tangible proof of fertility, was seen as a byproduct of the sinister, evil ways of the woman.
Karen Harris is a college instructor by day and a writer by night. Writing offers Karen a chance to dabble in her other areas of interest, including history and science. She has written numerous freelance articles and feature stories for publication. She is a hobby farmer, environmental volunteer, and advocate for volunteer firefighters.
Lori Caskey-Sigety started writing in 1991. She hasn’t stopped. Her writing includes blogs, book reviews, essays, lyrics, plays, poems, and puppet shows. Lori has authored two poetry books, and her other works have appeared in Wildfire Magazine, Orlo, Indiana Libraries, and Public Libraries. She is an artist, college instructor, librarian, and musician.
In the Middle Ages much like today, the vagina conjured fear and repulsion, yet it held an undeniable allure. In the Medieval Vagina, the authors explore this paradox while unearthing medieval myths, attitudes and contradictions surrounding this uniquely feminine and deeply mysterious organ.
What euphemisms did medieval people have for the vagina? Did medieval women use birth control? How was rape viewed in the Middle Ages? How was the vagina incorporated into literature, poetry, music, and art? How did medieval women cope with menstruation? The Medieval Vagina delves into these topics, and others, while introducing the reader to a collection of fascinating medieval women – Pope Joan, Lady Frances Howard, Margery Kempe, Sister Benedetta Carlini, and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath – who all shaped our view of the medieval vagina.
The Medieval Vagina takes a quick-paced, humorous peek into the medieval world; a time when religious authority combined with newly emerging science and medicine, classic literature, and folklore to form a deeply patriarchal society. It may have been a man’s world, but the vagina triumphed over oppression and misogyny.