Using the “poisons of sterility”: Women and contraception during the Middle Ages

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present. Today’s post is contributed by Dr Gillian Kenny.

Medieval women not only often had the care of children on their minds, they also had the prevention of more children on their minds too. It is difficult to assess to what extent women and couples acted to control their families during the medieval period (for example by using coitus interruptus) but it seems clear from a myriad of sources that women in particular were aware of contraceptive methods and used them. Thomas of Chobham, writing in c. 1216, contended that women engaged in anti-conception acts when engaging in illicit sexual activity in order to avoid the outcome and that others did it to avoid the pain of childbirth.[1] It is important to note that during the medieval period the difference between contraception (preventing conception) and abortion (the termination of a pregnancy) was not clearly understood largely because the fetus was not really considered as such until ‘ensoulment’ had taken place (known as the ‘quickening’ or when the woman first felt it move).

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