Married Life: Birth Control
Married Life: Birth Control
The Duty of Procreation. The medieval church taught that birth control was not only sinful but could actually impede the goals of marriage, one of which was the procreation of children. Consequently, a valid marriage could not be contracted if one of the spouses made it conditional on avoiding the conception of offspring. In the 1230s Pope Gregory IX decreed that if one spouse had never intended to have children and had planned to avoid conception, the conjugal bond was not formed, and no marriage existed between the couple. There is no dearth of evidence, however, suggesting that contraception was practiced throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes more, sometimes less, effectively.
Coitus Interruptus. Perhaps the most common and oldest means of avoiding conception was coitus interruptus. According to the Church, this practice was not only sinful but had a “polluting” effect, because it involved the spilling of semen “outside the appropriate vessel.” Nevertheless, it was the easiest form of birth control available in medieval society. Some medieval writers linked the practice of coitus interruptus with poverty and the inability of a family to support additional offspring. By the early fourteenth century, moralists and preachers were condemning coitus interruptus with such regularity that historians have concluded it was practiced throughout Europe.
Birth-Control Potions. Another common method of birth control, which was condemned by moralists from the fifth century onward, involved using potions to induce sterility. Medieval society inherited many prescriptions for such potions from ancient learned medical treatises and through the folk medicine passed on by oral tradition, primarily among women. Potions intended to prevent conception were closely related or identical to abortifacients and potions to bring on retained menses or afterbirths. Consequently, even though they were officially condemned by the Church, the recipes for contraceptives and abortifacients circulated under the rubrics of more acceptable medical procedures.
Midwifery and Birth Control. Midwives, with their specialized knowledge of gynecological and obstetrical matters, were believed to have information on potions and charms to counteract sterility and encourage conception as well as to prevent conception and procure a miscarriage. They were most certainly learned about herbal remedies. Indeed, modern research has validated the contraceptive effects of many herbs that were recommended by folk medicine or tradition. Along with herbs, incantations and other less-effective means of contraception might have been recommended by medieval mid-wives. These means were closely linked to attempts to manipulate nature by magic, and they are one reason that moralists frequently criticized midwives as purveyors of superstition. Some historians have argued that the perception that midwives could bring about fertility or sterility and abortion led to their condemnation and, ultimately, their persecution in the witch hunts of the fifteenth century.
Controlling Abortions. A woman who concealed a pregnancy and birth and subsequently claimed she had miscarried or had a stillborn child was routinely suspected of abortion. Midwives were given strict instructions to report all births to the parish priest in order to avoid accusations of abortion or infanticide. Indeed, midwives were frequently accused not only of aiding women to procure abortions but also of helping them to conceal a pregnancy, disposing of a newborn child, or switching a live child for one who was stillborn.
Penalties. Moralists and authors of penitentials tended to consider contraception a less serious sin than abortion, which was frequently equated with homicide because they believed the soul had already entered the fetus. Contraception, on the other hand, was merely sinful and linked to wantonness. One penitential advised that a woman
who procured an abortion within forty days of conception should do one year of penance. However, if she did so after the child had quickened or taken on life, she should do the far-more-serious penance for homicide. The author made another important distinction that indicates something about the social circumstances that could attend efforts at birth control. He noted that the woman’s personal situation made a great difference in the seriousness of the crime. If the woman were poor and unable to support a child, she should not be judged as harshly as a wealthy woman or a wanton woman who was trying to conceal her immorality. Other motives attributed to women who tried to avoid conception included fear of childbirth and wanting to avoid its pain, as well as the desire to preserve their beauty. Despite the repeated condemnations of moralists, however, there is overwhelming evidence that the laity practiced various forms of birth control throughout the medieval period.
Peter Biller, “Birth-Control in the West in the Thirteenth and Early Fourteenth Centuries,” Past and Present, 94 (1982): 3-26.
John M. Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).