Birth control and abortion did take place in the Middle Ages and, like today, there were many medical and ethical issues that medieval people had to contend with.
In the Middle Ages you will find many opinions about what should or shouldn’t be done when it came to preventing pregnancies. However, the medieval period might be unique in that it is perhaps the only time when you can read the same author in one work condemning the use of birth control and in another giving directions on how to use it.
Religious values held the most important influence on the use of birth control, before and after one conceives. Taking their cue from the Biblical commandment to “Be fruitful, and multiply,” medieval Christianity saw the sole purpose of sex as a means to conceive children. Therefore, the idea that one could use birth control to stop conception was usually harshly condemned (and often equated as being the same as abortion). One ninth-century text, explains, “a woman who has taken a magic potion, however many times she would otherwise have become pregnant and given birth, must recognize herself to be guilty of homicide.”
However, other texts suggest that the reasons why a woman was using contraception could be a mitigating factor. The eleventh-century Decretum by Burchard of Worms explains, “It makes a big difference if a poor little woman does it on account of the difficulty of feeding, or whether a fornicator does it to conceal her crime.”
In his article ‘Birth-Control in the West in the Thirteenth and Early Fourteenth Centuries,’ Pete Billar offers this interesting observation about the acceptability of contraception in medieval Europe:
One which seems to demand attention is the catch-phrase well known in the early modern period but also widespread in the middle ages: Si non caste tamen caute, translated literally, “If not chastely at least cautiously / with care / with precautions”; a phrase disconcertingly reminiscent of the modern “If you can’t be good be careful”. Found earliest, to my knowledge, in 1049, this phrase is a commonplace in the thirteenth century. Like the modern catchphrase it seems adaptable and changeable in meaning. Thus in one early fourteenth-century English translation it seems to refer simply to discretion in talk about an illicit sexual relationship.
On the other hand in its appearance in one text emanating from the diocese of Passau c. 1266, which describes how parish priests make light of fornication by advising people to act “with care (caute)” if not chastely, it jostles with other passages, relating, for example, to women and childbirth, and priests questioning people about sexual practices and thereby instructing them in these practices, and this context suggests that this catch-phrase, encountered in Germany, England, and Italy, could perhaps mean by caute the “precautions” of contraceptive behaviour: possible evidence of a popular, coarsely humorous contraceptive mentality?
Meanwhile, in the medieval Islamic world contraception was generally viewed as permissible. Hadith accounts noted that coitus interruptus was practiced during the time of the Prophet Muhammad and not condemned. The eleventh-century Muslim theologian al-Ghazali added that while it was best left in God’s hands, such practices were acceptable because of “the fear of incurring great financial hardship on account of the size of one’s family.”
Medieval views on abortion
If pregnancy did occur, medieval women could resort to abortion (or infanticide), but had to contend with the view on whether or not this was socially acceptable, or even criminal. In his book The Criminalization of Abortion in the West: Its Origins in Medieval Law, Wolfgang Muller notes that medieval thinkers had differing ideas on when the fetus constituted a living human being. Some believed that when the unborn child had formed extremities like arms and legs it signified personhood, while others thought that the baby would get a soul around 40 days after conception. Similar notions existed in Islamic thought, although the fetus might not be considered a child until as late as 120 days. The idea that life began at conception was not typical in medieval thought – this notion emerged in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation.
This is not to suggest that it was considered permissible to have an abortion in the earliest stages of pregnancy. Rather, the punishments imposed on them would be less severe – exile instead of death, or some lesser form of penance.
Muller also points to a court case from the town of Brno in Moravia from the year 1353, which offers some interesting insights into medieval views on a woman’s control over her own body (and her offspring). A woman had been arrested while trying to drown her newborn child in a river, and the case went to 24 male jurors. The jurors concluded that she was not guilty of infanticide, stating:
The woman is not to be punished by any means. And this is so because she bore a baby boy and had her own right to him. Thus, she may kill him and make him perish, for everyone is free to do with what is his, or hers, that which he, or she, pleases to do.
While infanticide was generally considered a crime, the idea that abortion was illegal was not as widely held. Muller notes that we have very few cases from the Middle Ages of women being prosecuted for having an abortion or that officials were actively seeking to arrest them. We know of more people being executed for prenatal abortions in some individual German towns from the 16th and 17th centuries than we do for all of Europe in the Middle Ages.
Part of the reason for this probably lies in how difficult it would be to find evidence of an abortion, such as the remains of a body, which would hamper any chances of a conviction. However, it also seems that state and civic officials were reluctant to deal with an issue that they saw as something belonging to the ecclesiastical sphere – the Church was better suited to impose penance for these ‘sins’.
There were also the views of physicians on the matter. One of the most influential of these from the Middle Ages comes from Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna), who explained:
At times it may be necessary to induce abortion; that is, when the pregnant woman is young and small and it is feared that childbirth would cause her death, or when she suffers from a disease of the uterus or when a fleshy growth in the uterus makes it very difficult for the fetus to emerge. Also when the fetus dies in the womb of the woman. Know that when labour continues for four days it means that the fetus is already dead.
Charms and pomegranates
So far this article has examined medieval views about birth control and abortion and notes that while religious officials often denounced these practices, they also seemed to do little to put a stop to it, and in some cases may have turned a blind eye to them. Part of the reason for this seems to be that the actual practices to avoid or terminate a pregnancy were not very effective.
