Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England, by Sara Read

Helen Fulton looks at social attitudes to women’s monthly cycle in the 16th to 18th centuries

October 17, 2013

If the idea of blood makes you squeamish, look away now. This is a book full of blood, a gendered blood that drips, leaks, gushes and floods from women’s bodies on to beds, floors and clouts in an uncontrollable stream.

Sara Read’s study of menstruation and women’s blood in early modern England is a hard-working contribution to a specialised aspect of social history concerned with women’s sexuality and reproductive functions. Building on earlier scholarship, she situates menstruation as part of the life cycle of early modern women. Monthly bleeding is placed in the context of other types of female reproductive bleeding, particularly “hymenal” and post-partum bleeding. There is a chapter on the menopause and the gradual decline of bleeding as a normative part of a woman’s life. Read argues that “transitional bleedings” such as these defined the rites of passage of a woman’s life, from child to woman, from wife to mother, and from mother to grandmother.

So far, so predictable. There is nothing surprising in the fact that women in the early modern age (I find I can’t use the word “period” here) experienced patterns of bleeding more or less identical to those of modern women. Nor do we need to be reminded that menstruating women are thought to be unclean or polluted, that the Bible instructs men not to have sex with women who are bleeding, that virgins are supposed to bleed when the hymen is ruptured; all this is well known – and indeed still part of current thinking – especially among the 50 per cent or so of the population who might be called non-specialists.

What gives the book its time-specific focus is the written evidence for social attitudes to women’s bleeding in the 16th to 18th centuries, evidence drawn from medical handbooks, letters, diaries and, unexpectedly, court cases. A few criminal cases tried at the Old Bailey (and found by Read at the wonderful Old Bailey Online website) offer a grim perspective on female bleeding and its associations with violent crime such as rape and murder.

Much of the evidence is either extraordinary or hilarious, but Read can stretch it to dubious lengths, assuming that what could easily be innocuous remarks are coded allusions to some type of female bleeding. She claims “a possible reference to…menarche” in a diary entry by Lady Elizabeth Delaval who simply writes: “I was not a month past forteen yeare old when my aunt settled upon me an alowance of a hunderd pound a yeare.” Elizabeth Isham’s mother died at only 34, “probably of a menstrual disorder”, says Read breezily, on the basis of Isham’s comment that her mother often suffered from “sum fitts of blething”.

Stretching the evidence goes along with an undercooked analysis of what the evidence might signify. The extended discussion, in chapter 3, of the disease known as greensickness, explained in contemporary medical manuals as a lack of menstruation in young girls, fails to point out that the symptoms of this disease are almost identical to those of anorexia, itself a well-known inhibitor of menstruation. Neither is the evidence collected here particularly original – all of it comes from modern editions of primary sources, early modern medical manuals available on EEBO (Early English Books Online) or secondary criticism. The source material is comprehensive but the quotations seem plucked at random and there is little critical engagement.

Although Read argues for a gender divide among writers who refer to menstruation, claiming that men were more likely than women to refer to it in relation to their wives and daughters, the real difference can be seen in class values, between the genteel discretion of the literate classes, both medical and social (“I have not yet seen Lady Charlott”, says Princess Anne of her overdue period in 1692 – the origin of the modern colloquialism “Charlie”, perhaps?), and the coarse cheerfulness of popular culture where references to menstrual periods and sanitary protection are bandied about in ballads, plays, novels and songs.

Their sphere may be domestic, but there is a quiet heroism about many of the women mentioned in the book, including pioneers of midwifery and gynaecology as well as women who suffered afflictions made redundant by modern medicine. What is depressing is that the key events of women’s lives, whether triumphs or tragedies, can be reduced to so much blood.

Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England

By Sara Read
Palgrave Macmillan, 2pp, £55.00
ISBN 97811373550
Published 16 October 2013

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