Title: Britannia et Panem
I gave you my maiden’s gift. I would have given you a son too, but they murdered him with moon tea, with tansy and mint and wormwood, a spoon of honey and a drop of pennyroyal. It wasn’t me, I never knew, I only drank what Father gave me.
Today’s topic is birth control. It’s as easy as brewing up some moon tea in Westeros to prevent conception—the Plan B of fantasy birth control. Cersei is familiar with it. Jeyne was forced to take it. Arianne uses it. Women north of the Wall use it. And if things have gotten too far along, like they did with Lysa, you can force your daughter to unknowingly consume a whole barrel of moon tea to induce an abortion, meaning moon tea doubles as a conception inhibitor and abortifacient. But did women in western Europe during the Middle Ages have something similar they could rely on for family planning and the prevention of unwanted pregnancies?
Moon tea is an herbal tea prepared by maesters and wise women. There are no condoms in Westeros and seemingly few men there are great practitioners of coitus interruptus—poor control, one can only assume—so this tea is their go to method of preventing unwanted births and ending unwanted pregnancies. It is a mix of several ingredients, as Lysa says, which have been used historically in birth control.
Lady Smallwood refers to the tea as tansy tea. Tansy—which I have growing in my medieval herbal garden in a fangirlish nod to the series—was grown medicinally by the Greeks. It has been used since to treat worms, rheumatism, fevers, digestive issues, and sores. During the Middle Ages, however, it was used as an abortifacient. It was also used to prevent miscarriages and encourage conception.
This shows that abortifacients of all kinds were not only dangerous, which they were, but also not very good at preventing pregnancy. Which means the easy answer to this question is that while medieval women had recourse to some herbal remedies, they weren’t terribly effective and not nearly as reliable as moon tea.
We might discount the effectiveness or safety of these remedies, but let’s take a peek at them nonetheless. Most of our knowledge on the topic, which would have been the purview of wise women, is preserved in male authored medical tracts published during the high medieval period, many of them either authored by Muslims or influenced by Islamic scholarship.
For example, Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi (ca. 865-925), known to the west as Rhazes, recounted the following as contraceptives: cyclamen, cinnamon, fern, luffa, rue, and wallflower broth. For abortifacients he lists blackberry, colocynth pulp, mint, pennyroyal, rue juice, and savin juniper seeds. Ibn Sina’s—or Avicenna—(ca. 980-1037) list is similar to Rhazes’: colocynth and pennyroyal appear as contraceptives alongside pomegranate pulp, sweet basil, and willow leaves and for abortifacients he records the use of cyclamen and savin juniper in addition to birthwort.
Western authors, influenced by these texts contain similar lists of dubious contents from spearmint to hemlock. There is the occasional female author in the bunch. Hildegard of Bingen (b. 1098) was an abbess, a mystic visionary, a composer of music, theological texts, and the author of Physica.
Hildegard is a fantastic source, since she didn’t just repeat the lists of ancient authors like many of her male counterparts, but reported the actual practices of her female friends and neighbors. Hildegard was also possibly the first person to describe the female orgasm in a medical tract, so I feel like we can trust her. She reported that asarum, fern, feverfew, hellebore, oleaster, and our old friend tansy were used as abortifacients. The 12th century female physician, Tortula, who operated in Salerno, Italy, recorded the use of anis, artemisia with wine and bathing, balm, betony, cumin, chamomile, death carrot, lovage, marjoram, pennyroyal, sage, savin, savory, and seseli.
Were there any forms of birth control? Potentially. Avicenna describes some of the behavioral methods, including superstitions, that were used to prevent conception like the rhythm method, separation before seed release (coitus interruptus), jumping up and down to drive sperm out, sneezing to expel semen, dilution of sperm with slippery agents, and suppositories. Kind of an unimpressive list.
What about condoms? They fell out of use after the fall of Rome and only show up again in the historical record in the 15th century in the reusable form of animal intestines. Mmm… And those late medieval condoms were used to prevent your penis from burning after an encounter with a prostitute, as opposed to being employed to prevent conception.
