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Alexandra M. Lord

Europeans have traditionally regarded puberty as a dangerous demarcation point between adulthood and childhood. Much of this anxiety has stemmed from the fact that puberty signals the emergence of adult sexuality. But concerns about puberty have also been linked to medical and lay perceptions of the mature and immature body. As a transition point between adulthood and childhood, puberty has often been characterized as a period of "great weakness." In becoming an adult, the adolescent was believed to experience a radical physiological transformation. For boys, this transformation was defined in terms of the emergence of sexual desire, the appearance of body and facial hair, a deepening of the voice and a growth in height. For girls, puberty has been defined first and foremost in terms of menarche. This emphasis on menarche has been widespread despite the fact that Europeans from the ancients onwards have recognized that other factors—the appearance of body hair, the emergence of breasts and the development of sexual desire—are also linked with female puberty.


Because physical maturity is linked to socioeconomic factors, ages at puberty have fluctuated from region to region and from period to period. In general, European women appear to have experienced menarche relatively late, at anywhere between fourteen and sixteen. Instances of women experiencing puberty at the age of twelve and thirteen can, of course, be found, but these cases are relatively uncommon and appear to have been regarded as highly unusual by contemporaries. Ages at menarche appear to have remained fairly constant before the nineteenth century; beginning in the late nineteenth century, improved nutrition, especially in Western Europe, began to have an impact upon the emergence of maturity. Ages at menarche then began to drop, with women experiencing their first menstrual cycle at anywhere between twelve and fourteen.

In the absence of such a clear marker as menarche, calculating men's ages at puberty is difficult. However, the link between sexuality and puberty may provide some insights into this subject. Medical texts, contemporary literature, journals, inquisition records, and a variety of other sources indicate that many boys began experimenting sexually around the age of twelve or thirteen. Religious rituals marking the emergence of adulthood, such as the Christian practice of confirmation and the Jewish bar mitzvah, would also seem to indicate that most Europeans viewed the emergence of adulthood as occurring between twelve and fourteen. This age appears to have been fairly constant. But in view of the role nutrition plays in the development of puberty, it is possible that physical maturity occurred later in preindustrial than in industrial Europe.

Occurring as they did at similar ages, male and female puberty were often seen in complementary terms. Thus the ability to produce semen was often viewed as a parallel process to the ability to produce menstrual fluid. Discussions of the changes in a women's breasts and nipples were often paralleled by discussions of the changes which occurred in a young man's nipples. And just as a young man's voice became deeper with the emergence of puberty so too did a young woman's voice become higher. These similarities did not, however, mean that female and male puberty were seen as being analogous. According to both lay and medical writings, female puberty resulted in an overall weakening of the body, with the end result being that women became both physically and mentally weaker than their male counterparts. Conversely, male puberty led to an increase in both physical and mental strength. In other words, rather than illustrating the similarities between the sexes, puberty underscored the differences between them.

Even in medical models that elided the differences between the sexes, such as Aristotle's one-sex model, puberty was seen as a pivotal point in differentiating between male and female traits. According to the Aristotelian schema, the primary difference between men and women was one of heat. Women, being colder, lacked the external genitals that characterized the male body. But puberty—among a range of other activities such as jumping or active sex—could transform the female body by causing an increase in heat, resulting in the emergence of male genitalia. Women could thus become men. Men could not become women as all creatures strove toward perfection. Being already perfect, the male body remained static, even during puberty. In medical texts and lay literature, this point was best illustrated by the story of Marie-Germain Garnier. Garnier had lived as a girl until, at the age of fifteen, she experienced puberty. This, combined with the violent and highly physical act of jumping across a ditch, caused a rupturing of Garnier's internal ligaments and, ultimately, the emergence of a penis. Garnier was now publicly acknowledged to be a man and his/her story was widely circulated. The famous sixteenth-century surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510–1590) claimed to have met Garnier, and he used the story to demonstrate the fungible nature of sexual difference in his medical text, On Monsters and Marvels (1573). Garnier's story also appeared in Michel de Montaigne's Travel Journal and Essays (1580), while a folk song insured that the story remained well known among both the literate and illiterate. Other less well known but equally graphic examples of women becoming men during puberty can be found in medical literature dating back to the ancients.

