Friday, 30 May 2014

Medieval Women, flowers, sex, motherhood

Medieval woman was constantly reminded of God's will and his divine justice. In fact everyone was, men, women and children. The notion of heaven and hell was very real, so real that, throughout the Middle Ages, churches contained wall paintings reminding the people, rich and poor, of Heaven's blessings and Hell's terrors. Women during this period were classified according to their sexual status. They were virgins, wives or widows and they were, of course, also mothers.

Church Wall Paintings informed men and women of sin

Sexual intercourse was part of God's original plan. If Adam and Eve had not eaten the apple- a sin of pride- they would have had intercourse. Otherwise how would they have obeyed God's order to increase and multiply (Genesis 1: 27-8) ? By this rationale, if women chose to be virgins in paradise they would have been thwarting God's intentions. It was, therefore, after the 'fall' that the concept of lust crept in and, thereafter,became the problem for the medieval Church; not sex. If lust was not controlled it could lead to eternal damnation. The only legitimate outlet for sex was marriage. 'Marriage was ordained by God. Monasticism,' writes historian Henrietta Leyser, 'was instituted by man.'

This gave rise to the idea of mutual conjugal debt. St Paul wrote, 'Let the husband render to his wife what is her due, and likewise the wife to her husband.' It does not take much imagination for us as we glance backwards from the perspective of a more liberated 21st century to see the problems this presented for women.
The Medieval Woman

Two main medical theories about sexual differences existed during the medieval period. Galen said that female anatomy corresponded to that of a man. This theory also suggested that women must ejaculate her seed for there to be conception but could not conceive without enjoying intercourse. It seems on a first reading, egalitarian. Yet, what does this theory suggest for the medieval woman who conceives a child after a rape? However, just as unfair, Aristotle saw women as defective males with the male anatomy turned inside out. Women were perceived as the 'weaker vessel.'

The Weaker Vessel

Male seed was precious. It could not be wasted. Female seed was dangerous so women must purge themselves of bodily excesses. Menstruation was a part of this. Intercourse was also part of the purging process. Obviously not when a woman had her menses.

It was thought that women's seed and menstrual blood were dangerous to everyone and everything. It could turn wine sour, destroy crops. It could kill off bees and dogs tasting it could get rabbies. Even gazing at a menstruating woman might have dire consequences. Another theory comes into play here.

Health during the medieval period was all about balancing humors. This theory had been taught by Hippocrates and was inherited from Ancient Greece. The medieval believed that there were in existence four humors that must be in a state of balance. These were four elements: fire, air, earth and water. Three categories corresponded to these: heat, cold, dryness and moisture. Then the bodily humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm; third the temperaments: sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic. Men and women were different. Men were hotter than women. They had physiological and moral superiority. Women had a lack of heat which made for physical weakness and untrustworthy nature. Women were more sexually greedy than men because their cold uteruses were in need of having hot semen to warm the uterus.
Wikipedia, The Four Humors

In the Trotula, a Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine written in Salerno in the 12th C we find that this defect was considered a sign of a less perfect life form. 'Women were unable to concoct ( cook) their ingredients as thoroughly as men.' ( Introduction). Men were able to exude residues through sweat and the growth of facial hair. Women, however, would accumulate excess materials from their bodies and this could lead to disease, an humoral imbalance. This imbalance was menstruation.

Menses became called a woman's flowers because trees without their flowers will not bear fruit. Women without their flowers will be deprived of offspring. Menstrual blood works like a tree. Before bearing fruit a tree must bear its first flowers. Nature had in effect established a purgation to temper woman's poverty of heat. Thus the 'flowers'. It was a vernacular term for menstruation used by rich and poor.

Childbirth was risky. It was believed that saints dispensed their favours equally between men and women. Mothers in the course of difficult labours would offer prayers to the Virgin and to Saints. St Margaret, a saint who was swallowed and spat out by a dragon, had unrivalled powers of empathy with the process of labour. During their ordeal women, surrounded by midwives, might seek comfort by listening to readings from her life.

Childbirth came to rich and poor, the village and the castle alike.

Girdles, known as birth girdles, were popular aids to birthing. As early as the 11th C Bald's Leechbook suggests that in a case of difficult labour a woman would put prayers upon her girdle to help ease the birth. At Westminster Abbey the monks guarded the Virgin's own girdle which had been given to them by Edward the Confessor. It was loaned out for aristocratic and royal births.

Image of St Margaret

So, Heaven, Hell, Saints, God's Will, were all notions that permeated the medieval mind. These were ideas that also existed in a misogynist society. As regards sex and motherhood, women were the 'weaker vessel.'

To read more I suggest:

Medieval Women, Henrietta Leyser, 1995, Phoenix Press.
The Trotula, edited and translated by Monica H.Green, 2002, University of Pennsylvania Press.

There is much on this subject in my new novel The Swan-Daughter to be published by Accent Press on 18th September 2014 as an e book and in December 2014 as a paperback.   


  1. I have studied the Middle ages extensively and written many articles for magazines on various subjects from that period, but I never knew why the menses were called flowers. Makes perfect sense the way you explained it! I actually own the book "Medieval Women" but have yet to read it. Now you've inspired me to do so.
    Thanks for this very interesting post.

  2. There is more detail in chapter 2 of Henrietta's book. She is excellent and actually I know her as she teaches at St a Peters Oxford. Glad you enjoyed the post . In a week or so I shall continue the subject so keep an eye out for that.

  3. Speaking of women who were by no means the weaker vessel, but proved the stronger, will your latest novel mention Eupraxia of Kiev, who became Adelheid, wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV?

    Eupraxia had many adventures, among which she left her husband and found refuge with Matilda of Canossa, Countess of Tuscany, who was not only Henry IV's greatest opponent, but by defeating him after a long, hard struggle, laid the foundations for the Italian Renaissance.

    Via Countess Matilda, we come full circle back to England, as she hosted, among others, Duke Robert of Normandy and Anselm of Canterbury.

    1. Yes I do know about her but might finish the story in 1087. Maybe I can include her.

    2. According to the Wikipedia article on Gytha, citing Alexander Nazarenko's book published in Moscow in 2001, Gytha died on 10 March in either 1098 or 1107. Are you planning a fourth book to continue her story after 1087?

      As Vladimir's younger half-sister (her mother being Vsevolod's second wife, Anna, a daughter of the Cuman Khan), and thus a sister-in-law of Gytha's, and as an interesting and courageous woman in her own right, Eupraxia merits a cameo, I think. She would have been in her late teens (and just widowed by her first husband) in 1087.

      If you do mention Eupraxia, perhaps you could subtly hint that she will have important connections that readers might wish to follow up?

      It's my guess that you already mention Anne of Kiev, Vladimir's paternal aunt, who was the mother of King Philip I of France from 1060 until her death in 1075.

  4. Replies
    1. I love writing these kinds of articles as it helps me focus. You must read the novels.

  5. Although completely off-beam for Kievan affairs, and rather retrospective for where you're at now, I note that some genealogies trace Alan Rufus's matrilineal heritage back to the Queens of Mercia of the 800s, with some intermediate ancestors living in Wiltshire.

    Having traced some of his movements, Alan Rufus visited Wiltshire and its abbeys, especially Wilton and Downton, with inordinate frequency given how far they were from his properties. There was apparently more to this than the Gunhild affair, whatever its details may have been.