Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Question from Hilary - Tudor contraception

What forms of contraception were available in the Tudor period? How effective were they?


PhD Historian said...

Contraception was illegal in England in the Tudor period (as was abortion). As a result, most of the information available to women at the time was obtained by "word of mouth," not from printed sources. There are nonetheless a few Tudor sources still available today to tell us that contraception was known to some and that it was practiced by an unknown number of women.

The most common and one of the only legal methods available was, of course, the so-called "rhythm method," or avoiding intercourse during a the point in a woman's monthly reproductive cycle when she was most likely to conceive. Given the poor understanding in the 16th century of female reproductive physiology, this method was unreliable at best.

Prolonged breastfeeding and lactation can reduce fertility and ability to conceive, and was another legal method known and available in the 16th century. It was also less than fully reliable.

Women might also use various types of vaginal inserts (called pessaries), including small knots of wool soaked in vinegar or small bundles of herbs. Women's folklore and "home remedies" sometimes also advised more unusual methods, including the insertion of beeswax, small stones, or wood blocks, all intended as barriers. The wool and vinegar method in particular may have been somewhat effective as it resulted in a highly acidic environment that would have a spermicidal effect. Other vaginal inserts, especially such things as stones and wood blocks, were certainly less effective or even non-effective, if not physically dangerous.

Others sources advised the wearing of amulets around the neck or thigh. Objects worn as amulets included the testicles of a weasel, the dried liver of a black cat, and the anus of a hare. Amulets might also be made from various herbs and flowers. Obviously none of these methods were effective.

Other women ingested various herbs and plant extracts to either prevent conception or to cause early post-coital abortion ... a kind of "morning after pill." Two of the better-known plant extracts were oil of rue (a small shrub) and oil of savin (a type of juniper), though both were rare and costly. Oil of mint was also used. Some of these methods may have been effective, since certain plants are known to have inhibiting effects on a woman's menstrual cycle and ovulation. At the same time, however, over-use or mis-use could cause serious illness, injury, and even death. Oil of mint, for example, can be a deadly toxin if too much is ingested.

As I noted above, much of the information regarding contraception available to women in the Tudor period was passed around by word-of-mouth as part of unwritten women's culture. As a result, it aroused deep suspicion among men, who always regarded women's activities as mysterious and potentially threatening. Any interference with the natural processes was considered witchcraft, and women (or men) promoting contraception or even offering advice to other women on contraceptive methods might be charged with witchcraft and executed. Many of the women executed as witches at the end of the Tudor period and early in the Stuart period were accused either of promoting contraception or causing abortions.

Bearded Lady said...

Phd historian - really interesting. I had heard of some of these methods but not the wood blocks. ouch. I wouldn't want to be a woman in Tudor England.

I was listening to a podcast recently given by a teacher at Berkeley and she stated that women in 16th century England had an average of 4.2 kids. She was not referring to the amount of children that survived but the actual birth rate. This number seemed really low to me. I would have thought closer to 6 babies?

But if it is correct...they must have been doing something right to keep birthrates low? Do you think they simply used abstinence?

PhD Historian said...

A GREAT question, Bearded Lady!

(I have not fact-checked the figure you cited ... I am assuming it is relatively accurate and what follows is only an attempt to explain it.)

The issue revolves around the term "average." We tend today to think of women in Tudor England marrying very young, largely because royal, noble, and aristocratic women often did marry in their teenage years. However, demographers (those who study statistical trends in large populations) have shown reliably that the average age at first marriage for mid- and late-Tudor "commoner" women was in the mid to late 20s. And of course "commoners" made up the overwhelming majority of the population ... something like 95% of it, in fact. Thus the "average" woman in Tudor England was over 25 years old when she first married.

In marrying later, they were left with fewer years during which to produce children. Those years were further reduced by a high rate of maternal mortality associated directly with childbirth. In other words, a significant number of women died young while giving birth, obviously ending their reproductive years early and lowering the average. Of those who survived repeatedly giving birth, their reproductive years seem to have ended earlier than they do for modern women. Menopause appears to have occurred as early as age 40 or less. (And menarche, or first period, seems also to have occurred later than it does today, perhaps as late as age 15-16 for Tudor women.)

So if the "average" Tudor woman married at age 25 and entered menopause by age 40, she was left with only about 15 years during which to produce children.

Demographers have also shown that the "average" span between children was two years or more, thanks in large part to breastfeeding their own infant among non-aristocratic women (breastfeeding can reduce fertility) and deliberate avoidance of pregnancy, whether through contraception or abstinence. If the "average" number of children was 4.2, that means an average woman spent almost 9 of her 15 fertile years
either pregnant or actively spacing her pregnancies. That leaves less than 6 years during which to produce more than the average 4.2 children.

When one takes into account all these factors ... late marriage, early menopause, deliberate spacing of children, high maternal mortality ... and adds in such factors as decreased overall fertility due to poor nutrition and disease, I think an average of 4.2 children per woman is pretty remarkable! Yes, abstinence no doubt played a role in the seemingly low birth rate, but it was almost certainly a lesser factor than those I have named above.

