By P. P. A. Biller
Past and Present, Vol.94:1 (1982)
Introduction: Behind this study lies one question common to most modern works on the history of birth-control — when did it become widely practised in western European society? Answers have been given concerning the middle ages: “literary . . . evidence suggests that couples [in the middle ages] did not know about contraception, not even the simple act of coitus interruptus” . The object of the present paper is to query this and other negative or minimalist statements about contraceptive practice in the middle ages, and to suggest the possibility of a contrary, positive, case.
The first part of what follows presents a brief survey of the existing literature on the subject: works, in particular written by early modern historians, which advance general considerations within the context of the history of the family or the history of mentalities; and works which focus more directly on medieval evidence, from the point of view of demography and from the point of view of the history of the moral teaching of the Catholic church. The general statements or implications of these works — that contraception was unthinkable, or that it was unknown, or that there was a certain amount of practice, but not on a wide scale — rest on weaker arguments and evidence, or the assertion of lack of evidence, than is generally realized. Once this is seen there is less obstruction in the way of the alternative, the positive case to which the second half of this study is devoted.