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. The ideal was as many kids as fast as possible, with all-star standouts such as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (10 births/9 surviving), Queen Eleanor of Castile (16+births/6 surviving), Queen Philippa of Hainault (13 births/9 survivors), Queen Keran (Kir-Anne) of Armenia, (16 births/11 surviving), Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (15 births/13 surviving), Queen Maria Theresa of Austria (16 births/10 surviving), and Queen Darejan of Georgia (23 births/15 surviving).
Notwithstanding the baby-having upper-crust, what about the couples who didn’t want 20 kids in 20 years? I’m currently reading a book about courtesans, and a little extra research revealed that the majority of courtesans (especially those not attached to a rich man who welcomed illegitimate progeny as a sign of his virility) successfully staved off pregnancy – or at least a multitude of pregnancies. 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?
I won’t discuss infanticide, especially of female infants, because it is hella depressing. Nor am I going to discuss abortion (herbal or surgerical; both techniques are ancient) because if you think I’m stirring that pot on this blog, you’re nuts. No, I’m just talking about good, old-fashioned birth control to prevent pregnancy. 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, salt, wine, olive oil, honey, the sap of the balsam tree, crushed juniper berries, 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.
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. Ditto with salt and crushed juniper berries. Olive oil doesn’t kill sperm the way wine will, but it does significantly decrease sperm mobility. If the wriggly little beggars can’t get to egg, they cannot be used to impregnate it. 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.
Notice my restraint in refusing to make a pun about a honey trap.
Some forms of birth control were nigh unto useless. For example, an Ephesian Greek doctor named Soranus recommended a woman drink cold water to prevent pregnancy or “at the critical moment of coitus when the man is about to discharge the seed, the woman must hold her breath and draw herself away a little, so that the seed may not be hurled too deep into the cavity of the uterus. And getting up immediately and squatting down, she should induce sneezing and carefully wipe the vagina all round”. Sneezing is not really an effective method of contraception, as you can imagine. He also advised using a lead or alum inside the vaginal canal, which could have easily led to injury or lead poisoning.
The Romans also used a plant, silphium, for birth control that was apparently very effective at preventing the pitter-patter of little feet. It had been used for hundreds of years prior to the Romans ‘discovering’ it, being popular in Egypt and by the Minoans of Knossos. It was so important that the Egyptians and Minoans even had a hieroglyph to represent it. Ironically, silphium was impossible to cultivate. It became more and more scarce, eventually becoming literally worth its weight in silver. We can’t run any modern tests on why it was theoretically so effective, because the Romans seem to have used it into extinction. They were fond of non-procreative sex, were the peoples of Ancient Western culture.
There was also condom use during various periods in history. From the ancient Egyptians to the Victorians, couples used a love-glove to prevent pregnancy and (hopefully) sexually transmitted disease. Or scorpions. Seriously. In Greek mythology Minos, the son of Zeus and Europa and legendary first King of Crete, was cursed so that his ejaculate was made up of serpents and scorpions. A true hero, Minos was reported to have used a goat’s bladder as a kind of primitive female condom to keep his lover safe from his accursed seed.
Before the invention of rubber and latex condoms were made of animal intestines or other equally unhelpful materials so their efficacy was mediocre and varied. In medieval Japan, men used a condom made out of tortoise shell or animal horn than only covered the glans, or head, of the penis. Even if they were effective, I cannot conceive (har) of how they would have been comfortable. In 1564 a posthumous treatise on syphilis by renown physician Gabriele Falloppio, entitled De Morbo Gallico (The French Disease), touted the use of condoms to prevent the spread of the illness. Falloppio described condoms made by soaking small linen pouches in a chemical solution. Once the pouches had dried, they were tied to the head of the penis with a ribbon. Although Falloppio claimed they stopped transmission of syphilis, anyone with knowledge of rudimentary biology or who ever had a high school health class knows that an open sore on the shaft of the penis would either contract or transmit the disease, so these things were probably as effective as an ice-cream kettle.
The idea of condoms caught on, and by the 17th century “small clothes” — contraceptive sheaths made of linen, cotton, silk (for the wealthy), dried intestines or leather were all available in Europe. In fact, they were so well known and used that in 1666 the English Birth Rate Commission threw a hissy-fit because “condons” were decreasing British fertility. It is hard to see just how much decreasing such ineffective devices could do, tho. Condoms just aren’t that effective in the best of circumstances. Even modern condoms, if not used in conjunction with spermicide, have a failure rate of close to 18%. That’s about the same failure rate as coitus interruptus, where the male partner ejaculates somewhere other than in the female partners vagina.
Things have gotten a lot better on the birth control front, however. 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 from experiance 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 happens to be on an conference call with his coworkers and his boss, who can clearly hear you tell him that you are glad you never had to use a crocodile dung pessary as birth control, the funny look your husband will give you is better described as “aghast”.
Apparently the normal wives of normal people don’t talk about this stuff. Who knew?