Today we welcome Dr. Sara Read, whose book, Menstruation and the Female Body in Seventeenth-Century England is out today. I, for one, already have it on my wish list! So, please give a warm welcome to Sara, and enjoy the fascinating topic she brings to The Seventeenth Century Lady!
Menstruation & Female Bleeding in Seventeenth-Century England
When chatting to my GP about my research project, he rather bemusedly asked, ‘was menstruation different then?’ Well no, the physiological actual event of a monthly bleed from the vagina wasn’t any different, but the way it was understood, written and talked about, and managed was certainly very different from today. This difference between historical and modern understandings was something I grew up with a sense of.
My mother and her contemporaries, for example, weren’t allowed to wash their hair during a period lest the blood rushed to the brain and sent them mad. These beliefs are the remnants of ideas can be seen in ancient texts such Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, which stated that the touch of a menstruating woman was believed to result in all sorts of mayhem such as causing wine to go sour, trees and crops to die, dogs to go mad upon tasting it, horses to miscarry their foals, beehives to be abandoned, and mirrors to become cloudy just by being looked into by a menstruating woman, the air to be filled with a horrible stench.
The dominant medical model at this time was the humoral one in which the body was composed of four main liquids or humours. This was an ancient system coming down from the teachings of Hippocrates and Galen. The four main humours of the body were connected to the four elements of the earth: blood was related to air and spring; yellow bile (choler) was related to fire and summer; black bile (melancholy) was related to the earth and autumn; and phlegm was related to water and winter. To maintain optimum health, it was held that these humours should be kept in perfect balance.
Following the teaching of Galen who declared that men were able to cleanse the body of excess or unwanted humours by the sweat produced by hard labour, women, who as Helkiah Crooke claimed were known to spend their days sitting and embroidering (or ‘pricking on a clout’) didn’t use up these waste products as efficiently as men. This meant that in the course of a month this excess built up until it was discharged as a menstrual period.
Great importance was placed on evacuations in humoral medicine as it was deemed to be one of the six non-natural factors (which were six key factors thought to affect bodily functions: the air one breathes, sleep, intake (food and drink), evacuations (including sexual emissions), movement and emotions). The emphasis placed on regular evacuations is the reason that a missed menstrual period wasn’t necessarily taken as an indication of potential pregnancy. Indeed, a missed period is often way down the list of indicators of pregnancy. The midwife Jane Sharp in 1671, gave 14 signs of pregnancy and missed periods come sixth after ‘sour belchings’.
Menstruation and the Female Body
The book which has developed from my research project set out to develop a better understanding of the ways that a woman living in early modern England might have understood her reproductive body. It analyses literature of all kinds –plays, poems, letters, diary entries, medical textbooks- to see how the menstruation was represented.
As mentioned above, many medical theorists thought that menstrual blood was a build-up of excess blood during the month, assumed it was discharged by the veins of the uterus.
This picture from a seventeenth-century medical book shows the veins supplying the uterus.
This meant that bleedings which we would not today think of as menstrual were considered as such in the early modern era. So postpartum bleeding was usually seen as being the equivalent of a larger menstrual period, for example. But perhaps more surprisingly so was the blood sometimes lost on first intercourse. More significantly still, each of these episodes of bleeding carried with it associations of a woman’s growth to maturity. Menarche (the first period) was seen as the start of a girl’s transition to womanhood, with defloration and subsequent postpartum bleeding all forming part of that process.
This image (from Jane Sharp’s 1671 The Midwife’s Book) demonstrates the assumed link between postpartum bleeding and menstruation:
The imagery would be clear to the early modern reader not least because the most common expression for menstruation was ‘the flowers’. The flower in this image thus protects the woman’s modesty, but also shows the absolute link between menstruation and fertility. As the popular seventeenth-century adage suggested, ‘where there are no flowers there can be no fruit’.
My book explores all aspects of the menstrual cycle from menarche to menopause, as it was envisaged in the early modern era, and includes analysis of how women coped with the practical aspects of managing their menstrual flow and menstrual pain.
Sara Read is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Drama at Loughborough University. She has written a number of articles on the topic of menstruation and women’s health in early modern England. More information and details of her publications can be found here.