So today I had to see what is probably a joke about men’s attitudes towards periods, but which also might be a really stupid take about periods from some man on the internet, and I thought that was as good an excuse as any to talk about conceptions of menstruation in the medieval period. In theory, we have come a long way towards understanding how and why uterus’s bleed. In practice there’s a sad number of guys like this out in the world who just…feel the need to say things like this:
Now even though this take is allegedly satirical, if we accept it as satire, then I can just go ahead and make fun of the people it is satarising. If it isn’t then I am making fun of the person who typed this with their own two hands. It doesn’t really matter, and that is what we in the business call a win/win.
I am not going to get into the whole thing about women and beauty, because we have covered that before. And while I love to get mad about evo-psych in general, it is below me to explain to some dude why his evo-psych is more wrong than that of professionals. Instead, we are going to talk about the period stuff. To put it mildly, this is a bonkers take, with the whole angle that people menstruate because they are not supposed to eat meat thing. (Wither the vegetarian who also menstruates, I ask thee?) That is a new one to me, and I guess where the satire comes in (??) but the idea that menstrual blood is toxic and being expunged from the system as a result is a very very old one.
Over here in the European world ideas about menstruation have been recorded since the Hellenistic period. Plato and Aristotle saw fit to remark upon what was going on with periods for example, and they largely did this through, well, vibes. See the ancient Greeks didn’t dissect human bodies for anatomical observation for a number of reasons including ideas about the putrefying potential of corpses, and also religious beliefs about the sanctity of the body after death. (Yes, that is right, the ancient Greeks. Tell a weirdo who thinks of them as “scientific” to ruin their day.) They did however cut up animals and get some ideas from that so pigs (which have compartmentalized wombs, unlike humans) were sometimes used as a stand in.
Even if they couldn’t look inside wombs, a thing that was observable was menstrual blood, so these dudes were like oh yeah that is the thing that we will work with. Anyway, the Hippocratic scholars got together and the way they saw it, menstrual blood happened because women (let’s remember our homeboys were extremely not ready for the conversation about gender, I am afraid, so they conceive of a fixed idea about gender and sex) in humoral theory were cold and wet. As a result, the uterus filled up with too much blood because they were just overfilled with liquid. The blood would then be expelled from the womb when it was at capacity. This was sometimes perceived as being tied to the phases of the moon. The wet nature of women meant that they responded to the moon, in the same way the tides did, and the moon sort of pulled the excess blood out of them.
Within this conception, all of women’s orifices were connected to their uteruses. So, if a woman had, say, a nosebleed she was actually experiencing her period just, like, the wrong way. Conversely, women were thought to also have fewer such ailments because their periods took care of it all. One Hippocratic text put it this way: “For the most part, women do not suffer from hemorrhoids, nosebleeds or any other such discharge unless the menses are suppressed; and if any of these discharges do take place the menstrual flow is less in quantity, as if the secretion is being re-routed to these.”
This is of interest to us because a) no, but b) it classes the release of menstrual blood along with blood released by means of maladies. Menstruation, then, was to be seen as an inevitable part of femininity due to women’s cold and wet nature, but it could be classed alongside illnesses. Menstrual blood, therefore, was seen as a sign that something had gone wrong. (Like, you know, not being a dude.)
By the second century AD Galen came up with some new twists on this original classic. According to him, menstruation happened because “the female sex, who stay indoors, neither engaging in strenuous labour nor exposing themselves to direct sunlight … should have a natural remedy by which it is evacuated.” So basically women are not participating in the sorts of strenuous masculine activities that men were and therefore they didn’t burn off their excess blood and it had to come out somehow. You know. Women be sitting.
Medieval people were a huge fan of Gaelenic theories, so that was upheld into the middle ages. It was also teamed up with ideas about conception because menstrual blood was thought of as an important part of the nourishment of embryos. The tenth-century Persian Gaelenist ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas al-Majusi (d. c.982-994) explained it this way: “from the menstrual blood are formed the liver and the other fleshy parts, with the exception of the heart, for this is formed from the blood of the arteries.” It was for this reason that women didn’t menstruate while pregnant. That blood was seen as being used to form the fetus.
So menstrual blood wasn’t just accumulating because women were lazy (though they were definitely lazy), but it sometimes got too built up if women weren’t following their designated jobs as baby-makers and using up their menstrual blood in the right way.
As the medieval period progressed so did conceptions about, well, periods. Galen might have thought they needed a quick jog to stave off menstruation, but medieval thinkers often said that it wasn’t necessarily a lack of exercise and outdoors time that made women menstruate; instead their very nature as cold and wet was to blame. Men, because they were hot and dry burnt off their access humor by just being dudes and rocking. Children were conceived of as being hotter than adults, and slowly losing their heat as a part of the aging process and the slow march towards death. So, little girls, by virtue of being hotter than their older counterparts, could just burn off any excess humors as and when they arose. Post-pubescent women, however, couldn’t burn theirs off and indeed puberty set in when they began to cool down. These superfluous humors then built up in their wombs and had to be expelled. So, periods were like a natural version of blood-letting, wherein women’s bodies rid themselves of the excess blood which would otherwise make them sick.