While this transformation from female to male was the most dramatic evidence of the body's instability during puberty, it was not the only sign of the body's precarious state during this period. Beginning with the ancient Greeks, medical practitioners routinely emphasized the role puberty played in initiating diseases. According to Hippocrates, adolescents experiencing puberty could expect to suffer from not only the diseases associated with childhood but from a range of other diseases as well, most dramatically prolonged fevers and epistaxis (bleeding from the nose). Later practitioners echoed this sentiment, arguing that puberty was often characterized by the onset of consumption (tuberculosis), convulsions, or epilepsy. On the positive side, puberty could also signal the termination of childhood diseases—in particular, the termination of epilepsy and the disappearance of testicular dropsy (an enlargement of the testicles). However, practitioners were more inclined to emphasize the relationship between puberty and the onset of new diseases; the termination of childhood diseases, while a characteristic of puberty, was often downplayed or even ignored. Puberty thus came to be more commonly viewed in negative rather than positive terms.


While both male and female puberty were characterized as periods of dangerous instability, female puberty was widely regarded as the more dangerous of the two. The reasons for this belief stemmed, in large part, from the emphasis which Europeans placed on the appearance of a young girl's first menses. Because the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions all saw menstruation as a fundamentally unclean process, a young girl's first menstrual cycle marked a negative transition point in her life. Leviticus detailed the restrictions to be placed on a woman once she had experienced puberty; menstruating women were prohibited from engaging in any type of intercourse with men and from participating in various religious rituals. Nowhere was the stigma associated with menarche more evident than in the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition; before experiencing puberty, young girls were allowed to participate in a range of religious rituals as well as allowed freedom of movement within the church. The emergence of menarche, however, put an end to this freedom. While the Western church was not as consistent in forbidding menstruating women from full participation in various rituals, western theologians routinely portrayed menstruating women as unclean. Outside of the Christian tradition, adherence to Leviticus was even stricter. For Jewish women, puberty meant that a woman was now required to attend the mikvah, the ritual bath which cleansed a woman after her menses. And among Islamic gypsies, menstruation was also seen as a form of pollution—a clear indication that, while puberty might bestow adult status on a young girl, it also carried negative overtones.

This negative view of puberty was not limited to the realm of theology; it was endorsed by medical theory as well as folk beliefs. For pre-nineteenth-century medical practitioners, menstruation and its causes were regarded as inexplicable. While the theories explaining the reasons behind this process were myriad, the menses was almost always defined in terms of the weaknesses of the female body. Thus, in experiencing menarche, a young woman's body presented evidence of not only her unclean and therefore sinful state, but also of her physical inferiority.

Although menstruation was typically regarded within the context of physical inferiority and/or of a woman's sinful nature, folk practices that stressed the supernatural aspect of menarche were only slightly less disparaging. In preindustrial Europe, menstrual blood was traditionally viewed as having magical properties such as the ability to tarnish mirrors or to cause flowers to wilt. While these attributes did not necessarily have positive connotations, they did accord the female body some measure of power. This emphasis on the supernatural powers of menstrual blood was reflected in attitudes toward menarche. Not surprisingly, a woman's first menstrual blood was believed to be especially potent; it was often collected and used in the concoction of various potions. Because menstrual blood was often viewed in conjunction with a woman's power over a man, this fluid was believed to be especially effective when used in love philtres. Mothers in medieval France, for example, collected their daughter's first menses to create a charm which would ensure that the girl's future husband would remain faithful to her.

