Medieval gynecology

Early medieval traditional medicine gave due respect to the particular needs of women. Irregular periods and infertility, labor that’s timely and complete, and post-birth appearance of milk were the three basic problems for women. Some of the herbal remedies are still used, such as nettle tea, while others seem unlikely to be effective. But in women’s care, magic has an unshakable presence. Even apparently medical remedies may have been based in magical ideas.

Bald’s Leechbook, earliest of the Anglo-Saxon sources, does its best to steer clear of magic. (My source is Stephen Pollington’s Leechcraft.) For loss of menstrual periods, it recommends a complicated treatment plan. During the week when the bleeding should be expected, the woman will need a very warm bath every day. (This meant firewood, hauling extra water, and filling the largest wooden-stave tub.) While she sits in the bath, the woman is to drink ale, first boiled up with the herbs speedwell and centaury. After the bath, she is to be covered up very warm, and the doctor applies a poultice to her genital area: barley meal and the dregs of beer made with barley, wild celery, and mugwort. This process should be repeated as needed until the problem is corrected.

On the other side, the period may be dangerously heavy. For this problem, Bald’s treatment is a lot less pampering. The woman had to stand across a small fire with fresh horse droppings laid on its coals, so that this smoke fills her dress and makes her legs sweat. I don’t know what to make of this idea, but it seems to have been meant as a practical remedy, not as a charm. Dried (but fresh) horse droppings, crushed into a powder, are recommended for sores that won’t dry up. It seems possible that digestive enzymes (or something along that line) in the fresh droppings were medicinal.

Bald’s book also addresses problems with labor. When labor doesn’t start, boil a parsnip or carrot in milk and water (equal parts of both), then both eat the cooked root and sip the drink.  If this didn’t work, then a charm: have a child of either sex tie a henbane root or 12 coriander seeds (probably in a little linen bag) to the woman’s thigh. This charm had some risk, because if it remained in place after the baby’s birth, it might continue to draw out the insides of the baby itself. When the placenta did not emerge as expected, the midwife was to boil “old bacon” in water and use this as a douche.

Bald’s pregnancy care directions aren’t far off from some of our ideas. He seems aware of pregnancy food cravings, telling the doctor to “earnestly” refuse to let the woman eat anything very salty, sweet, fatty, or alcoholic. If she must be on a horse, the ride must be gentle, and she must not travel far, lest it induce premature labor. These directions must not have been easy, since avoiding alcohol meant boiling water frequently, and pork was a very common type of meat.

Next: Magical health care for women


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