Contraception in History Part I: Aristotle, Hippocrates, and a Whole Lotta Lead
There’s a common misconception (no pun intended) that contraception didn’t exist in any real capacity before the twentieth century. Previous generations were able to control themselves, were not as sex-mad as we are today, and only ever engaged in the act after (heterosexual!) marriage and for the sake of procreation.
I have always believed that people haven’t changed at all over the course of human history, and the more I study, the more I believe this to be true. Sure, the way people make sense of their world changes, as does the way they write about it, but people don’t change. This is particularly true when it comes to sex. Our very existence is proof that every generation since the dawn of man has been powerless against it. More than just a biological urge, it’s a desire and an obsession. As long as mankind has understood that sex can lead to pregnancy, we have sought ways to prevent conception.
This is nothing new. You want proof?
This twelve-thousand year old cave painting from the Grotte des Combarelles in France is believed to be the first depiction of condom use.
Take that, 1960s!
Being a life-long fan of historical romance, I have always been curious about contraception. Assuming the woman didn’t die having her first or second child, how did she avoid having twenty more? Do they all have syphilis? If not, why not? What does syphilis look like?
Assuming I’m not the only person who has ever wondered this (and I might be…), I’m going to write a series of posts of contraception throughout history. If there’s a particular time, place, or aspect that you’re interested in, please let me know.
For now we’ll start in the Ancient World.
Obviously women are all-powerful, but Hippocrates was among the first to believe that women could prevent conception by banishing sperm on command, as he explains in The Sperm, fifth century BCE: “When a woman has intercourse, if she is not going to conceive, then it is her practice to expel the sperm produced by both partners whenever she wishes to do so.”
You read that right, the sperm produced by both partners. While Aristotle and Plato argued that men’s sperm was responsible for producing embryos and that women were little more than a receptacle for it, Hippocrates understood that conception was a complex process involving both partners. Although he might not have been quite right about conception (or lack thereof) at will, he reasoned that both parties had to be involved because children could look like either parent. So far so logical.
Diseases of Women, a Hippocratic treatise, goes on to recommend a sure fire way of dealing with unintended pregnancies: “Shake her by the armpits and give her to drink...the roots of sweet earth almond.”
There is no evidence that the sweet earth almond, also known as the Cyperus esculenthus is anything other than a tasty, tasty nut. It’s a good source of protein, healthy fats, and Vitamins E and C, so it’ll make your skin look great, but it has no known contraceptive or abortive properties.
If that didn’t work (and all signs point to no), he also advised women to jump up and down repeatedly with her heels touching her butt. It’s worth a shot.
While Aristotle underestimated the woman’s contribution to conception, his contraceptive recommendations sound a little more effective. He advised women to: “anoint that part of the womb on which the seed falls with oil of cedar, or with ointment of lead or with frankincense, commingled with olive oil.”
Ah, yes. Lead.
Lead is one explanation for the shockingly low birthrates in Ancient Rome. The aqueducts were made of lead, and it is not unreasonable to suspect that most of the population was suffering from a degree of lead poisoning (more on that here). Lead poisoning causes infertility in men and women, yes, along with behavioral changes, irritability, convulsions, and permanent damage to the central nervous system.
Throughout history, lead has been used in a number of common products from paint to eyeliner and has been a well-documented cause of infertility and madness.
So there you have it. If you can’t find someone to vigorously shake you by the armpits, try lead.*
Tune in next Thursday for more on contraception in history. If you can’t wait, read Aine Collier’s The Humble Little Condom: A History for a fun introduction.
*Do not, for the LOVE OF GOD try lead.