Facing Adulthood: Adolescence and Sexual Maturity

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Facing Adulthood: Adolescence and Sexual Maturity



New Beginnings. For most boys and girls, any opportunities for school attendance came when they were quite young and ended before they reached adolescence, which brought both sexual maturity and the beginnings of their life as a working person. It was a period when young people, particularly girls, were expected to begin settling down, not a time of “finding themselves” or “exploring their potential.”

Changes. The onset of menstruation, termed menarche in modern English and “the flowers” in the sixteenth century, provided a girl with the clearest signal of bodily changes leading to adulthood. The average age at menarche has declined in the Western world, from about 15.5 in the 1890s to less than 13 at the end of the twentieth century,

but it is not clear that the average age in the Renaissance and Reformation period was significantly higher than that in the nineteenth century. In fact, it may even have been lower, because age at menarche is affected by nutrition and other environmental factors, and many girls in the nineteenth century had a poorer diet and performed work that was physically harder than those of earlier times. Somewhere around fourteen years of age was probably about average, with poorer girls starting later than wealthier ones.

Menstruation. Because the actual biological function of menstruation had not yet been discovered, it was viewed medically as either a process that purified women's blood or removed excess blood from their bodies. Many authors, such as the unknown medical writer who composed the treatise On the Secrets of Women in the early fourteenth century, also thought that menses in women mixed with sperm to create a child. Doctors in this period regarded all bodily fluids as related and viewed illness as caused by an imbalance among fluids in the body; they thus recommended taking blood by cutting a vein or using leeches—termed “bloodletting”—as a treatment for disease in both men and women. Because of this reasoning, menstruation was not clearly separated from other types of bleeding in people's minds, and was often compared to male nosebleeds, hemorrhoids, or other examples of spontaneous bleeding. Menstrual blood was thought to nourish the fetus during pregnancy, and because the body was regarded as capable of transforming one sort of fluid into another, to become milk during lactation. In the same way, male blood was held to become semen during intercourse. Semen and milk were not viewed as gender-specific fluids, however, for “virile” women who had more bodily heat than normal were seen as capable of producing semen, and effeminate men who lacked normal masculine heat were thought to produce milk.

Fears. The cessation of menstruation (amenorrhea) was regarded as extremely dangerous for a woman, either because it left impure blood in her that might harden into an abnormal growth, or because it would allow excess blood to run to her brain, which would become overheated. (The latter idea would be cited as a reason for barring women from higher education in the nineteenth century; education would cause all their blood to remain in their brains, which would halt menstruation and eventually cause the uterus to shrivel away.) Thus, doctors recommended hot baths, medicines, pessaries placed in the vagina, and, for married women, frequent intercourse, to bring on a late menstrual period.

Taboos. Menstruation was not simply a medical matter, however, but carried a great many religious and popular taboos, for though all bodily fluids were seen as related, menstrual blood was still generally viewed as somehow different and dangerous. Hebrew Scripture held that menstruation made a woman ritually impure, so that everything she touched was unclean and her presence was to be avoided by all. By the Renaissance, in Jewish communities, this taboo was limited to sexual relations and a few other contacts between wife and husband for the seven days of her period and seven days afterward. At the end of this time, a woman was expected to take a ritual bath (mikvah) before beginning sexual relations again. Among the Orthodox Slavs in eastern Europe, menstruating women could not enter churches or take communion. Western Christian churches were a bit milder, but both Catholic and Protestant commentators advised against sexual relations during menstruation. This recommendation was originally based strictly on the religious notion that women were unclean, though during the sixteenth century the idea spread that this activity was medically unwise as it would result in deformed or leprous children. Menstruation was used to symbolize religious practices with which one did not agree; English Protestants, for example, called the soul of the pope a “menstruous rag.” According to popular beliefs, menstruating women could by their touch, glance, or mere presence rust iron, turn wine sour, spoil meat, or dull knives. Though these ideas declined among educated Europeans during the seventeenth century, they are recorded well into the twentieth century among many population groups.

Women's Beliefs. It is difficult to know what women themselves thought about menstruation, for they rarely wrote about it. Women's handwritten personal medical guides, small books in which they recorded recipes for cures and other household hints, include formulas for mixtures to bring on a late menses and to stop overly strong flow. Women turned to midwives and other females for help with a variety of menstrual ailments. Most women seemed to view menstruation not as an illness or a sign of divine displeasure, but as a normal part of life; only in the nineteenth century would menstruation come to be regarded as an illness.