While the standard method in the Middle Ages for preventing a pregnancy was coitus interruptus, various medical manuals detail prescriptions that could be taken beforehand. The most common involved taking a vaginal suppository – it would be an oil which could have ingredients such as cabbage flowers, pepper, juice of peppermint, leaves of pennyroyal or dill. One ninth-century physician explains that the best type of contraceptive was “Oil, any kind of oil,” as it would slow the movement of sperm. Although less common, some prescriptions were for men to put an ointment on their penis.
While many of these prescriptions were originally written in the medieval Middle East, they would eventually spread to other parts of the world. European writers dutifully added them to their books, with little or no censorship, or even commentary that these remedies should not be used. For example, the thirteenth-century physician and philosopher, Peter of Spain (who might have gone to be Pope John XXI) offers over 26 different prescriptions for contraceptives and several more to bring out menstruation, which could be read as a way to induce an abortion.
While modern medical studies have suggested that some of these remedies might have worked, it is also clear that others, such as wearing charms or placing castor seeds in the ‘afterbirth’, were not effective. Some medieval writers do note that men and women could perform sex and reduce their chances of pregnancy by certain positions and movements – one suggestion was that women hop and jump around or urinate afterwards. Similar advice is given out today, and often with the same results: an unwanted pregnancy.
In the article, ”Marvellous Secrets’: Birth Control in European Short Fiction, 1150-1650,’ Etienne Van de Walle finds that in medieval literature, especially short stories such as the fabliaux, you would find no shortage of people having sex outside of marriage – from adulterous affairs to sex with prostitutes, and that pregnancy was an occasional outcome. Van de Walle notes that these characters sometimes try to use contraception or take drugs to induce an abortion, but these methods almost always fail.
In one comic tale found in the Facetiae by Poggio Bracciolini a monk and an abbess have a sexual liaison. The woman is afraid of becoming pregnant, but the monk gives her a necklace that holds a folded piece of paper where he had written a magical formula that will prevent her from having a child. Soon after she does conceive and the monk flees. The abbess takes out the folded piece of paper and reads it:
‘Asca imbarasca, non facias te supponi, et non implebis tascam.’ (‘Don’t let yourself get laid, and you will not fill the cup.’)
In other stories the women themselves are morally against any type of abortion to end their pregnancy, but also fear having it publicly known that they had a child out of wedlock. The solution for most of these unwanted pregnancies is for the woman to give birth in secret, usually with the help of a midwife or another woman. For example, in the story Dinner Piece by Leon Battista Alberti, a widow becomes pregnant during a secret affair with a man. She gets help from an older woman who had aided her previously in the affair. The woman explains:
“Since it was I who kept your love affair hidden, don’t doubt that I shall likewise conceal your giving birth from everyone… I myself shall take the child to its father… After you give birth, I’ll wrap you with bands of cloth. With these layers of fabric, we shall replace the earlier swelling. Then, feigning that you have been ill, we shall remove then gradually each day.”
Concealing a pregnancy comes across as the most popular and successful form of birth control, at least in medieval and early modern literature. The seventeenth-century French work L’ecole des filles describes how one woman teaches a 16-year-old girl about sex education. When it comes to the part about the dangers of pregnancy, she explains:
Moreover, to remove any worry, there is one more thing to consider, it is that this mishap is not so extraordinary that one should fear it so much. There are so many pregnant girls who never attract notice, thanks to certain corsets and dresses made to order, which they use, and which do not prevent them from having a good time with those who made them pregnant. So, what’s the big deal? For nine months spent in delight and pleasure, one becomes only pregnant one time; moreover, as you can well imagine, all shots do not result in a hit. No, one remains sometimes one year, even two, four or six without becoming pregnant, and in most instances it never happens at all, and it is by sheer chance when it happens or one has no means to prevent it.
In the worst of cases, there are always seven or eight months to prepare oneself, and during that interval you can simulate illness, trips, pilgrimages. When the time comes, you will identify a midwife who is obliged in conscience to keep the fact hidden. A friend will advise and help you in your need, you will arrange a trip of a month or six weeks, and even if you are watched, only one or two days are needed to unload. After that, you will be merry like a lark: the child is taken away and given to a nurse, and the father will pay for all the expenses…
In the end, much of the knowledge about birth control practices in the Middle Ages is lost to history – these were issues that women had to deal with on their own, and they could usually only turn to other women for help and guidance. Some could try a medical treatment that had limited chances of success, but many would have realized that unwanted pregnancy was something that had to be managed and/or hidden. The fate of children born in this way varied – some might have been placed in the care of another family or given to a monastery, but others might also be killed and disposed of. It may have been that in the Middle Ages the most dangerous time for an unwanted child was just after birth.
Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, (Princeton University Press, 1988)
Robert Jutte, Contraception: A History (Polity Press, 2008)
Wolfgang P. Muller, The Criminalization of Abortion in the West: Its Origins in Medieval Law, (Cornell University Press, 2012)
B.F. Musallam, Sex and society in Islam: Birth control before the nineteenth century (Cambridge University Press, 1983)
Pernilla Myrne, Female Sexuality in the Early Medieval Islamic World: Gender and Sex in Arabic Literature (I.B. Taurus, 2020)
John M. Riddle, “Oral Contraceptives and Early-Term Abortifacients during Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages,” Past and Present, No.132 (1991)
John M. Riddle and J. Worth Estes, “Oral Contraceptives in Ancient and Medieval Times,” American Scientist, Vol. 80:3 (1992)
Etienne Van de Walle, “‘Marvellous Secrets’: Birth Control in European Short Fiction, 1150-1650,” Population Studies, Vol. 54:3 (2000)
Zoe Whaley, “Birth Control and Abortion in the Practice and Tradition of Islam,” Malacaster Islam Journal, Vol.2:3 (2007)