Sunday, January 9, 2022

Unwanted Pregnancies in the Middle Ages

by Jeri Westerson

We’ve read about some pretty bold women in the Middle Ages; Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen Elizabeth, Kathrine Swynford. They made their destinies, though they might have had trouble achieving it in early life…or as in the case of Eleanor was consigned to what amounted to house arrest in the latter part of her life.

But for the average medieval woman, when one could be married off to secure alliances, gain property for the family, or to be sent to nunneries—there was surprisingly little impediment when it came to some control of their lives. For them, it was whether to remain pregnant or not. Granted, for some women, giving birth to an important man’s child meant a place at court or court adjacent at the very least, as well as funds to raise that bastard child, but other women who got into a family way through country matters needed a way out.

It’s a modern idea to consider an embryo a person, something that didn’t worry the medieval mind in so far as the Church was concerned. Much of the physician’s art in the Middle Ages favored Greek philosophers and ancient physicians, who had nothing to go on but their own feelings on the matter, and a certain tradition among them. Certainly nothing scientific.
Many of these men—and they were most often men—were of the opinion that an embryo was plantlike until birthed and took its first breath. Indeed, this was the medieval Hebrew philosophy as well, citing Adam: mere clay until God breathed life into him to become a human being.

Hippocrates, on the other hand, forbade ending pregnancies. In his oath he mentions, “I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy”, but then again, he also stated that the fetus was only viable from the moment its various organs – their structures – were already formed, which puts the kibosh on only later abortions, just not earlier ones. This was also what the famous ancient physician, surgeon, and philosopher Galen (c. 129 CE) expressed.

Aristotle viewed abortion as population control for a well-ordered society, but only before the embryo achieved animal life, or was recognizably human. “The line between lawful and unlawful abortion will be marked by the fact of having sensation and being alive,” he stated. Before that, Aristotle did not regard abortion as the killing of something human. (It should be understood that the “unlawful” aspect leaned heavily as to whether the husbands wanted to end this pregnancy). Unmarried women would find less opposition. Including (or perhaps even especially) prostitutes.

In Greece and ancient Rome, various instruments—curettes, hooks, other scraping tools—might be used to extract a fetus, but early physicians were worried that these instruments—and rightly so—could perforate the organ. A woman’s life over the unborn was
always utmost in cases of these operations.

By the time we reached the Middle Ages, such procedures, though still practiced, were not preferred. Herbalists/apothecaries were easier and no doubt more inexpensive to consult. Female apothecaries were often nuns in monasteries with access to the herbs grown on convent grounds. Midwives, too, were experts on such herbs for contraceptives and all stages of pregnancies, both wanted and unwanted.

An amazing array of proscribed methods such as bloodletting, fasting, diuretics, emmenagogues (herbs that stimulate menstruation), and enemas, were used. Jumping up and down. Carrying heavy objects. Heavy horseback riding. A painful massaging of the abdomen, and similarly binding the abdomen tightly.

Did any of these approaches work? Was there a scientific method involved? Not so much. These were from those same unscientific ancient physicians, folk remedies, “old wives’ tales”, and any number of shamanistic methods that came down to medieval woman from very old sources indeed (the first recorded evidence of induced abortion is from an Egyptian papyrus recorded in 1550 BCE.)

Perhaps these methods worked coincidentally. Or the embryo wasn’t viable to begin with. Or poor nutrition contributed to a spontaneous abortion. Or the woman wasn’t pregnant in the first place. Whatever the situation, women, herbalists, apothecaries, and physicians of the day believed in it, and proscribed them again and again.

An apothecary administering 
pennyroyal to a patient. 
Public domain

The variety of concoctions of herbs used was breathtaking; pepper, myrrh, thyme, rue, catnip, dittany, savory, sage, watercress seed, parsley, soapwort, hyssop, marjoram, tansy, juniper, hellebore, and pennyroyal (the last two of which contain some properties that actually can be used as an abortifacient. But beware. Too much pennyroyal or hellebore can cause death. Consult your apothecary).

These herbs and essential oils used in conjunction with one another could be drunk with hot water in a kind of tea with honey. Mostly, they were to induce menstruation to begin again, which would expel the embryo.

Hildegard von Bingen
Public domain

Even Hildegard von Bingen, the saint and mother superior of her convent in the twelfth century who wrote sacred music, works of theological philosophy, and scientific works on botanicals and their medicinal properties, got into the act and described a particular treatment (tansy) to restore menstruation in her treatise De Simplicis Medicinae. 

Were there medieval laws against a woman obtaining an abortion? In a word, no. The Church seemed to prefer not to meddle into what amounted to “women’s complaints”. So women consulted other women to help them with these life-changing difficulties. It was a natural for nuns to work as apothecaries to help in the physicians’ art and to administer to other women, including their own nuns in the convent who might also get into a family way. After all, it wasn’t all prayer and meditation. Not everyone could be a St. Hildegarde.


Jeri Westerson

  • Jeri Westerson is the author of fifteen novels in the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir mysteries that just concluded the series with The Deadliest Sin that deals with nuns administering abortifacients; the Enchanter Chronicles, a gaslamp fantasy-steampunk trilogy; Booke of the Hidden, an urban fantasy series, and several standalone historical novels. Be looking for her newest mystery Courting Dragons, the first in her King's Fool Mysteries with Henry VIII's real court jester Will Somers as the amateur sleuth. See all her books at

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

History for a New Year

 by Debra Brown

2022 Greetings!

The EHFA Blog will be bringing you occasional new posts once again. We are just organizing, and we appreciate our readers so much. Despite being inactive for a full year, we've had 554,000 views during that time. Thank you for continuing to visit!

You can join us and discuss the posts and British history at our English Historical Fiction Authors Facebook Group. We'd love to hear from you.

The following posts had the most visits in 2021 (the two with my name were written by Heather Hiestand and Paul Walker, but posted by me.) Congrats to the authors:

A History of the Cuckold's Horns
Posted by Deborah Swift
The 'Natural Beauty' Ideal of the Regency
Posted by Maria Grace
The French King's Bastard, Harry Valois
Posted by Linda Fetterly Root
The Horrors of War: The Black Prince and the "Massacre" at Limoges
Posted by History Museum Through the Ages
Tudor England's Most Infamous Villain: Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez
Posted by Beth von Staats
An Enduring Tudor Mystery: What Happened to Lady Mary Seymour?
Posted by Sandra Byrd
Baking in Victorian England
Posted by Debra Brown
Anglo-Saxon Monsters and Creatures
Posted by Richard Denning
The History of Armour 1100-1700
Posted by Debra Brown
The Strange Death of Richard the Lionheart
Posted by Nancy Bilyeau