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Hello! Right, let’s do the caveats first off. The history of periods is a subject exclusively about women’s experience, and I am a man. If this pisses you off, that’s totally fine. But what I will say is that I’m a historian interested in the lives of all 108 billion people who have ever lived, and half of those people were female. For too long women’s history has been relegated to minor sub-interest, and that’s a poor state of affairs.
So, why blog about the history of periods, and not something else?
As the Chief Nerd to CBBC’s multi award-winning comedy show Horrible Histories, I spend quite a lot of my time answering people’s questions about daily life in the past (It became so frequent, I decided to write a book about it.)
Often these queries slip out from mouths that are already contorted by wrinkle-nosed disgust, and I’ll see my interrogator pre-emptively braced for gruesome tales of toilets, unwashed bodies, and rotten teeth festering in diseased gums. For many of us, the past is synonymous with ghastliness, and that’s part of its disgusting allure. But there is a particular question that only gets asked by women, and it’s usually delivered in a hushed, wincing tone: “how did women use to deal with their periods in the past?”
The fact that this question comes up so often at my public talks suggests to me that this is a subject deserving of wider attention. So, while I’m certainly no expert, I’ve had a go at briefly summarising some of the more obvious elements in the history of menstruation.
WERE WOMEN’S PERIODS REGULAR?
Firstly, it’s worth noting that a regular cycle might not have always been so common. In the pre-Antibiotic Age, when nourishing food could be scarce and workplace Health & Safety didn’t exist, many women were likely to suffer from vitamin deficiency, disease, or bodily exhaustion. As is still the case, such stressors could interrupt the body’s hormonal balance and delay or accelerate the arrival of menses. Aware of this, medical writers dedicated much effort to discussing menstrual abnormalities, and in 1671 a midwife called Jane Sharp noted that periods: “sometimes flow too soon, sometimes too late, they are too many or too few, or are quite stopt that they flow not at all. Sometimes they flow by drops, and again sometimes they overflow; sometimes they cause pain, sometimes they are of an evil colour and not according to nature; sometimes they are voided not by the womb but some other way; sometimes strange things are sent forth from the womb.”
But despite the dangers of disease and diet, women have always had periods: so how did they cope? Let’s go back to the time of the Greeks and Romans.
DID THE ROMANS USE TAMPONS?
The point often made in online blogs is that, even in the ancient world, women were using what may seem similar to modern hygiene products. The Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos, who is known as the Father of Medicine, is widely referenced on the internet as mentioning that small wooden sticks, wrapped with soft lint, might be inserted into the vagina as a primitive tampon. This is a claim that doesn’t stack up, as shown here by Dr Helen King. It’s also been suggested that Egyptian women used a tampon of papyrus fibres, while Roman women perhaps preferred a similar device woven from softer cotton. Frustratingly, these are theories founded in modern supposition rather than good evidence. Not to say it didn’t happen, but we can’t prove it. Thankfully, there’s better proof for the widespread use of absorbent cotton pads that lined a Roman woman’s linen knickers (subligaculum). For more on that, check out this other post by Dr Helen King.
Such “menstruous rags”, as they are called in the Bible (in 1600s England they were called “clouts”) continued in use for millennia, despite the fact that most Western women wandered about knickerless between the medieval era and the early 1800s, with the only exceptions having been the fashionable ladies of 16th century Italy. If women really did spend a thousand years going commando, then an alternative method was to suspend such pads between their legs using a belted girdle around the waist. We know, for example, that Queen Elizabeth I of England owned three black silk girdles to keep her linen sanitary towels, or “vallopes of Holland cloth”, held in the right place.
THE HISTORY OF RELIGIOUS ATTITUDES TO MENSTRUAL BLOOD
Queen Lizzie also famously took a bath once a month “whether she needed it or not”, and this was likely at the end of her flow. Such intimate hygiene may now strike us as purely practical, but there was an ancient spiritual significance to such things. In Judaism’s Halakha laws, as soon as a woman begins bleeding she enters into the profane state of Niddah and is not allowed to touch her husband until she has slept on white sheets for a week, to prove the bloodshed is over. Only when the fibres are verifiably unstained can she then wash herself in the sacred Mikvah bath and return to the marital bed. Similarly, Islamic tradition also dictates that a woman must have conducted her post-menstrual ritual ablutions before she can make love to her husband. What’s more, during her period a Muslim woman is not allowed inside a Mosque, and cannot pray or fast during Ramadan.
Such menstrual ‘impurity’ is also visible in ancient medical beliefs, though in Ancient Egypt period blood could be used positively as a medical ingredient. For example, a cure for sagging breasts was to smear it over the drooping mammaries and thighs, perhaps because the womb was the incubator of new life and so its blood possessed rejuvenating powers? However, the Greek physician Hippocrates – though, himself, a man with many curious medical remedies – instead believed menstruation to be potentially dangerous to a woman’s health.
MENSTRUATION: MEDICINE AND SUPERSTITION
During the glorious height of Greek civilisation, about 2,500 years ago, it was widely-believed that periods began when a girl reached 14, but if the process was delayed then the excess blood slowly gathered around her heart, producing symptoms of fever, erratic behaviour, violent swearing, and even suicidal depression (later in the 19th century this became known as hysteria, after the Greek name for womb, hystera). If the girl’s period refused to flow in good time, then Hippocrates had no qualms in bleeding her from the veins, as he had no understanding of the womb’s lining being shed. To him, all blood was the same. Bizarrely, this intervention was thought essential; otherwise medical theory suggested her womb would wander aimlessly around her body!