Variations and abnormalities in menarche. Despite its unique and magical properties, medical theorists and folk healers maintained that menstrual blood was prey to a variety of external influences. Paramount among these was climate. Women living in southern and tropical climates were believed to experience an earlier puberty than their counterparts in northern and colder regions. According to this schema, southern women—women living in Italy and Spain—experienced puberty at the age of twelve or thirteen. In tropical regions, the age of puberty was believed to drop even lower; women in Africa were widely held to experience menarche at eight or nine. Northern women—women living in Britain or the Netherlands—experienced puberty at the age of fifteen or sixteen. In arctic regions, there was even some debate as to whether women ever experienced menarche. Women in Lapland, for example, were sometimes characterized as suffering from a permanent form of amenorrhea (an absent menses). Although there was no evidence to support this view of climatic influences and although medical practitioners began to dismiss this theory in the nineteenth century, this belief lingered among lay people. As a result, there is and always has been a tendency to regard women from southern regions as experiencing sexual maturity at an earlier age than their counterparts from northern regions. As an early puberty has often been linked to a greater sexual awareness and sexual promiscuity, this belief has led many Europeans to argue that women from southern or tropical regions are more inclined to sexual passion and sexual activity than their "colder" counterparts from northern Europe.

This link has also led many practitioners to argue that sexual maturity and morality are strongly connected. During the eighteenth century, the noted French physician Jean Astruc (1684–1766) echoed the concerns of many of his contemporaries when he argued that an early menarche could be precipitated simply by the reading of obscene books or by unchaste touching. Astruc's theory was endorsed by a variety of physicians and found additional support among clergymen and moralists. This view continued to hold sway among lay people throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thus, in European culture, a late puberty has typically been regarded as preferable to an early one, since a late menarche is often viewed as evidence of a young girl's greater sense of delicacy and modesty.

While an early puberty was not desirable, most medical practitioners and lay people agreed that an excessive retardation in puberty was also best avoided. Young girls who reached the age of seventeen or eighteen without a menses were characterized as suffering from primary amenorrhea or chlorosis, a term which referred to the greenish cast the skin assumed. This greenish coloring was, in fact, believed to be so pronounced that lay practitioners often called the disease "the green sickness." Throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, chlorosis was believed to stem from one of two causes. In the first case, the body produced menstrual fluid, but because there was no egress for this fluid, blood accumulated within the body. This form of the disease was regarded as dangerous; although menstrual fluid was not believed to be toxic, its retention within the body could cause it to become toxic. In the second case, chlorosis was the direct result of a malformation within the hypersensitive uterus. This form of chlorosis was believed to be even more dangerous than the first. Practitioners and even lay people commonly maintained that this disease resulted in death if not properly treated. Possible causes for either form of primary amenorrhea were numerous, but beginning in the eighteenth century, medical practitioners began to argue that affluent and urban lifestyles were among the primary causes of this disorder. Although widely accepted, this theory was contradicted by the evidence, as most women who suffered from primary amenorrhea were drawn from the working classes.

To cure this disorder, practitioners advocated several different remedies. In cases where the fusion of the hymen prevented menarche, practitioners were told to pierce the hymen to allow the blood to escape. But while this treatment was frequently recommended, this procedure was rarely performed, undoubtedly because of concerns regarding a young girl's chastity. Although Europeans were aware that a torn hymen did not always indicate that a girl was not a virgin, most parents were reluctant to allow their daughters to undergo this procedure. Actual treatments for amenorrhea were, as a result, often less dramatic. Emmenagogues—medications which were believed to provoke the menses—were commonly used, and adolescents' diets were closely monitored under the belief that a proper diet would foster the growth of the womb. Young girls were also warned of the dangers associated with indolent and excessively affluent lifestyles. Some historians have argued that this attack on affluent life-styles is evidence of a class hostility on the part of medical practitioners, who were often from the lower middle class.

The medicalization of "normal menarche." Hostility and criticism of their patients' lifestyles may also have reflected practitioners' uneasiness in discussing menarche with female patients. While historians have argued that there was no real taboo on discussions of menstruation in preindustrial Europe, the care and treatment of women experiencing menarche had traditionally been confined to the female-dominated practice of midwifery. Beginning in the seventeenth century, however, male medical practitioners began to argue that the dangers presented by menarche were such that medical assistance was necessary. Male practitioners now began to inquire about their patients' menstrual cycles, often noting the patient's age at menarche and using this age to predict and assess the patient's health. While some doctors argued that a woman who never experienced menarche was still a woman, the growing consensus held that a "normal menarche" was the primary hallmark of good health.

