Which contraceptives in the Middle Ages?

In the Middle Ages, the laws of men and those of God were clear: contraception and abortion were strictly prohibited. Yet, women and men in medieval times tried in various ways to regulate their fertility.

In Historia Hominis


Reporting frequency

Let us briefly recall that the Church was in medieval times a moral authority strong enough to regulate the intimate life of populations. It therefore imposes rules controlling sexual relations: these are only tolerated if they are motivated by the desire to procreate, marital duty and the search for pleasure. Among the rules that the Church establishes, there is one in particular which makes it possible to reduce the number of children effectively and without danger: abstinence.

Abstinence within the married couple was indeed imposed by a very strict religious calendar. Technically, it was forbidden for a married man and woman to have sexual relations during the main times of the liturgy, namely Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as during Lent and Advent, i.e. i.e. the 40-day fasting periods preceding Easter and Christmas. The ban extends to several feast days of saints. Added to this are other constraints that follow a more personal schedule: men and women must abstain from having sexual relations during periods of menstruation and pregnancy, for forty days after childbirth, and sometimes during breastfeeding. Sexual relations could, according to the treaties, corrupt the milk. Medieval couples were therefore faced with a rather long list of prohibitions — but, to regulate births effectively, it was still necessary to comply with all these prohibitions.

The French historian Jean-Louis Flandrin calculated the average number of reports of medieval couples, in the event that they respected all these prohibitions, and this number is between 1.8 and 3.7 per month. Difficult to procreate in these conditions! A 15th century Franciscan preacher, the future Saint Antoninus of Florence, recognized on this point that 999 households out of 1000 did not respect the rules imposed by the Church in matters of sexuality.

A matter of practice

In addition to abstinence, the Church establishes other prohibitions which reveal in hollow the practices of the medieval ones. According to Thomas Aquinas, coitus is illicit when it “relates to acts which cannot be followed by generation”. On the one hand, sodomy between people of the same sex or not is prohibited. This practice amounts to making man an animal, which is an insult in the eyes of God who, during Creation, clearly distinguished the two species. In a hierarchy of prohibitions formulated in the 15th century by Bernardin of Siena, sodomy is also more serious than incest. A certain Pierre de la Palud advises a 14th century woman to refuse the proposal of her husband who wishes to sodomize her, even if it means letting herself be killed, allowing her husband adultery or suggesting sodomy with a mule… !

On the other hand, it is prohibited to spill the sperm outside the woman’s sex. The “crime of Onan” is moreover a biblical prohibition. Genesis indeed tells the story of Onan who, on the orders of his father, had to unite with the wife of his dead brother in order to give them descendants. But rather than impregnate her, the young man decided to “defile himself on the ground”. The conclusion of the story is as brief as it is radical: “What he did displeased the Lord, who caused him […] to die”.

Finally, the position of the woman above the man is also prohibited. The latter is indeed thought of as a dominant in the medieval world, in opposition to a dominated woman. But the order of nature established by God cannot be changed. For couples, this posture has the reputation of avoiding or limiting procreation. Practices and rules diverge again. It should also be noted that if for the Church only the position of the missionary is acceptable, works presenting various sexual positions circulate, for example the Catalan collection of the fourteenth century the Speculum al foder (Mirror of the foutre).

Magic recipes

Alongside these taboos that help regulate childbirth, magical techniques also exist. Often eccentric, these methods indicate the degree of concern of men and women for contraception. The most common objects could be used for them, which is why several remedies consist of cutting up animals to steal a part which, when worn, will have contraceptive properties. Indeed, bestial impulses being frequently associated with human sexuality, contraceptive techniques regularly included organs cut from animals according to methods that could be interpreted as symbolic or psychosomatic. For example, the future Pope John XXI in his Thesaurus Pauperum advises a woman to wrap the testicles of a live male weasel in goose skin to prevent childbirth. If a clergyman gives such advice, it is because, contrary to popular belief, medieval times valued women’s health and advised against childbirth for those who were too fragile.
Next to animals, stones are among the most common contraceptive objects. In De Lapidibus written in the twelfth century, the bishop of Rennes Marbode advises using a stone he calls “orite” for two very different ailments, snakebites and contraception. In many cases, it suffices to hold the stone, possibly to taste it, for it to have its effect. A kind of lithotherapy before its time in a way!
Women concerned about childbearing, such as prostitutes, also prepared herbal concoctions, very often based on pennyroyal (still recommended today!), or rue officinalis, mugwort, hazel or opoponax for Mediterranean women. They also submit to intense physical exercises. In these cases, the line between contraception and abortion turns out to be tenuous. The diversity of these means surprises by the lack of effectiveness and sometimes the dangerousness for the women who practice them. So what about the contraceptives offered to men?

And the men?

Aetios d’Amida, a Greek physician from Late Antiquity and author of a sum of medical knowledge translated in the 16th century, offers a contraceptive remedy that recommends men to wash their genitals with brine. And of course, like today, the condom was a means of contraception. Exit the plastic, it was at the time in animal viscera (goat bladder for example or intestines of pigs or sheep). On the other side of the world, the same concerns seem to circulate: we know that the Chinese used in the 16th century cases made of strips of oiled tissue paper and the Japanese protections made of tortoiseshell.

In medieval times as today, the contraceptive solutions offered to men are fewer. However, they have the advantage, as today, of existing. If we are delighted with the free contraception for women announced by the Minister of Health, we can wonder why this action widely relayed by the media does not seem to extend to contraception intended for young men.



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