The doctors’ dilemma: sin, salvation, and the menstrual cycle in medieval thought

The doctors’ dilemma: sin, salvation, and the menstrual cycle in medieval thought

By Charles T. Wood

Speculum, Vol.56:4 (1981)

Introduction: Because menstruation is a normal process in women of child-bearing years, historians long tended to overlook its potential interest. Anthropologist might ponder such matters as the rites and taboos with which it was often invested, but theirs was a less prudish field, one that also saw itself as being mainly devoted to the study of unchanging features in traditional cultures. Until recently, on the other hand, historians conceived of their discipline as being primarily concerned with the very process of change; and since, like the poor, taxes, and death, menstruation has always been with us, it seemed a subject scarcely in need of historical explanation.

After World War II, however, different attitudes began to emerge. The veil of prudery was rent, and as historians started to explore such subjects as demography and the nature of family structure, it became almost impossible for them entirely to avoid a function as basic as menstruation. If, for example, they found that European women in the 1840s achieved menarche nearly five years later than they do today, that discovery had inevitable impact on their analysis of changes in family structure, birth rates, the age of marriage, family size, the frequency of illegitimacy, and a w whole host of other issues intimately related to the central facts of reproduction.

Similarly, insofar as the ages of menarche and menopause depend not so much on genetics as one such variables as diet, exercise, and the ratio of fatty to other tissue, historians began to appreciate that simply to determine the mean ages for the onset and ending of menstruation was also to gain valuable insights into past levels of health, work loads, the nutritive value of food, and its general availability, at least to women. The collection of reliable data for the Middle Ages has proved admittedly difficult, for direct documentation is exceedingly rare, but the work has begun, and everything suggests that further progress will soon be made.

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