BIRTH CONTROL IN THE MIDDLE AGES

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HERBS, KNOTS AND CONTRACEPTION 

by Max Dashu

©2004 Max Dashu (excerpt from Secret History of the Witches, forthcoming)

Quoting Max Dashu:

"Priests frequently leveled accusations of sexual magic at European women. The penitential books refer often to love potions. [Rouche, 523] But sexual witchcraft went beyond those, or even the dreaded (and popular) impotence magic. Early medieval writers show that women were using herbal medicine and witchcraft to control their own fertility and childbearing. Bishops in France, Spain, Ireland, England and Germany enacted canons forbidding women to undertake means of controlling their own conception, herbal and ceremonial, as well as to end pregnancies or perform abortions.

Augustine, John Chrysostom and other church patriarchs had opposed contraception and abortion. Augustinian doctrine equated sexual pleasure with sin, demanding that couples should engage in sex for procreation only. These theologians established “the classic Christian hostility to contraception, which linked it to magic and abortion.” [McLaren, 84-5] Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom of Antioch both railed against women’s incantations over potions or libations intended to prevent conceptions. At the pope's request, bishop Caesarius of Arles renewed the campaign in the late 400s. His sermons indicate that women in Provence were using not only herbal potions but also amulets, “diabolical marks” and other magical means. [McLaren, 85]

Denouncing both contraception and abortion as homicide, Caesarius issued orders that “no woman may drink a potion that makes her incapable of conceiving...” His motto was, “So much contraception, so many murders.”[Ranke-Heinemann, 73, 146-7] The bishop preached that such women would be damned unless they did long penance. He accused them of using “diabolical drinks” to avoid childbearing and so to get rich. The degree of priestly hostility toward even marital sex can be gaged by Caesarius' prediction that a woman who had sex the night before going to church, or while menstruating, would bear a child who was a leper, epileptic or demoniac. Sermons were full of such threats, and stories like this were repeated through the middle ages. [Noonan, 146, 139ff; McLaren, 90-1]

The bishop’s solution for women who didn’t want more children was simple, and ridiculously unenforceable: they should get their husbands to agree to a life of chastity. [Schulenberg, 243] Caesarius knew that married women had no legal right to refuse sex to their husbands, and that masters regularly forced enslaved women into their beds. Unmoved by their plight, Caesarius insisted: “Chastity is the sole sterility of a Christian woman.” He wrote that he would have excommunicated men who had concubines, but there were “too many.” But numbers did not faze the bishop when it came to women's attempts at birth control. Caesarius denounced women who used contraceptive herbs, as well as women who tried to conceive “by herbs or diabolical marks or sacrilegious amulets.” [Noonan, 145-7]

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Spain was another place where the early clergy tried to repress contraceptive potions and the witchcraft that women used to fortify them. In 546, the Council of Lerida condemned both men and women for using potions to cause abortion. Bishop Martin of Braga and the second Council of Braga (572) forbade contraceptive potions and magic, singling out pregnant women who sought abortion. [Dillard, online: ch 8; fn 52 on Lerida, canon 2] By the 7th century, the Visigothic kings rewarded the clergy’s agitation with harsh penalties for seeking or enabling abortion. [See Kings Versus Witches for more on this.]

Finnian, the Irish monk who authored the first known priestly confessional manual, took a page from his contemporary Caesarius. He classified women's medicine with sorcery and love spells, and forbade them all. His book, like other Irish penitentials condemning contraception and abortion, indicate that women were using herbal potions to regulate their child-bearing. Magic was part of the birth control arsenal, to such an extent that, as Lisa Bitel writes, “The penitentials interpreted magic specifically as abortifacients or love potions.” [219] Later sources repeated refer to them as herbal drinks.

A century after Padraic's legendary magical duels with the druids, Irish monks had barely begun to convert the people of Eire. Indigenous values often prevailed over notions imported by the church. Even Finnian and Colomban used the operative local definition of virginity: only when a woman bears a child has she lost her virginity. One old text says that Brigid caused the fetus of a pregnant nun to “disappear.” This story was later altered for a better dogmatic fit, and finally obliterated in an 18th century version. [Condren, 76] A similar story was told of St Cainnech, who scolded a pregnant nun and got rid of her fetus. Likewise St Ciarán helped his foster daughter Bruinech, who had been abducted and raped by a king. “Prompted by zeal for justice, not wishing that the seed of vipers should quicken,” he emptied her womb by making the sign of the cross over it. [Bitel, 189, 198; McLaren, 121; Allen, Stephen, online]

Still, the poetry of early Irish monks reflects the same harsh opinion of women as the writings of Augustine and Jerome. They cast females as sexual temptations better avoided at all costs. Like the Mediterranean patriarchs, Irish monks idolized chastity and despised sex. They believed that women should be vessels of conception for husbands. They condemned unwed mothers, averting their eyes from the tragic vulnerability of serfs and bondmaids, and any other violations that could and did cause women to conceive children. The clergy's ideology collided with deeply rooted women's culture which, among its many healing traditions, its rites of hearth and field, passed on techniques for avoiding conception and terminating pregnancies, knowledge which was important for survival and wellbeing.

