Now that I’m too old to have periods, I rely on writing my monthly History Blog to remind me of time passing. Because tomorrow is ‘World Menstrual Day’, that’s what I’m thinking about.
What’s the relevance of menstruation to history? Well, Queen Victoria had periods; as did Joan of Arc and Princess Diana. Yet this normal bodily function, that happens to half the world’s adults, is mentioned only rarely in the historical record.
|Pliny the Elder|
Beliefs2,500 years ago the Greeks believed that if a girl’s menarche (first period) was late, then blood would accumulate around her heart, and her womb would wander aimlessly around her body. This produced erratic behaviour, violent swearing, and even suicidal depression. Right into the 20th century these symptoms were known as hysteria, after the Greek word for womb.
Pliny the Elder, a Roman who died in 79CE, warned that menstrual blood: “turns new wine sour; crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens dry up, the fruit falls off tress, steel edges blunt and the gleam of ivory is dulled; bees die in their hives, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.”
In mediaeval times if a penis touched menstrual blood, a man’s penis would burn up and any child conceived during menstruation would be devil-possessed, deformed, or even red-haired. Some Europeans thought that touching menstrual blood was the cause of leprosy, while others reckoned it cured the disease.
Despite herbal books referring to menstruation as ‘the flowers’, a more positive image of blossoming and growth, menstruating women carried nutmegs and nosegays to disguise their condition. Amenorrhea (lack of periods) could be cured with potions of herbs and wine, or vaginal pessaries made from mashed fruit and vegetables. To reduce a heavy flow, women were advised to bind the hair from an animal’s head onto a young tree. If this failed, they could drink comfrey or nettle tea, while reciting numerical formulae. Or find a toad, burn it dry, and put its ashes in a pocket near her vagina.
Two menstruating women dancing. Rock engraving from the Upper Yule River, Western Australia.
Religion and menstruationSuch attitudes reinforced the Christian Church’s suspicion towards women. Catholic doctrine argued that Eve was to blame for the eviction from Eden and Abbess Hildegard of Bingen [1098-1179] claimed that menstruation was God’s reminder of Eve’s Sin. even today it is still called ‘The Curse’ by many people.
Until 1916, Roman Catholic women were forbidden to receive communion while menstruating. In Eastern Orthodox churches women are still expected to refrain from receiving Communion, and to remain outside the building. Many other religions, such as Judaism’s Halakha laws and certain Muslim traditions, forbid menstruating women from sharing a bed with their husbands. Given this history of ignorant prejudice, it is pleasing to read the theologian Carmody Grey writing recently in The Tablet, ‘We could begin to answer Pope Francis’ call by pointing out that, quite literally, shedding blood for the life of humanity is just what women do.’
MechanicsHow did women in history manage their periods? There is actually little evidence, other than frequent repetition of stories such as that ancient Egyptian women used tampons made from softened papyrus, or the Greeks from lint wrapped around bits of wood.
Until the advent of contraception and bottle-feeding, women were either pregnant or breastfeeding for many more years and so had far fewer periods. Poor diet and hard work meant that for most girls the menarche was not until age 17 or 18. Though well-nourished healthy girls such as Lady Margaret Beaufort [1443-1509] gave birth to the future King Henry VII when she was just thirteen. It nearly killed her, and despite four husbands, she had no more children.
“Menstruous rags”, as the prophet Isaiah called them, or “clouts” as they were termed in 1600s England, were made from any absorbent fabric, or even grass, hemp or sphagnum moss. Elizabeth I of England [1558-1603] owned three black silk girdles to keep in place her linen “vallopes of fine holland cloth”.
In the 19th century the subject was so taboo, that historian Laura Klosterman Kidd found not one reference to menstrual-management in North American pioneer women’s diaries, letters or inventories of wagon-trains.
And the mediaeval myths continued unabated. Even the British Medical Journal claimed that menstruating women were unable to pickle meat or churn butter successfully. Female factory workers in France were forbidden to work in sugar refineries during their periods for fear they would spoil the food; and a Viennese scientist thought menstruating women stopped dough rising and beer fermenting.