But even a "normal menarche" entailed the belief that women were more fragile and less stable than men. William Osborn, an eighteenth-century British medical practitioner, argued that a young girl's first menses was lightly colored. Her second and later menses assumed darker colors as a result of the fear that she experienced upon receiving her first menses and noting the external changes that puberty had wrought upon her body. Descriptions of puberty echoed such sentiments by describing it as a "crisis" and defining it as the result of vessels being "forced open" by an excess of blood. The emphasis on the violent nature of puberty may explain why so many girls were unprepared for menarche. Fear, combined with a growing prudery—especially during the nineteenth century—fed a vicious cycle: Many mothers were reluctant to discuss menarche with their daughters, and as a result some girls seem to have been caught unaware by their first menses. Their reactions of fear and distaste confirmed many practitioners' belief that menarche was an especially traumatic and turbulent period for a young girl.

In the nineteenth century, the British psychiatrist Henry Maudsley took this argument a step further, arguing that the onset of menstruation was so draining that girls needed to be cautioned against the overexpenditure of energy during this crucial period. According to Maudsley, the physical drains on the body during puberty were so great as to preclude any type of intellectual activity. Competition was to be avoided, as it could damage a young girl's nerves, pushing her over the edge into insanity. Overall, any overexpenditure of energy during puberty could, Maudsley insisted, result not only in amenorrhea and sterility but even the atrophying of the breasts. Thus, young girls who were careless of their health during this period would never become women; instead they would become "sexless beings" whose monstrous nature and inability to reproduce would result in race suicide. Although vigorously refuted by many of his contemporaries, Maudsley's argument was used throughout the late nineteenth century to justify the exclusion of women from higher education.

Hysteria and other disorders of female puberty. Concerns regarding puberty were not limited to discussions about menarche. From the classical period into the twentieth century, female puberty was associated with a range of disorders. Among the best known of these were hysteria, insanity, and anorexia nervosa. The profound psychological and physiological changes which occurred at puberty were also believed to accentuate a tendency toward epilepsy, consumption, and convulsions. Experiences at puberty also shaped a woman's interaction with the supernatural: throughout the Middle Ages and most of the early modern period, young girls who were between twelve and sixteen were believed to be especially vulnerable to possession by demonic spirits. And in the nineteenth century, most famous female mediums claimed to have experienced an especially traumatic puberty.

Of all the diseases associated with puberty, hysteria has had the strongest and longest connection. This strong connection stems in large part from the fact that hysteria has traditionally been viewed as a disease of the womb. While the causes assigned to this disease have not always remained constant from period to period, most medical practitioners have associated the disease primarily with women. When practitioners have sought to disassociate this disorder from the womb, the implication has always been that hysteria was a gynecological problem—a disease rooted in uniquely female organs. Thus, puberty, the period when the womb underwent the most dramatic change, was traditionally linked with hysteria. Even doctors who claimed that hysteria stemmed from neurological causes were inclined to see a connection between puberty and hysteria. Typically, Robert Whytt, an eighteenth-century professor of medicine at the University of Edinburgh, argued that hysteria was a nervous disorder but then went on to link the disease with adolescents and menstrual disorders. According to Whytt and many of his contemporaries, primary amenorrhea could and often did initiate an attack of hysteria. Even the fright which a young girl experienced upon her first menses could trigger an hysterical episode. Later medical practitioners took a more sophisticated approach, linking hysteria and puberty with a growing sense of sexual awareness. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), for example, claimed that girls who expressed boyish attributes as children were most likely to experience hysteria at puberty. This hysteria was directly caused by the repression of a young girl's masculine desires; this repression, while presenting dangers to a young girl's health, was necessary if feminine desire was to emerge.