In the 700s the Irish Collection of Canons devoted an entire section to pronouncements on “Womanly Questions.” The monks complained that women “take diabolical drinks so that they can no longer conceive.” Following the bishop of Arles (the Bible being silent on the subject of female contraception and abortion) they equate preventing conception by means of herbal potions—”drinking sterility”—with murder. [Noonan, 155] This is the older oppression of female knowledge that predates more modern doctrines, the ones that are often cited to show that churchmen did not take a harsh stand on contraception and abortion until modern times. This is the encounter of peasant women's knowledge and self-determination with advancing patriarchal doctrines.

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Especially hateful in the monks' eyes were unmarried women with sex lives. A section called “Simulated Virgins and Their Morals” castigates young women for using birth control to conceal their love affairs. [Noonan, 159] (In the priestly author’s mind, there could be no other reason for using it.) Already implicit is the notion of pregnancy as a divine punishment of unchaste women, while men go untouched. The penitentials treat men's sexual exploits -- and exploitation in the forms of concubinage and slavery -- with lenience, even indulgence. The sole exception is their severity toward male homosexuality, which they rank among the worst of sins. [Brundage, 174] That husbands bought sex, too, went unmentioned. [McLaren, 118]

The monks show more eagerness to punish women's sexuality than concern to prevent sexual assaults against them. The penitentials of Cummean and Finnian are lax with masters who have sex with female slaves, never considering the situational probability of coercion and rape. Both simply advise the men to sell the women off and do a year's penance. In other texts, the only punishment is an order to free the slave. [McNeill / Gamer, c 40; Bitel, 151-2] No precautions are taken to protect the rights of bondswomen or their children. It’s not that the monks were unaware of the conditions such women endured. Boniface obliquely acknowledged the reality when, in telling Germans that a priest could only marry a virgin, he classified freedwomen (along with widows and abandoned women) as non-virgins. [Hefele III.2, 843] Only the obscure Poenitentiale Valicellanum shows compassion for women impregnated by rapists: “a woman who exposes her unwanted child because she has been raped by an enemy or is unable to sustain is not to be blamed, but she should nevertheless do penance for three weeks.” [Schulenberg, 250] But this text stands alone.

The priesthood spoke in the harshest terms against women drinking herb infusions that prevented conception. Five centuries after Caesarius, bishop Burchard of Worms ordered an unusually heavy penance (ten years of partial fasting) for women who used folk methods of birth control. He added that “an ancient determination removed such [women] from the church until the end of their lives.” [Decretum 19, in Noonan, 160] Canon lawyers equated refusal of hospitality to the fertile egg with murder, while absolving men who raped or killed in battle and fully intended to do it again. Warlords were protected by the church's fiction allowing for “just wars.” For the priesthood, the sexual was sacred only if it was reproductive, and excusable only for the male, who did not have to worry about the seed he sowed.

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BUT IN FOLK RELIGION:

A diametrically opposed worldview is visible in the pagan delight in sexuality. Many modern academics have questioned this idea as neo-pagan romanticizing, but they are forgetting that it originates with the early clergy themselves, who repeatedly denounced the elevation of sensual pleasures as pagan thinking.

The old festivals honoring the earth and the sun's course, the bonfire dances of pagan festivals, the courting and lovemaking in the forests and fields and holyday faires, the baking of festival loaves did in fact integrate the sacred with the sexual and the material world.

Sculptural evidence shows that special reverence was felt for women’s sexual power. The old Irish carved exuberant, vital goddesses displaying power emanating from their vulvas. These shiela-na-gigs descend from a very ancient veneration of the erotic, whose power is interpreted as blessing and protective. Rough-hewn and forceful, the stone women are not at all demure or submissive enough to be construed as sexual objects or decorations. Many of them are old women long past childbearing age. [Shown at right: the Seir Kiaran Sheila-na-gig]

After a few centuries, this current of Celtic popular culture overwhelmed the ascetic monkish forces. For the Irish and Britons, female sexuality belonged in the sanctuary. Local people began to build churches and convents around old goddess reliefs, and early medieval artists began sculpturing new shiela-na-gigs into the walls and lintels of churches. Worshippers sought out the power inherent in their sex-impassioned goddesses, the stone images worn concave by many touches, rubbings and scrapings of dust from the rock.