If women were expelling blood through menstruation because it might make them sick, it stood to reason that menstrual blood had properties that could make other people, plants, and animals sick as well. Menstrual blood was thought to, among other things, dull mirrors, kill crops, and even kill people if they came into contact with it. Interestingly, because of the corrosive and poisonous nature of menstrual blood there arose an attendant concern. What about the post-menopausal women who didn’t menstruate but who weren’t yet pregnant? Oh well that was a whole heap of trouble. According to late thirteenth/early fourteenth medical tract The Secrets of Women (De Secretis Mulierum):
“If old women who … do not have them [periods] regularly, look at children in the cradle, they transmit to them venom through their glance… It is because the retention of the menses engenders many evil humors, and these women, being old, have almost no natural heat left to consume and control this matter, especially poor women, who live off nothing but coarse meat, which greatly contributes to this phenomenon. These women are more venomous than the others.”
So clearly people in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries did think that meat might have something to do with periods, but the problem was that poor people meat (love a bit of classicism) made it harder to menstruate. Which meant that the women in question became poisonous. Because they were cold. With me so far? Good.
The idea of menstrual blood and even women themselves as poisonous was accepted widely enough that it inspired a whole legend – the Venomous Virgin. The thirteenth-century version which circulated in the Dialogue de Placides et Timeó told the story, which focuses on a girl who was fed poison her entire life and then sent to the court of Alexander the Great. It says:
….the beautiful young girl…pleased him marvelously and he had to make an effort to restrain himself from going to embrace here; and his temptation was extremely strong. But Aristotle, a clerk at his court, and Socrates, his master, detected the presence of the poison in the girl and would not allow Alexander to touch her. …The Socrates had two serfs brought into Alexander’s presence and made one of them embrace the girl: he dropped dead on the spot.
So that is all wild, but the point of it is that women’s bodies – which were capable of producing poison through the medium of menstrual blood – were also capable of resisting poison. In fact, they were so good at it that they could be used as a sort of poison medium: absorbing and then delivering the poison to an intended object… like a super straight Alexander the Great who hangs around with Aristotle and Socrates. Sure. (Medieval people love fan fic, OK?)
Given this history it is unsurprising that in the year of our lord 2021 we are seeing satire (?) about men’s attitudes towards women and menstruation. The classification of periods as a major problem that can cause trouble for your barley harvest and also your favourite mirror or something is centuries upon centuries old. Granted, now we have stuff like science and dissection to help us understand what is going on inside the bodies of people who menstruate, but even now there is shockingly little research into periods. Thus far there hasn’t even really been any interest in figuring out why they hurt so fucking badly, for instance. Just hasn’t occurred to the dudes who study stuff apparently, presumably because they are happy with the explanation that Eve is responsible for the downfall of mankind so we all deserve it.
It’s easy to make fun of bad period takes because they are stupid and wrong and also they stigmatise half the population of the earth for something that we really don’t enjoy and have to suffer through anyway. However, collectively our supposedly enlightened and scientific society hasn’t done a whole damn lot to look into the matter. We can’t really blame people if they are regurgitating less sensical versions of thirteenth-century ideas about periods. Overall, we need to work towards treating people who have to put up with periods with a little respect. Maybe also work on making it clear when you are writing something satirical. IDK, it would be helpful.
 Quoted in and translated by, Lesley Dean-Jones “Menstrual Bleeding according to the Hippocratics and Aristotle”, Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-2014) , 1989, Vol. 119 (1989), p. 184.
 Peter Brain (trans and ed), Galen on Bloodletting: A Study of the Origins, Development and Validity of His Opinions with a Translation of the Three Works, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 26.
 Quoted in Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset, trans. Matthew Adamson, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), p. 72.
 Quoted in Ibid., p. 75.
 Quoted in Ibid., p. 191.
For more on medieval women, see:
On Margery Kempe and the Bad Art Friend
On constructing the “ideal” woman
On Jezebel, makeup, and other apocalyptic signs
On Women and Work
On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy
Considering bad motherfuckers: Hildegard of Bingen and Janelle Monáe
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
On the Ideal Form of Women
On women and desire
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
Ⓒ Eleanor Janega, 2023
If you are enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon for more exclusive content. If not, that’s chill too!
Want more audio medieval history? Check out my podcast, We’re Not So Different.
My book, The Once And Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society, is out now in the Americas, and available for pre-order in the UK, Aus, and NZ.