Periods have always been somewhat taboo. Roman philosopher and naturalist, Pliny The Elder, declared that menstrual blood would:
"Turn new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel an the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, 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."
Aside from turning menstruating women into the subject of John Carpenter's next film, Pliny also had an idea on how women could put their malevolent menstrual cycle to good work: By positioning naked women in farms and gardens during their periods, which would deter insects, rats and other pests from eating crops.
But it wasn’t just Pliny who had ideas on the menstrual cycle.
Periods Will Destroy Everything
Right up until fairly recently, women on their periods were warned to stay away from many things. In 19th century England, women were not allowed to churn butter or salt ham when on their periods, in case it tainted the meat and curdled the butter. Similarly, in France, factory girls were banned from sugar factory floors during their time of the month, just in case it turned the sweet stuff bitter.
By the 1920s, there was real debate in the science community on the subject of "menotoxins" (the "fumes" given off by menstruation) and whether these menotoxins truly did churn butter, decay meat and cause sugar to turn bitter. Yes, these are basically the same views that Pliny had, but over 1000 years on and with a fancy new science-y name.
One Dr. Béla Schick undertook a test to definitively prove the existence of menotoxins. He had some flowers placed in a vase by a person not on their period and then some flowers put in another vase by a woman on her period. The flowers that were handled by the menstruating woman wilted more quickly, and so Schick concluded that by merely touching an object, a woman on her period unleashed a damaging toxin. This theory has been now disproved, but still holds a special place in the hearts and minds of some people in the more, er... sexist corners of the internet.
Periods were thought to be so impure that the Catholic Church actually banned woman on their periods from taking Holy Communion until 1916. But it wasn’t just God that didn’t want women’s tainted vaginas near him (or her or it or…whatever).
As already covered, it was a long held belief that women’s menstrual blood was pretty bloody dangerous and not fun to be around. So naturally, in medieval England it was believed that if a couple got it on while the woman was on her period, then it would corrode the man's penis. If the man somehow got out of that situation unharmed, then the belief was that any resulting child would be a monstrous and deformed creature — a direct result from the damaging menstrual blood drowning the sperm.
In fact, a woman on her period was so toxic that just sleeping in the same room as an expectant mother was thought to be enough to create a weak and *gasp* red-haired child.
So, history so far has taught us that a woman's period can:
- Kill crops and destroy everything around it
- Fuck up unborn children
- Literally burn off a man's penis
So Periods, What Are They Good For?
Telling you if you’re pregnant! Duh.
To be broad, we know that generally women in history tended to be secondary to men and one of their primary goals was popping out kids (ideally boys). So if your worth as a human is pretty much tied into you getting pregnant, then you are going to want some kind of system that lets you know when you are pregnant. And that’s where periods come in. Boom, mic drop.
Actually no… because historically periods weren’t regular.
Okay, again, broad brush strokes, but if you lived between, say, the medieval period and the end of the Victorian era (and you weren’t rich), then chances are that your diet was not nutritionally balanced. If you worked, then your hours were long, and the stress factor of life was damn pretty high – these things do not a monthly period make.
This meant that a lot of women suffered false pregnancies. Going through a long break between periods and experiencing some symptoms of pregnancies…only to have their periods rock up and their hopes dashed. We can find a lot of well documented incidents of this and the effect this then had on women’s statuses – Anne Boleyn is an excellent source for this, e.g. her 1534 pregnancy.
When Henry Vlll found out about this pregnancy, he excitedly bought a new solid silver cradle, and dispatches about the imminent royal birth were soon sent to other European leaders. However, within a few weeks, all talk of a pregnancy suddenly stopped. There was no miscarriage or stillborn, so it’s likely this was a false pregnancy. We can only imagine how upsetting this must have been for Anne, and it’s easy to trace the huge effect this had on her status and the security of her position as Queen.
Okay then, historically speaking, periods sucked.
Was Managing Periods At least Less Of A Ball Ache?
Sadly, there isn’t a whole lot of historical written record on women’s menstrual solutions (as is the case for much of women’s history), so there’s no concrete evidence that the Romans and Egyptians were early adopters of tampons (a factoid the internet loves!). But what we do know is that throughout history a lot of women used rags when on the rag.
fMost women would use belt/girdle like contraptions to suspend their rags (kind of like a super early form of 1950s-era "sanitary napkins"). Queen Elizabeth l owned 3 black "vallopes of Holland cloth" (no stains for Elizabeth!) which would have done this job. However, if you weren’t rich, then you probably couldn’t afford a fancy period harness thing, and so you would either have to think up an ingenious way of getting your rag to stay in place, or just bleed through your clothes. Fun.
From the late 1880s, commercially available menstrual pads start to appear, though again they are saved for the well off. But by the First World War, nurses discovered that bandages actually absorbed their flow a lot better than rags or linens, and had the added bonus of being disposable. Soon after this, we start to see a revolution in sanitary products – which comes at the same time as the belief that womens periods are toxic also starts to disappear. Funny that.
Now, tampons, towels, cups, whatever, are pretty much readily available (though still pretty highly priced!) and menstruating people don’t have to deal with people thinking that their vaginas will destroy the world. (Well, apart from that one dark corner of the internet.)
This post originally appeared on FYeahHistory.com and is reprinted here with permission.
Top photo: The Shining
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Written by Natasha Tidd, Sara Westrop, and Helen Antrobus, F Yeah History is dedicated to unearthing history that's just too good for history class. From historic hangover cures to unsung historic heroes, all told with a healthy does of gifs and somewhat terrible jokes, it's history...just not as you know it. Follow F Yeah History on FYeahHistory.com and on Twitter @F_yeah_history.