by Sara Read
‘Those Sweet and Benign Humours that Nature Sends Monthly’ was how the author of an anonymous early eighteenth-century medical book described the menstrual flow. His language is framed in the medical assumptions that the body was made up of ‘humours’ or fluids which needed to be kept in strict balance to achieve and maintain good health. This particular treatise The Pleasures of Conjugal Love (1707 –many editions under various titles) was concerned with reproduction and marital harmony, so wanted to emphasise that menstrual blood was a clean (sweet) and harmless (benign) substance that was simply a necessary balance for the female humoral hydraulic balance.
The dominant medical model at this time was the humoral one in which the body was composed of four main liquids or humours. 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’.
From ancient times myths had been circulating about the apparent dangers of menstrual blood. Most famously Pliny the Elder wrote 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 fouls, 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 (Natural History, Book 7, see my chapter, ˈOnly Kept Up by the Credulous and Ignorantˈ: Eighteenth-Century Responses to the Ancient Beliefs about Menstrual Blood in Great Expectations: Futurity in the Long Eighteenth Century, 2012). While these myths were still in circulation in early modern England, it was generally held that as long as a woman was in good health that her menstrual blood would be harmless, but that if she was ill then the ‘corruption’ or bad humours associated with that illness would be discharged in the blood, thus making it poisonous. This rationalisation shows that as much as empiricism was teaching that menstrual blood was harmless, the hold of ancient truths was still too strong to dismiss entirely for many early modern medical writers.
In researching my forthcoming book on the topic of menstruation and associated female reproductive bleeding, I found that these myths were not at the forefront of people’s minds. Indeed James Drake’s 1707 Anthropologia Nova claims that women laughed at them, and the regulation of the flow was seen as far more pressing a matter. The myths though did reappear in Christian doctrine and informed ideas such as those in Leviticus that a man could contract such a serious infection from sleeping with his wife while she was on her period that he might die. In medical books this was reasserted with the claim that intercourse during menstruation could cause a man to develop cancer of the penis. It was similarly widely held that a child conceived at this point would be born deformed and so demonstrated to the world that his parents were sexually incontinent and practised unlawful intercourse. I wanted to move the analysis forward from a restatement of these fantastic almost magical ideas and to develop a better understanding of the ways that a woman living in early modern England might have understood her reproductive body, and so my new book forms an analysis of the literature surrounding the key moments when menstruation and related bleeding were at the forefront of her experience of living in a female body.
Other aspects of the humoral body which affect the way in which periods were understood was the blood system itself. Because menstrual blood was thought to be a build-up of excess blood during the month, it was assumed to be discharged by the veins of the uterus.
This meant that bleedings which we would not today think of as menstrual were considered as such in the early modern era. This means that 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 (link to http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/english-drama/staff/other-teaching/dr-sara-read.html)