Once a month, women have to deal with the unpleasant sensation that is akin to having their insides dug out with a rusty spoon, (that’s right men folk, this is largely an article about vaginas). For women, as inconvenient as this week is, we understand that it is a perfectly healthy, normal, bodily function (albeit annoying), part of our lives as sexually mature adults, and for the most part I think as a gender we largely try and ‘just get on with it’ (when realistically all we want to do is curl up and eat a tub of Ben and Jerrys).
A few hundred years ago however, bodies were understood, experienced and explained in completely different ways; anatomically, spiritually and psychologically. These conceptions were rooted in thousands of years of medicine and ideas contained in Scripture, which had largely been left unquestioned until the early modern era. With the gift of hindsight and a basic understanding of modern medicine these historical ways of understanding the body seem to verge on the ridiculous to us today.
Here are some of my favourite ‘bizarre’ explanations of women’s bodies:
1. Women are Inside-Out Men
The one-sex model existed for over a thousand years and maintained that women were in fact inverted men, the male being the standard version of human and the female being a variation of the standard. This model still persisted in the seventeenth-century and Jane Sharp, an English midwife who wrote a treatise on the subject, described that the vagina “the passage for the yard [penis] resembleth it turned inward”. Moreover, ovaries were believed to be testicles found on the inside of the body. Nice try guys of the past but I don’t see your man parts growing any mini-humans then or now…
Apparently the vagina is not only “the passage for the yard…” but also a flower! Illustration to Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book (1871), BL 1177.b.b19. By permission of the British Library
2. Hot Women = Infertility
Men were the hotter sex; they were hot and dry, whilst women were cold and moist (don’t we sound attractive ladies?). Men’s virility manifested itself in their excessive desire and curly, dark plentiful hair (explains Russell Brand somewhat) but if these qualities were present in a woman it was believed that she had too much heat in her body which would fry the male seed.
Frying seeds, as it were (it was that or a picture of Russell)
3. Babies are Technically Vampires
Without a clear understanding of the vascular system, and without appreciating that menstrual blood is a somewhat separate substance to that which flows through our arteries, it was thought that menstrual blood was diverted to the breasts after birth and whitened along the way to make it less alarming to see a child being breastfed and surfacing with blood round their gob.
4. You Could Menstruate Through Your Eyes…
…or your ears, or your belly button. That’s right, menstruation wasn’t just confined to the specifically female organs, nor was it understood as a shedding of the lining of the womb, no longer needed in the absence of an unfertilised egg. Rather, menstruation was a means of ridding the body of excess blood. So why only in women? Well you guessed it, our bodies were inferior to men’s and we just couldn’t handle all that extra blood or find anything useful to do with it.
5. Periods Kill Bees
In the 2nd century AD, the philosopher Pliny asserted the following terrible effects would occur should a menstruating woman pass by (so everyone be extra vigilant ok?); wine sours, knives are blunted, glass turns in colour, grass withers, dogs will go mad if they lick menstrual blood, and the poor, poor bumble bees will die.