This selection is from the medical treatise On the Secrets of Women, written in the early fourteenth century by an unknown author but attributed to the famous medieval scientist and philosopher Albertus Magnus.

Now that we have finished our introductory remarks, designed to prepare the reader's mind toward this subject matter, let us turn to the matter of the book, and first let us examine the generation of the embryo. Note therefore that every human being who is naturally conceived is generated from the seed of the father and the menses of the mother, according to all philosophers and medical authorities. And I say “medical authorities” because Aristotle did not believe that the father's seed was part of the substance of the fetus, but rather that the fetus proceeded from the menses alone, and afterwards he states that the seed exudes like vapor from the menses. The doctors, [the Greek physician Galen and his followers] on the other hand, believe that the fetus is made up of male and female seed together.

Having set forth both opinions, we must now see how that seed is received in woman. When a woman is having sexual intercourse with a man she releases her menses at the same time that the man releases sperm, and both seeds enter the vulva (vagina) simultaneously and are mixed together, and then the woman conceives. Conception is said to take place, therefore, when the two seeds are received in the womb in a place that nature has chosen. And after these seeds are received, the womb closes up like a purse on every side, so that nothing can fall out of it. After this happens, the woman no longer menstruates....

The menses in woman, just like the sperm in man, is nothing other than superfluous food which has not been transformed into the substance of the body. In woman it is called “menses” because it flows at least once every month when the woman reaches the proper age, that is, 12, 13, or, most frequently, 14. This flow takes place every month in order to purge the body. In some women it begins at the new moon, in some afterwards, and thus all women do not have their pain at the same time. Some have more suffering, some less; some have a shorter flow than others, and this is all determined by the requirement and the complexion of the individual woman.

The third question is why menses, which are superfluous food, flow in women, and sperm does not flow in men, for this is also superfluous food. To this I reply that woman is cold and humid by nature, whereas man is hot and dry. Now humid things naturally flow, as we see in the fourth book of the Meteorology [a book by Aristotle] and this is especially true of that humid substance which is in women, for it is watery. In men, on the other hand, the humid substance resembles air, and, further, man has natural heat, and this heat acts upon the humid. Since nature never does anything in vain, as is noted in the first book On Heaven and Earth, [another book by Aristotle] and because the heat in women is weaker than that in men, and all their food cannot be converted into flesh, nature takes the best course. She provides for what is necessary, and leaves the excess in the place where the menses are kept. Enough has been said on this subject, for to go into more detaE would be to give more than the subject demands....

Source: Helen Reunite Lemay, Women's Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), pp, 63-65.

Masculine Changes. Sexual maturity in young men was not marked, of course, by one distinct characteristic such as the onset of menstruation, but by several signs of physical maturation such as the growth of facial hair and the deepening of the voice. This transformation seems to have occurred somewhat later than in modern times, but, as is still true, young men varied greatly in the age at which they became physically mature. In many parts of Europe, adolescent boys and young men did not live with their own families, but in the household of an employer or a master-craftsman to whom they were apprenticed. Their master or employer was expected to oversee their work and free time, and keep them from engaging in activities that might bring harm to themselves or others. Many employers and masters—and some parents—complained that the boys and young men under their supervision were difficult to control, and that they frequently engaged in rowdy or disruptive behavior, drinking, fighting, and swearing. According to court records, gangs of young men frequently roamed the streets of many towns in the evening, fighting with one another, threatening young women, and drinking until they passed out. In some places these youth groups were well organized and carried out activities such as throwing rotten fruit at or making noise outside the homes of people whose actions they did not approve of, such as pastors who tried to control them, or older men who had married much younger women. Such actions may in part have been motivated by the fact that the age of marriage in much of Europe was quite late during this period, leaving young men with no legitimate sexual outlet, so they instead proved their masculinity with drinking contests, fighting, and other wild behavior. These activities were frowned upon and the boys were punished if they got out of hand. Still, these activities were also in some ways expected as a normal part of achieving manhood.


Patricia Crawford, “Attitudes to Menstruation in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past and Present, 91 (May 1981): 47-73.

Elizabeth A. Foyster, Manhood in Early Modern England: Honour, Sex and Marriage (New York: Longman, 1999).

Michael Mitterauer, A History of Youth, translated by Graeme Dunphy (Oxford & Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993).