Title: Britannia et Panem
One hand slid up her thigh and underneath her smallclothes. When he tore them away, he saw that her moon’s blood was on her, but it made no difference.
Today’s topic is menstruation. I know, I know, but after last week’s topic, smallclothes, I received several questions about how one dealt with this issue in a world without drawers. Cersei is wearing her tear away panties in this scene, so presumably she could use something, although Jaime makes no note of it. (Can you imagine if he had? People are already disturbed by the menstrual blood in this sex scene, as opposed to the body of their dead son being right there.) It begs the question: what did medieval women use? It might actually turn out that in potentially using nothing, Cersei is more medieval than you’d expect.
In order to answer this question, we have to start in the 19th century. Like many personal care products, disposable pads were developed and sold to women in newspaper ads in the late 19th century. Even so, most women used rags well into the 20th century and in order to use rags, it helps to have drawers with a crotch, and this was a very late development in woman’s underwear.
19th century women’s underwear essentially was two tubes of fabric that only came together at the waist with no crotch and therefore, nothing to hold rags or a pad in place. How did women deal with this problem?
They might have used a belt, creating a cotton rag sling held to their body with a belt under their clothing, and pads continued to have belts into the mid 20th century, but evidence actually points to a different solution. Prepare yourself…
Most women used nothing. What?
Physician’s manuals from the end of the 19th century note that women bled into their chemises, using nothing to protect their drawers or bed sheets. Remember that long chemise, smock, or under-tunic women wore that we discussed last week? Yep, they bled into that—no rags, no disposable pad. They believed that trapping the blood against oneself was unhealthy (and they weren’t entirely wrong about that). Diaries provide further proof. American pioneer women’s diaries make no mention of a special device, instead referencing the wearing of darker underwear for that time of the month. Likewise, in the cotton mills it was reported with distaste that the floors were covered in sawdust to absorb menstrual blood, because the girls used no pads.
We’re told by the manuals that this was an age old tradition, but there is little to no mention of menstrual practices in Europe prior to the modern era. 17th century contemporary accounts report that only women on the stage used pads, but in 16th and 17th century women’s advice manuals, where we might expect some discussion of pads, since they discuss pregnancy and childbirth, there is silence. Given the practice amongst lower and middle class women in the 19th century after the development of disposable pads, it is quite possible that the majority of European women in the Middle Ages simply bled into their chemises.
It was once argued by historians that pre-modern European women made linen or cotton pads for themselves, but this argument was not based in contemporary sources. Instead, they extrapolated back from 20th century practices. Other cultures have made sponges, pads, and other devices to absorb menstrual blood, but there is no evidence medieval Europeans did so. Lack of evidence could be due to taboos, but it could also be that there were no extraordinary efforts taken to absorb menstrual blood.
Moreover, pre-modern women did not menstruate with the regularity of modern women. Later onset of puberty, more pregnancies, extended breastfeeding, and shorter life spans all limited the frequency of menses. Likewise, poor diet often meant women’s cycles were irregular. Therefore, menstruating was not so much a monthly ordeal as an uncommon occurrence.
Did well fed, well dressed noblewomen, like Sansa and Cersei, use fabric pads for the absorption of menstrual blood? Possibly. We certainly can’t rule it out, but we have no evidence for it, just as we have no evidence for them wearing underwear, and without undies, some kind of belt would have been necessary to hold a pad in place. We do know, however, that upper class women used perfumes to cover the smell of discharge. We also know that medievals were regular bathers, so perhaps bleeding into one’s chemise paired with perfuming, bathing, and changing that chemise, was considered the healthy, normal practice.
This might sound completely unbelievable, given our modern squeamishness. Menstrual ads feature women in white, running through fields and pads are doused with blue liquid for proof of absorption—nothing to make us think of the realities of menstruation. But there are regions today, where women make no attempt to conceal menstruation, bleeding into their clothes. Were medieval women any different?
I think this is one case, where we can celebrate modern conveniences.
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