While alarming, hysteria was not the most significant threat which faced a young girl at puberty. According to many Victorian doctors, insanity posited one of the greatest dangers of adolescence. Mental breakdowns during puberty were always explained in biological terms—they were, in other words, a result of the physical changes associated with puberty. Yet evidence suggests that the insanity exhibited by many pubescent girls stemmed from the restrictions placed on them during this period. Certainly, the onset of menstruation and the corresponding development of breasts and body hair sharply limited the activities which a young girl could pursue; travel, exercise, and physical activities were often prohibited. Given the intense scrutiny which young girls underwent at this point in their lives, it is not surprising that many of them rebelled and that their rebellions were often couched in terms of mental instability.

Like insanity, anorexia nervosa has often been characterized as one of the most serious illnesses associated with adolescence and puberty. Varying forms of this disorder can be found throughout European history; however, it was not until the nineteenth century that Europeans began to make a strong connection between puberty and anorexia nervosa. Several instances of "fasting girls" received widespread press attention in the early part of this century, but it was only in 1868 that the British practitioner William Gull isolated and named the disease. While Gull did not make a direct equation between anorexia nervosa and puberty, he argued that the disease was common in young girls between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three, ages commonly associated with sexual maturation. In 1873, the French physician Charles Lesègue termed the disease hysterical anorexia and claimed that food refusal stemmed from a conflicted relationship between a maturing girl and her parents. According to Gull, Lesègue, and their contemporaries, puberty was characterized by peculiar cravings and irregular eating patterns. In both medical and lay literature, these bizarre eating patterns were often taken as evidence of unnatural sexual appetites. Masturbation was not uncommon among these girls. To prevent this type of behavior, parents were told to monitor their daughter's health before it deteriorated. Again, the implication was clear; without proper care, a young girl's experience of puberty would be a negative one. This trend and view continued into the twentieth century. Although perceptions of anorexia nervosa shifted during this century, the disease continued to be associated with girls experiencing and/or completing puberty. In fact, some theorists began to argue that girls experiencing anorexia nervosa were attempting to retard or reverse their sexual maturation.

A host of other disorders—epilepsy, consumption, "long-continued fevers," and convulsions—were also linked to puberty. The causes of these diseases were believed to be myriad. But most medical theorists linked these disorders with menarche. In those cases where the menses was absent or retarded, practitioners argued that any one of a range of illnesses could be expected. Consumption, for example, might occur because, lacking a natural egress, menstrual fluid would accumulate and collect in the weak and maturing lungs of adolescents. Consumption was also linked to the vanity which most young girls began to experience at puberty; according to some practitioners, the pre- and postpubescent girl's desire for a slim figure led to irregular eating which led, in turn, to consumption. Epilepsy and convulsions, both of which were seen as separate and distinct disorders, were often linked to the instability caused either by puberty itself or by the onset of new passions during this period.

While medical discussions such as these always cast puberty in dire terms, religious and lay perceptions of female puberty did little to contradict this view. It might be argued, in fact, that medical practitioners took their cue from Judeo-Christian doctrine; as evidence of a woman's sinful nature and impurity, the menses and its onset could never be regarded with equanimity. But even in lay terms, the onset of menarche would always be a troubling issue. While puberty signaled the emergence of womanhood, it also signaled the advent of a restricted life. Before the development of the tampon and effective birth control in the twentieth century, menarche and menstruation would always circumscribe a woman's activities.


Male puberty has traditionally received less attention from medical, lay, and religious writers than its female counterpart. To some degree, this more limited emphasis may have been the result of the more diffuse nature of sexual maturation in men. Although many ancient and medieval writers argued that male puberty began at a specific moment (most typically at the age of fourteen), and that the production of semen paralleled the onset of the menses, the process of maturation is not as clearly delineated in men as it is in women. This lack of a clear demarcation point for male puberty was not, however, the only reason for limited discussions of this topic in religious, lay, and medical literature. A young boy's sexual maturation, while not without dangers, carried less negative overtones than that experienced by his sister. For theologians, a young boy's maturation might incline him toward masturbation and other forms of illicit sexual activity, but it did not automatically render him impure. In fact, religious rituals commemorating a young boy's coming of age were often couched in highly positive terms. For lay writers, male puberty entailed the emergence of adulthood—and as male adulthood brought freedom, not restrictions, male puberty was often depicted in relatively positive terms. Medical writers agreed, presenting puberty as a period when a young boy came into his full strength. Viewed from this perspective, it is not surprising that most Europeans regarded male puberty with less concern than they did its female counterpart.