Medieval birth control methods were unreliable and dangerous. And yet the population of the Middle Ages was largely stagnant and families were small. What gives? Late marriage patterns kept birth rates down. So too did high infant mortality, lengthy maternal breastfeeding, and shorter life expectancy. Beyond these demographic reasons, we must also look at the medieval tradition of abstinence that extended not only to unmarried women and nuns but to married women as well.
The spiritual hierarchy of the Middle Ages put virgins first, then widows, and wives last of all. The Church believed abstinence was holiness and condemned all extramarital and non-procreative sex. They certainly wouldn’t have taken kindly to birth control and abortifacient remedies, such as those listed above. (They also condemned remedies used to enhance fertility, so it wasn’t a universal thou must make babies stance, so much as a don’t mess around with God’s plan stance.) Medieval monks were not the equivalent of maesters, doling out herbal remedies. And while there was a trend from the late 12th century on to view sex in marriage not only as a necessary evil, but potentially conducive to strengthening marital relations, sex between married partners was largely viewed by the medieval Church as an unfortunate reality.
So, the Church attempted to limit marital sexual relations. A man wasn’t supposed to have sex with his wife when she was menstruating—as usual Jaime Lannister would be a violator of moral norms—when she was pregnant, on feast days, during Advent and Lent, and…well, when you add that all up, there’s a lot fewer days for married folks to get down.
They couldn’t very well regulate these behaviors. Parish priests couldn’t bug your bedchamber to determine whether you were fornicating during Lent. Surely medieval folks turned a deaf ear to these teachings, getting up to whatever kinky business they wanted, right? Well, we mostly assumed so until someone bothered to look at birth records and a rather freaky fact emerged: it was rare for babies to be born nine months after the period of Lent. Ten months after Lent, yes. Eight months after Lent, sure, but what birth records seem to indicate is that while the Church couldn’t actually patrol sex between married couples the way they might have liked to, the laity still followed the prescribed rules.
Which could mean that abstinence was one of the most common forms of birth control in the Middle Ages. Not particularly sexy or creative, but rather effective barring any pesky virgin birth scenarios.
Why oh why would they practice abstinence, when it’s just no fun? Teens today don’t, when we teach it to them in schools stateside, thinking they’ll just avoid sex if we scare them enough. First, medieval people were just more spiritual than we are. We tend to take a cynical view of spirituality today, thinking in terms of power structures and control as opposed to genuinely held faith, but there was a lot of genuine faith in the medieval period. It didn’t always match up with the faith of the hierarchy, but it was genuine.
But the other potential answer is interesting from a feminist history prospective. Dyan Elliot is a historian of the body, and her work posits that women quite often chose abstinence, whether as nuns, lay mystics, or married wives living in so-called spiritual marriages. Rather than viewing these women as victims of a patriarchal church that demonized and suppressed their sexuality, Elliot suggests that in a world where women had very few rights, abstaining from sex was a way of gaining control of their bodies as well as expressing their piety. She undermines the stereotype of the medieval era being one where the conjugal debt was paramount, as does the Church’s generally negative stance on marital relations, when you think about it.
Feminist history isn’t everyone’s cuppa, but David Herlihy’s work as a demographer of late medieval and Renaissance Italy also proves that women practiced some kind of family planning. We don’t know what kind: it could have been abstinence or less Church approved methods such as Avicenna’s coitus interruptus or the rhythm method, but Herlihy’s work shows that peasant women practiced family planning. There is no evidence that aristocratic women used the historical equivalent of moon tea, and why would they? The need to create an heir and several spares was the driving prerogative of the primogeniture practicing noble classes. Which runs counter to yet another stereotype of huge agricultural families—more mouths to feed, but more hands, right?—in pre-modern Europe. Medieval families tended to be more like the current western model of two children per couple surviving until adulthood.
Low birth rates without access to any truly reliable, safe birth control means cultural practice—be it extended maternal feeding or abstinence—probably constituted the most successful form of ‘birth control’ in the Middle Ages. It also means all those milkmaids in the riverlands, who were seduced by Tom of Sevenstreams, would have been out of luck in western Europe.
The existence of moon tea may be a clever way for GRRM to insert modern sexual practice into a pre-pill world, but it also makes the women of Westeros rather luckier than their medieval counterpoints, in this historian’s estimation, giving them more control of their bodies. And I can’t quibble with that.
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