Though the Church described them as sorceresses, the wisewomen, herbalists, midwives and elders belonged to a spiritual tradition rooted in the land. Mother Earth gave healing herbs that restored life to the body, balanced it, healed wounds or disease, promoted conception or prevented it. Women who desired children prayed to ancient goddesses and petitioned them at holy rocks and pools.

These animist divinities were invoked in childbirth, to help the mother and strengthen the newborn, for knowledge about how to conceive and how to not conceive children. (Often they ended up transformed into Christian saints, allowing a seamless transition of their rites and symbols.) The pagans knew the cycles of life's renewal to be infinite, and appealed to the same deities in death.

The priesthood was  determined to wrest this power away from women. They preached sermons against these pagan ways, which were also women's ways. Priests anathematized those who shared their knowledge with others or who celebrated births and deaths with the ancient rites, bypassing the priesthood. The use of penitential books spread from Ireland to Britain, then to northern France and Italy and Spain, and finally to Germany. With them spread the notion, accompanied by a studied disregard of rape and poverty and abusive husbands, that birth control was illicit and sinful.

 

In a 7th-century English penitential, Egbert of England obliquely condemned any woman who used birth control as “destroying others by her art of maleficium, that is by potion or some art.” The identity of the "others" is clear from the context: this passage appears in a chapter on the sins of women in marriage. [Noonan, 156] Elsewhere Egbert orders penance for any woman who “works witchcraft and enchantment and magical filtres... the extent of her wickedness being considered.” [McNeill/Gamer, 246]

Two eighth-century Frankish penitentials prohibit a woman's taking potions “in order not to conceive or to kill what she has conceived.” Another Frankish writer insisted so absolutely upon motherhood as women's destiny that he judged her to be “making herself an enemy to herself not to have children.” [Merseberg B and C and St Huberts penitentials, in McNeill/Gamer, 155] A woman's temperament, her circumstances, her desires and goals were as nothing compared to a theoretical duty to be a passive vessel of childbearing. Even rape victims were supposed to bear any children engendered on them. The priesthood treated their “sin” as greater than the rapes inflicted on them.

As royal families converted to christianity, state laws were revised to reflect church condemnation of women's efforts to control their pregnancies. Priestly influence added a fine to the Salic law for “maleficium” in which a woman prevented her own fertility. The Pseudo-Bede penitential also used the Latin word maleficium to describe women's contraception methods. The word literally means “evildoing,” but it had long signified “sorcery” in Roman law. Here it refers specifically to drinking contraceptive potions: "Have you drunk any maleficium, that is, herbs or other agents so that you could not have children?" John Noonan concludes in his ground-breaking study of contraception that maleficium had acquired a specific clerical meaning of "sterilizing magical act." Prohibitions against female sterility potions are repeated in Jerome, Martène, Caesarius, and the Pseudo-Vigilia, Regino of Prum, Merseberg, and St Hubert penitentials. [Noonan, 156, 159]

 

 

To the left: SILPHIUM         To the right : Silphium, here seen on Cyrene's coins, was the colony's chief export. The plant was notoriously resistant to cultivation, and is believed to have been harvested to extinction within the first few centuries AD.

What herbs did women use for contraception? Most of the knowledge has been lost to centuries of repression, except for what survives in classical Mediterranean writings. We know that the Egyptians used acacia gum (which contains compounds still used in spermicidal jellies) The Libyans made a drink from silphium, a giant fennel. The international demand for silphium was so great that it had become extinct by about 400 CE. The related asafoetida and opoponax were also used, though they were less effective. So were myrrh, date palm, and pomegrante. [Riddle, Estes & Russell, 30-33]

Several contraceptive plants mentioned by ancient Mediterranean writers were probably among those women used in early medieval Europe: members of the carrot family, pennyroyal, artemisia, willow and rue. These were all herbs known to later witches, some bearing rich folkloric traditions. [Riddle, Estes & Russell, 30-33] Certain penitentials mention potentially fatal mixtures using such herbs as belladonna and honeysuckle. [Rouche, 523] Northern sources refer to women using vaginal suppositories with cedar oil, or cabbage leaves, or fresh mandrake and other leaves. More recent German folk contraceptives include teas of marjoram, thyme, parsley and lavender (which also abort), the root of worm fern, and brake, known as “prostitute root.” [Noonan, 171]

Canonical literature indicates that pagan magic also played a part in contraception. [Noonan, 156-8] It appears that women gathered, prepared and consumed the herbs with incantations and other ritual. Possibly knotting of cords played a part in contraception as it did in healing or the more notorious intervention of impotence magic.

