During this time in history a woman's period was considered to be a punishment from God for Eve's temptation in the Garden of Eden. In Leviticus in the Bible it states that a woman who has her menstruation is impure and unclean. As a result, the Church dictated that women were not allowed to take any form of pain killer during their period as they had to suffer the cramps and pain given to them by God. Despite this order from the Church, women of the time did use a variety of herbs to help relieve any pain they had associated with menstruation. These remedies were often passed down via word of mouth. The Church also dictated that women should refrain from taking the Holy Communion while they were menstruating.
There were also many wild and what we would consider nowadays to be quite ridiculous beliefs about menstrual blood. Some people of the age believed that a woman’s menstrual blood was dangerous, even poisonous and that it could do a man's penis harm. Some also believed that if a child was born from having sexual intercourse while a woman was menstruating then the child would be born with red hair and could even be deformed. These beliefs were not held by everyone of the time and did not always put people off having sexual intercourse. What happened within the home was often different than what the Church dictated!
Yet what did people understand of menstruation during the Tudor age? A woman's reproductive cycle and genitals were seen to be imperfect versions of the male sexual organs. A woman's sexual organs were turned inwards, inside of their body. A woman's internal body was considered to be cold and wet while a man's was dry and hot and thus a woman needed the dry hot seed of a man to balance her. This of course could only come from her husband as sex outside of marriage was strictly forbidden by the Church. A woman's monthly bleeding, otherwise known as “courses”, was believed to be the womb ridding itself of excess blood. If this did not happen the womb could become overrun with blood and could possibly drown the woman .While these ideas may seem quite preposterous nowadays one must keep in mind that we have hundreds of years of medical research and changing ideas of the roles of men and women that have educated us on all things to do with the female body. During the Tudor period, women were considered to be imperfect reflections of men and inferior to men.
The onset of menstruation for many young women during the age was considered to be the time in which a young girl transformed from a child into a woman. It is interesting to note that the age of consent for the time, approximately 12 – 14 years also coincided with the average onset of menstruation. Women who did not have regular periods or failed to have a period were considered to be too much like a man and there were several remedies used to help bring about a woman's period. These included hot baths, herbs placed up into the vagina or drinking herbs such as rue which was believed to bring on a woman's monthly menstruation. Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife, suffered from irregular periods and this was believed to be due to her excessive fasting and religious dedication which affected her monthly cycles.
The age old question remains, how did women of the time cope with their monthly periods without the use of tampons or sanitary napkins? The most common form of sanitary item was the use of rags. These were pieces of cloth that were bundled together and placed between the legs up against the vagina. These of course would soak up the blood and hopefully stop any unforseen stains. Another form was the use of cotton or wool instead of cloth rags. Depending on a person's status and access to material these rags may have had to have been washed and reused. Unfortunately there is little evidence to suggest how these rags or pieces of wool were held in place, although it has been suggested that women of the age wore some form of girdle or rough underwear.
Another note that should be pointed out is that one of the primary functions of a woman during the time was to bear children. If a woman was pregnant regularly this would have reduced the amount of times she menstruated. For example, Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne Boleyn, wrote that “When I married I had only £50 [nearly £25 00] a year to live on for me and my wife, as long as my father lived, and yet she brought me every year a child” (Weir 2011, p. 11). Being pregnant for nine months out of every year would have meant that Elizabeth Boleyn would have experienced only a few “courses” each year.
Although menstruation was a taboo subject during the Tudor age it was an everyday and very common occurrence. All girls of the time expected to get their period and as such it was believed when they did that they had come of age and that they had the capability to conceive. A woman's ability to conceive was vital to the furtherment of a family line and thus, although often not spoken about, the menstrual cycle was a very important part of Tudor society.
You can also see a Claire Chats video on Menstruation in Tudor times - click here.
Sarah Bryson is the author of Mary Boleyn: In a Nutshell. She is a researcher, writer and educator who has a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education with Honours and currently works with children with disabilities. Sarah is passionate about Tudor history and has a deep interest in Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn, the reign of Henry VIII and the people of his court. Visiting England in 2009 furthered her passion and when she returned home she started a website, queentohistory.com, and Facebook page about Tudor history. Sarah lives in Australia, enjoys reading, writing, Tudor costume enactment and wishes to return to England one day.
Notes and Sources
- Hindson, Bethan (2009) ‘Attitudes towards menstruation and menstrual blood in Elizabethan England’, Journal of Social History, http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Attitudes+towards+menstruation+and+menstrual+blood+in+Elizabethan...-a0209577950.
- Licence, Amy (2012) To Bring on the Flowers: Medieval Women Menstruating, viewed 16th April 2014 http://authorherstorianparent.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/to-bring-on-flowers-medieval-women.html.
- Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage and Death 2013, BBC Scotland.
- Weir, Alison (2008) Henry VIII King and Court, Vintage Books, London.