The paediatrician Dr. Bela Schick [1877-1967] believed menstruating women released plant-destroying substances through their skin, which he named ‘menotoxins’. He ‘proved’ it by asking housemaids to arrange cut flowers: if they were menstruating, the flowers died sooner. This notion was even repeated in The Lancet in 1974, with the modern addition that a permanent wave would not ‘take’ to a woman’s hair during menstruation.
As recently as 1980 I was told by a farmer’s wife in Shropshire that if a menstruating woman touched meat it would go rancid, and hams wouldn’t cure. When I queried this she asked, ‘Have you ever seen a female butcher?’ It was true, I had not.
My grandmother used linen rags held on with string and washed by hand, until French nurses in the First World War, discovered wood-fibre field bandages worked much better, and burned them after use. Kotex disposable pads were soon on the market.
Kotex brought comfort and relief
An American osteopath called Dr Earle Haas invented the ‘catamenal device’ in 1929, using two cardboard tubes and a cotton-wool tampon. Four years later he sold the patent for US$32,000 to an industrious woman called Gertrude Tendrich who made them with a sewing machine and an air compressor. My mother started her periods in 1930 and was one of the first to use Tampax, but insisted that her daughters had to be married before we could use them. (Did we listen? No!)
In 1946 Walt Disney’s animated educational film The Story of Menstruation was shown to over 100 million American high school students. The first film ever to use the word 'vagina’, it nevertheless managed to avoid any mention of sex or reproduction. Despite the narrator, the actress Gloria Blondell [1910-86], encouraging girls to bathe, ride a horse, and dance during menstruation, the emphasis on sanitation reinforced the idea that menstruation was a hygienic crisis.
In 1969, the same year Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, a glue was finally invented which held sanitary pads into knickers and sanitary belts were consigned to history.
Judy Blume was reputedly the first novelist to mention the unmentionable, in ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ published in 1970. In keeping up with the times, her sanitary-towel belt has been deleted in recent editions of the book. It was not until 1985 that the word ‘period’ was used in a television commercial; and as recently as 2010, US TV networks banned a tampon commercial using the word ‘vagina’ or even ‘ down there’.
Only very recently has a method been invented by a woman – the menstrual cup. This revolutionary egg-cup-sized silicone device cannot be seen or felt, needs minimal water, leaves no rubbish and lasts for up to 10 years. It avoids the waste products of the 3,000 pads or tampons that each woman uses in her life.
Contemporary Social BeliefsMenstruation has always been associated with lunar cycles and the moon remains central to myths and rituals across the world. 'Have you Gone to the Moon?' is said by boys to tease girls in Malawi, where the Chichewa word for menstruation also means 'Moon'.
Why do disposal bags feature a lady in a crinoline?
In Britain and USA girls are taught that a ‘normal’ menstrual cycle is 28 days – any shorter, longer or irregular is classed as ‘abnormal.’ At school, I associated ‘regular’ periods with tidy girls with neat straight hair who always did their homework on time. My own irregular periods were obviously a symptom of my lazy, untidy mind. I never knew how ‘abnormal’ I was because even among my closest friends it was taboo to discuss such matters.
Unfortunately millions of women and girls are still disabled every month by practical as well as cultural barriers to menstruation. In many parts of Africa, girls lose as many days from school due to menstruation as they do from malaria. A quarter of women in Africa have to stop work during their periods, which means less food and money for their families. Like our grandmothers, they simply don’t have the products to feel safe walking, digging or playing netball.
Women's co-operative in Malawi making washable pads
Menstruation is a complex mixture of the positive proof of womanhood and fertility, combined with shame. In recent years most women’s lives have improved economically, politically and socially. But even though we’re now more comfortable physically during menstruation, we’re still embarrassed to talk about this normal part of our lives.
Pad made by Girl Guides in Malawi
The 28 May was chosen by the U.N. in 2014 for Menstrual Hygiene Day because the average menstrual period lasts 5 days, and happens every 28 days. But why did the UN add the word ‘hygiene’? I think it was because even in the 21st century, this normal bodily function is considered ‘unclean’. I prefer to call it simply World Menstrual Day to celebrate this important function us women have in reproducing humans.
More from the Museum of Menstruation
Janie Hampton 2016