This did not mean that Europeans completely ignored male puberty. From the ancients onwards, the subject was discussed in both medical and lay texts—although always as a subsidiary to female puberty. The relative absence of medical literature on male puberty stems from the fact that the male body was never medicalized to the extent that its female counterpart was. While the female body was the focus of midwifery and gynecological texts, the male body was usually discussed within the context of general medicine. As a result, the unique nature of male biology was often ignored.

Concern over male sexuality. According to many ancient and medieval medical practitioners, the key difference between the sexes lay in one of heat. Men were hotter than women, a characteristic which enabled them to grow facial hair and extensive body hair. Although some practitioners speculated that men matured at a slower rate than women, this type of speculation often took a back seat to more general discussions of sexual maturation. For early medical writers, as for their later counterparts, male puberty was often directly linked to a young boy's emerging sexuality.

During the Middle Ages, writers as varied as Hildegard of Bingen and Albertus Magnus agreed that the production of semen was not necessary for a boy to experience sexual pleasure. Puberty did not, in other words, result in the emergence of sexual desire. However, puberty did mark an increase in this desire. The release of this passion—through masturbation and even intercourse—was regarded with some ambivalence. Albertus Magnus argued that moderate sexual activity during this period would enable the body to grow faster. Sexual intercourse could also contribute to the greater nourishment of the body as the ejaculation of semen entailed the expulsion of "humidities" which impeded the body's heat. But while Albertus Magnus and other writers might argue that sexual activity was natural and to be encouraged during this period, this did not mean that medieval writers called for unlimited sexual activity. Most lay and medical writers agreed that excessive intercourse during this period could harm a young boy. But if excessive sexual activity could damage a young man's health, so too could sexual inactivity. Medieval writers warned their readers that an inability to produce semen at this period denoted a lifetime of impotence.

The dangers of masturbation. Beginning in the eighteenth century and stretching into the Victorian era, practitioners began to be more condemning of the dangers associated with sexual activity during puberty. As numerous historians have pointed out, the Enlightenment signaled a shift in thinking about masturbation, illicit sexuality, and, therefore, puberty. Beginning with the publication of the anonymous Onania (c. 1710) and S. A. Tissot's Onanism or a Treatise upon the Disorders Produced by Masturbation in 1760, masturbation by young boys came under increasing attack. By the nineteenth century, it was commonly accepted that the temptation to masturbate was especially prevalent in young boys experiencing puberty; according to most medical literature, this activity could and did permanently damage a young boy's health. Even writers such as the Victorian physician George Drysdale, who maintained that the generative organs required "due exercise" from puberty onwards, spoke of the dangers associated with "self-pollution." Resulting as it did in the wasting of semen, this practice was commonly believed to cause incurable nervous and hypochondriac complaints as well as an overall "constitutional weakness." These fears regarding adolescent masturbation stemmed from a variety of factors. Beginning in the eighteenth century, a growing number of medical and lay texts began to explore the moral welfare of children and adolescents. Texts condemning adolescent masturbation were, then, a part of a wider publishing trend in which the experiences of childhood and adolescence were being prioritized.

Although sexual maturation could, at least in biological terms, enable young men to marry and produce children, Europeans did not encourage young men to marry immediately after puberty. The reasons for delayed marriage were, of course, economic, but medical writers provided a justification for later marriages by viewing sexual activity during and immediately after puberty in nonreproductive terms. Condemnations of masturbation may have been linked to fears that young men were marrying later; without the natural outlet of marriage, young men were believed to turn to masturbation for relief. It was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with the publication and acceptance of works by writers such as Havelock Ellis (1859–1939) and Sigmund Freud, that masturbation during puberty came to be viewed in less negative terms.

