When you research royalty in history, it is mostly about how desperately they needed to be fertile. The last thing a royal wanted was a way of preventing conception. However, I’m currently reading a book about courtesans in 19th century England, and the majority of those women successfully staved off pregnancy – or at least a multitude of pregnancies, and it made me wonder about all the women throughout history, whether wives or working girls, who did NOT want sex to result in pregnancy. What about those women? What did they do?
Mostly we tend to see pithy articles about silly or grotesque methods of birth control in ancient times, but there were effective ways to ward off conception. Often this knowledge was lost or the methods weren’t easily available for epochs of time, but the methods that actually worked have had a way of popping back up.
One of the oldest known and most effective methods of birth control was the admovetur vulva, or contraceptive pessary. Women were using these things ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and almost certainly before that. It could use any number of ingredients, including vinegar, wine, olive oil, honey, the sap of the balsam tree , or (yuck) crocodile dung. Happily, crocodile dung wasn’t readily available so easy-to-reach items in the ancient home were used more often, and they were surprisingly effective. For example, if an ancient Roman lady took a bit of soft, clean cotton or wool and soaked it in either wine, olive oil, honey, or a mixture of any of these ingredients, and then placed it into the vagina just prior to coitus, it would usually prevent pregnancy.
Well, until the 18th century or so it was assumed that the pessary worked because it cooled the humors of her body and sealed shut the opening of her womb, but it was actually effective because the wine, olive oil, and honey all act to prevent sperm from reaching the egg. Wine is acidic, but sperm needs to be in an alkaline solution (such as semen) to survive. The vagina is slightly acidic to begin with, and it is the fact that a woman’s cervical mucus becomes alkaline just before ovulation that keeps the sperm alive as it is transmitted to the uterus. Thus, the wine would make the vagina such an acidic and hostile environment that it acted as a spermicide. Olive oil doesn’t kill sperm the way wine will, but it does significantly decrease sperm mobility. Like olive oil, honey doesn’t kill sperm but it makes it hard for the sperms to move and can keep them from getting into the womb.
There was also condom use during various periods in history. Before the invention of rubber and latex they were made of animal intestines or other equally unhelpful materials so their efficacy varied. Even modern condoms, if not used in conjunction with spermicide, have a failure rate of close to 18%.
When the first birth control bills came on the market in 1960 (they were only prescribed for ‘menstrual problems’ from 1957-1960; amazingly MANY women discovered they had menstrual problems in those years), they were hailed as revolutionary, because for the first time in history there was a medically provided and reasonably secure method of contraception (Although the failure rate on birth control pills is about 9%, so it isn’t as ‘guaranteed’ a way to prevent pregnancy as people typically believe.)
The most secure method of birth control (barring sterilization) is an implanted hormonal rod that contains a progestin (like in birth control pills) that is released into the body. It lasts about 3 years and it fails only 0.05% of the time. A close runner up is the Copper T intrauterine device (IUD). It has a failure rate of 0.8% and can be used for up to ten years. The IUD first hit the market in the early 1970s after a doctor in Chile named Jaime Zipper discovered that copper ions act as spermicide.
Sterilization is, of course, the most successful form of birth control. Tubal ligations in women are 100% effective, but bear in mind that vasectomies are only considered 100% effective after 72 weeks.
Oddly enough, until the advent of agriculture we really didn’t NEED to worry about birth control. Hunter-gathers have MUCH lower birthrates than agricultural societies. All that exercise and a varied diet means that women menstruate at an older age and ovulate less. Their way of life also means that nursing an infant is more likely to act as birth control. Therefore women in hunter-gatherer populations tend to give birth every four years or so, for a total of about 4 or 5 children (depending on their food sources and length of breastfeeding) spaced far enough apart that no two are infants at the same time, whereas women in agricultural societies can have as many as 20+ children over a lifetime, including the ‘one in her, one on her’ reproduction that gives her multiple infants to care for. My daughters were all voluntarily spaced closely together and I can tell you that having a 4 year old, 2 year old, and newborn is a LOT of work. It is a labor of love, but it is still labor.
I can also tell you that if you casually mention to your husband that you are glad you never needed to use a crocodile dung pessary to prevent pregnancy, he will give you a funny look. If he just happened to be on an conference call with work and had his mic on, as my husband was, and you inadvertently tell his boss that you are glad you never had to use a crocodile dung pessary as birth control, your husband will give you a look better described as “aghast” than “funny”.
Apparently the normal wives of normal people don’t talk about this stuff. Who knew?