An obvious question arises that I will take the liberty of consuming more space to answer: Why did commoner women not marry until their mid to late 20s? The answer is largely economics. Male apprentices, for example, were forbidden by their guild to marry until they had finished their apprenticeship and become self-supporting. This was usually after age 25. For those not involved in a guild trade and thus not in an apprenticeship, the same issue applies: ability to afford to set up a household. More Tudor couples did initially live with in-laws than do today, but there was still pressure for them to set up separate households. Couples therefore delayed marriage until they could afford not to live with the in-laws. Males from farming families, for example, usually could not afford to lease or purchase land for farming until or after their late 20s. More morbidly, many had to wait until their parents died and they inherited the family farm before they could afford to marry. And there was also a large element of social pressure for couples to delay marriage until they had left behind childhood and its associated dependence. Tudor society actually pressured its members to become fully independent adults prior to marrying, as can be seen in many of the advice manuals of the day. Not unlike the situation today, in fact.

GarethR said...

PhD historian is absolutely right - everything we have is word of mouth and hearsay, although we can piece together some clues. Catherine Howard allegedly boasted to one of her companions that a woman could "meddle" with a man and not get pregnant, unless she wanted to - but, as was so often the case, she did not list her preferred methods of doing this.

Bearded Lady said...

I completely forgot about the death rates during child birth and the early menopause. That makes sense now.

It’s funny how women of tudor times resemble are own career minded society and as a result somewhat mirror modern birthrates (ie. waiting to get married and working awhile in a household first before starting their own household.) It’s also interesting how we think of women as getting married so young because of our focus on royalty, but this is such a narrow view of women in tudor society. Economics is a much better contraception than wood blocks.

kb said...

May I pose another question to phd historian and garethr?

I understand that 15thc. Venetian courtesans also used lemon halves as acidic barriers and 'morning after' herbal mixtures that included the herb penny royal. Penny royal tea is still used in some cultures to induce labor in the last trimester or to aid in a self induced termination int he first trimester. Are either of you aware of these 2 particular methods moving north to England?

Oddly, my elite family - the Careys - also averaged 4 births per couple with one couple having 14. This sample covers 4 generations with the first marriage in 1540. The average age at first marriage for men was 25 and for women 21 even though one couple married at the age of 14 (both bride and groom).

I've been attributing this average of 4 births, which by all the factors discussed here would be average for non-elites but low for elites, to spousal absences. The couples spent a great deal of time apart between military, diplomatic and court service.

Sorry - I've strayed - I meant to ask the question about contraception and then just thought I'd add in the bit about my sample.

PhD Historian said...

KB, I have never seen specific mention of the use of lemons among English women, though I have read of their use among women around the Mediterranean basin. But that may be because lemons did not grow naturally in the British Isles and were a rare luxury item there in the sixteenth century.

I've also read of the use of pennyroyal in southern Europe, but not seen specific mention of it in Britain. Again, I have to wonder if it is climate related ... perhaps pennyroyal is less common in the colder and wetter British climate?

Hilary said...

I really honestly was expecting something similar to condoms made out of sheepskin or bladders or something. Wow!

kb said...

Yes phd historian - no global overnight delivery system for produce would definitely limit the use of 'foreign' produce....Hadn't thought it all the way through...

PhD Historian said...

Hilary, condoms made of various materials, including fully cured leather (ouch!), have existed off and on since the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman Empires. But for whatever reason, they apparently were either unknown or unpopular in England prior to the mid to late 1600s, though they did exist in other European countries at that time. I've never been able to discover why the English either did not know of them, did not like them, or left no record that indicates to us today that they were used there before about 1650.

Colleen said...

I've also heard that some women took the seed of the wild carrot (also known as Queen Anne's Lace)and ingested it like the "morning-after pill" phd historian mentioned. Apparently, from some of the sites I've found online, some women stil do it?

Anonymous said...

Hi PhD Historian,

I know this is an old post, so I have no idea if you're keeping up with it, but a question for you...

I guess I find it hard to believe that many women didn't get pregnant and follow their pregnancies through to term. Have you every discovered any evidence that there was any sort of word-of-mouth/underground adoption network? Particularly for someone who could afford pay a family, but who might not be comfortable with the idea of abortion? And if an illegitimate child was a crime for the father and the mother, I could see a man (who might not be comfortable with abortion) having a vested interest in finding a home for that child.

I know the statistics say that illegitimate children were really uncommon in the 16th century, but I just don't believe that most everything was resolved by abstinence, contraception or abortion.

Thanks for any insights--and I also get that so much of this is hard to make sense of since it's not exactly the kind of thing people would want to document for history.

John New said...

Adoptions and changelings. I do not know if it was common but at least one documented controversy exists over suspicions a male changeling would be substituted should the new born prove to be female. Reason - inheritance line.

Father (Deceased) Sir Francis Willoughby of Wollaton(The first Sir F not the later naturalist). Mother his 2nd wife - Dorothy (nee Tamworth)

Source: Marshall, P., 1999. WOLLATON HALL AND THE WILLOUGHBY FAMILY. Nottingham: Nottingham Civic Society. p.83-87