 

As late as 1025 the Corrector Burchardi referred to women's use of “maleficia and herbs” in birth control, implying that ceremonial was as much a part of it as the medical drinks. Burchard indicated that women prepared both contraceptive and abortifacient drinks. He treated preventing conception as homicide, but admitted that many women needed to limit the number of children they bore because they could not afford to raise them.

It makes a big difference whether she is a poor little woman and acted on account of the difficulty of feeding, or whether she acted to conceal a crime of fornication. [Decretum 19, in Noonan, 160]

The Pseudo-Theodore and Pseudo-Bede penitentials had said much the same thing several centuries earlier. Paternalistic allowances could be made for poverty, but the desire to punish women for sexual transgressions remained undiminished.

 

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Most modern writers have assumed that women in this period did not know any effective birth control method.

Angus McLaren, David Herlihy and others make a strong case that they did. McLaren shows that late marriage and high infant mortality were not the only cause of low numbers of children. He points out that as late as 1150, Clemence countess of Flanders used the arte muliebre to stop bearing a child every year. [McLaren, 113-16]

By 700 priestly writers had begun to call women who were herbalists and witches “poisoners” (veneficae). The Homilia de Sacrilegiis used this charge to denounce the witchcraft of contraception and abortion, which it called pagan acts. [Flint, 236; and fn 132] Bishop Gerbold of Liège used the term “poisoner” to denounce women who performed abortions or who “make magic so that their husbands will love them more.” Regino of Prum conflated contraception with poisoning of husbands, saying that giving males or females sterility drinks should be considered as  homicide. [Noonan, c 167] Although this belief was not held consistently by the Church, it is again doctrinal since the 20th century.

Infanticide of newborns, especially female babies, has been tracked in early medieval baptismal records and other documents. The unrecorded roster of missing females, already known from Greco-Roman times, continued vanishing into time. Saints’ biographies such as the Vita of St Liudger (c. 800) refer to infanticides by pagan Germans. Their custom, however, forbade killing a baby who had taken any food. [Schulenberg, 245]

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Remembering that the feudal codes gave men legal control over their wives, it is not surprising to find that women resorted to magic to better their lot. They practiced love spells to attract desired partners, but once hitched other concerns came to the fore. The author of the Pseudo-Bede penitential also condemned “offenses in marriage and magical arts practised by women.” His chapter “On the Devices of Women” shows his disapproval of women who actively undermined their official inferiority to men through “magical arts.” [McNeill / Gamer, 209ff] Ligatura, the witchcraft of male impotence, was one weapon in the subversive female arsenal.

Churchmen’s pronouncements backed up the sexual double standard and women's degraded legal status. Priests failed to take a stand against battery and mutilation of wives. But they condemned sexual intercourse with the woman on top. [Ranke-Heinemann, 150, t.o.] The Pseudo-Egbert penitential allowed men to repudiate adulterous wives, but women could remarry only in the unlikely event that their promiscuous husbands decided to enter a monastery. [McNamara / Wemple, 103]

Pseudo-Theodore (XII, 5) also withheld women's right to divorce adulterous husbands. The author's attitude toward women accused of adultery is punitive in the extreme. Even when the wife wants reconciliation with her husband, he is given the privilege of doing to her whatever he likes: she “is in the power of her husband.” [McNeill, Gamer, 208-9] This phrase originates in Roman law, and is also found in early Christian legal codes like the Spanish Forum Iudicum.

The English penitential known as Pseudo-Theodore set a harsher penalty for oral or anal sex than for premeditated murder. [Ranke-Heinemann, 149] It severely limited even approved, missionary-position marital sex, with a calendar that "provides for over 300 days of abstinence" a year -- not counting those required during menses and pregnancy. [See Charon] Psuedo-Theodore allowed a man who had accepted baptism to put away his pagan wife and remarry, without any further obligation to her, on religious grounds. He upheld slavery, going so far as to declare a freedwoman's child still a slave.

The old Irish penitentials also stood by the slave system, and later confessional books on the continent offered no challenge to the degradations of serfdom. [McNeill/ Gamer, 36-7]

Witchcraft remained the primary female recourse to power, whether it was the power to attract love, to enjoy sex, to avoid unwanted sex, to conceive or not to conceive, or to protect against rape and battery. Folk culture offered young women a subversive power to act in their own lives, a power that grew out of the old pagan ways."

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Kings Versus Witches: Legendary Accounts

Suppressed Histories Archives

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