By Etienne van de Walle
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol.28:2 (1997)
Introduction: Despite recent historical speculations that Western couples in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the early modern period purposely regulated their fertility through early abortion with the help of a number of plant substances, a review of the evidence suggests they did not. Riddle has been the strongest advocate of this position for the ancient world and the Middle Ages. He identified the substances that were generally condemned in the theological and legal literature of the time, and traced them back to the work of physicians and herbalists. He insisted rightly on the distinction between early abortions (before the fetus was ‘animated,’ ‘formed’, or ‘alive’), which were more widely tolerated and more vulnerable to the action of plant substances, and late abortions. He also suggested, however, that these drugs were perfected over the centuries in a female culture of which males – who were doing the writing – had only a partial and imperfect understanding.