Puberty and the attributes of masculinity. The external changes wrought by puberty also reflected a young man's sexuality. Typically, the appearance of facial and body hair was seen as a mark of virility. Both medical and lay literature claimed that the hairier the man, the more powerful was his libido. Thus, both the quantity and location of the hair which appeared on a young man during puberty were viewed as evidence of his sexual temperament. As men from southern Europe were often believed to be more hirsute than their counterparts from northern Europe, this connection between hair and sexuality was undoubtedly behind the belief that southern men were more sexually active than their northern counterparts. While the sexuality of southern women was depicted in negative terms, the virility of southern and hirsute man was widely admired.

Concerns regarding puberty and the physical changes which occurred during this period were not linked solely to sexuality. Before puberty, young men were believed to possess a feminine appearance; in lay literature, prepubescent boys, with their smooth skin and high voices, often played upon their sexual ambiguity by assuming feminine personas. This type of gender distortion was frowned upon in postpubescent boys, and concerns regarding sexual ambiguity can be found in the writings of moralists and medical practitioners. Of particular concern to these writers was the descent of the testicles, as the failure of these organs to descend at puberty would result in sterility. But while this aspect of puberty was frequently discussed, treatments for this disorder remained rudimentary and ineffective throughout most of European history. Along with the natural descent of the testicles, practitioners also discussed the external changes which occurred at puberty and the ways in which these changes should be regarded. Medical texts informed readers that, although alarming, the changes wrought by puberty were not to be feared. Thus the appearance of a milky serum in a young boy's breasts during puberty was, medical texts insisted, as natural as the appearance of facial hair. Neither should be regarded as evidence of an abnormality.

In fact, in discussions of male puberty, the emphasis was almost always positive, stressing the naturalness of a boy's physical development. This view reflected the widely held belief that puberty resulted in a surge of strength for young boys. In becoming men, boys left the protected world of childhood to enter into a world of wider opportunities and, on occasion, greater physical activity. Typically, the eighteenth-century French writer M. Brouzet argued that boys experiencing puberty were naturally attracted by activities such as hunting and militaristic games. This attraction was not surprising, as puberty entailed not only a surge of physical strength but also the emergence of greater confidence. While natural and to be expected, this vitality could be sapped if proper care was not taken. Education was especially crucial at this period, as it helped a young boy to become aware of his new masculine role. For many moralists and medical writers, this meant that separation of the sexes was to be encouraged during this pivotal period in a young man's life.

The fear that a young man would fail to assume masculine characteristics even after puberty was, of course, a very real one. The rigid gender divisions of European society required the creation of a clear demarcation point, which differentiated between the masculine and feminine spheres. Young boys who failed to become masculine as teenagers distorted gender roles and were thus feared by their contemporaries. Concerns regarding male puberty were, as a result, most significant at periods when masculinity was in doubt or under attack. Under normal circumstances, however, a young man's puberty was depicted in positive terms, for it opened up for him a world of wider opportunities.


Throughout European history, lay, medical, and religious writers have viewed puberty as a period of great instability. These views stemmed in part from the fact that this period was characterized by the creation of a sharp demarcation point between masculine and feminine. Before puberty, gender roles, while distinct, were not always defined in absolute terms. The physical changes wrought by puberty, however, served to accentuate and justify the social divisions of gender within this society. When looked at through the lens of gender, puberty took on sharply different meanings. For women, puberty was often viewed in negative terms, as it marked the end of a young girl's freedom. For men, of course, the converse was true; puberty marked the emergence of freedom. Despite shifts in medical perceptions of the body and despite the changes in religious views which have occurred over the last five hundred years, these views of puberty have remained fairly consistent over time. Only in the twentieth century—and then only gradually and incompletely—did new views of sexuality and the development of new methods of artificial birth control modify traditional concerns to some degree.

See also other articles in this section.


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