Other ancient scholars repeated even stranger beliefs. Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist who died rushed headlong towards Mt. Vesuvius’ famous eruption of 79AD, warned that contact with menstrual blood: “turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens dry up, the fruit falls off tress, steel edges blunt and the gleam of ivory is dulled, bees die in their hives, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.” Such superstitious attitudes clung on through the ages, and reinforced the medieval Church’s suspicion towards women.
Though it was Adam who tasted the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, Catholic doctrine argued Eve was to blame for humanity’s eviction from blissful Eden. In divine retribution, it was said by Hildegard of Bingen that Eve’s female descendants would endure painful childbirth, and therefore the monthly cramps of menstruation. Given Pliny’s dire warnings of bloody peril, coupled with the Church’s institutional misogyny, it’s unsurprising that medieval European women were therefore believed to temporarily possess supernatural powers of evil during their monthly visits from Mother Nature.
These outlandish scare-stories could be truly bizarre. Not only would beehives allegedly empty, swords rust, and fresh fruit rot in their presence, but nearby men could be cursed with just a glance, and a drop of blood on the penis could allegedly burn the sensitive flesh like it were caustic acid. If a bloke were brave enough, or horny enough, to penetrate a woman during her period then it was claimed the resulting baby would be weak, deformed, and ginger (sorry, redheads…) What’s more, the risk didn’t dampen with age – pre-menopausal women were believed to have stored up a lifetime of excess blood (in line with Hippocrates’ theories) and this meant the poisonous vapours might escape through their eyes and nose, and contaminate – or even kill – babies and animals in their vicinity.
DID WOMEN IN THE PAST TRY TO HIDE THEIR PERIODS?
With a certain amount of shame attached to menstruation as a process, and genuine horror affixed to the blood itself, it’s no surprise that women took pains to mask their cycles from public view. In medieval Europe they carried nosegays of sweet-smelling herbs around their necks and waists, hoping it would neutralise the odour of blood, and they might try to stem a heavy flow with such medicines as powdered toad. However, pain relief was not readily permitted by the Church: God apparently wanted each cramp to be a reminder of Eve’s Original Sin. The fact that nuns – who were often fasting, or on drastically reduced diets – suffered such iron deficiency as to completely suppress their cycle merely highlighted to medieval thinkers how concerted holiness could, at least to their understanding, reverse Eve’s error and bring a woman’s body back into divine grace.
WHAT IF A WOMAN STOPPED HAVING REGULAR PERIODS?
If an ordinary woman stopped having periods then this was considered bad news: firstly, procreation was an important religious and social duty. Secondly, as dictated by Hippocrates, an infertile wife was also more likely suffer a build-up of maddening blood that might tip her toward fevers, fits and – shock, horror! – manly behaviour. Thankfully, the best advice was simply to have regular sex and eat healthily. If that didn’t work, gentler remedies included potions of herbs and wine, or vaginal pessaries made up of mashed fruits and vegetables. The barber’s knife was wisely the last resort.
DID WOMEN IN THE PAST WEAR SANITARY PADS/TOWELS?
Assuming that women were healthy, it’s possibly quite shocking that not all our female ancestors seemed to have used pads, tampons, cups or other devices to catch the blood. Indeed, many simply bled into their clothes, while others are said to have dripped droplets of blood as they walked, leaving a trail behind them. But, given what we known about Edwardian attitudes to hygiene and decency, it’s perhaps not surprising that it was during this period that more modern solutions began to appear.
For starters, an elegant Edwardian lady hoping to avoid unsightly staining might well have worn a Menstrual Apron under her skirts – this was a washable linen nappy for the genitals, held in place by a girdle and joined at the rear by a protective rubber skirt. To ensure warmth and decency (if a sudden gust of wind lifted up her skirts) ankle-length knickers were also worn beneath the apparatus, but they would be special open-crotch pantalettes so no blood would stain them. But gradually these cumbersome contraptions were phased out as a new twist on an ancient technology began to emerge.
THE HISTORY OF TAMPONS
The modern sanitary hygiene business properly began when a company called Cellucotton discovered its wood fibre field bandages were being used for non-military purposes during WW1. Field nurses looking after injured soldiers had been stuffing the bandages down their pants during their periods, and found them to be surprisingly effective. Cellucotton got wind of this and decided to market the pads as Kotex, using advertising campaigns that highlighted the comfort and relief given by their reliable product. When Kotex pads flew off the shelves, Cellucotton figured it was onto a winner and changed its name to mirror their miracle product.
Though we suspect the Ancient Egyptian and Romans were the first to use tampons, it wasn’t until 1929 that an American osteopath called Dr Earle Haas re-invented this product. His ‘applicated tampon’ allowed the user to slide the absorbent diaphragm into her vagina without having to touch her genitals, so it was more hygienic. It was clearly a good idea but, after struggling to market them himself, in 1933 Haas sold the patent to an industrious German immigrant called Gertrude Tendrich who started making the tampons by hand with little more than a sewing machine and an air compressor.
From those humble beginnings, hunched over a sewing machine while individually crafting each tampon by hand, Tendrich’s company flourished. Today, it accounts for half of all tampon sales worldwide, and was bought by Proctor and Gamble in 1997 for $2 billion. Tampax is now a global brand.
Check out the online Museum of Menstruation for more images and info. If you want much more detail on menstruation in 16th and 17th centuries, here’s a very readable academic article by Sara Read