A Bloody Mess – some thoughts about menstruation in Medieval times

Being a woman in the middle ages, just like being a woman today, had some implications on the way your body behaves. More specifically it means that once a month you will have your period. Lately I have found that this topic is being discussed over and over in medieval reenactment circles, and there is rarely any new evidence. I will discuss it again, and it will be the last time I do so, by examining the evidence and some very common statements.

One of the most common starts of the discussion is the topic of medieval underwear on women. This is a long discussion in itself, and we have very little, if any, evidence for women using underwear. The evidence that usually comes up is allegorical pictures of women wearing men’s undies and sometimes the underwear from Lengberg, home of the Lengberg bra. Unfortunately the Lengberg undies may just as well have been men’s undergarments, as they fit the fashion, as well as the time frame. But then someone says ”but they must have had underwear, because they must have had somewhere to put something to suck up the blood when they were having their period”. No, this doesn’t have to be the case.

So why doesn’t this argument make sense? Well, firstly, anyone being vaguely familiar with e.g. 13th century underwear will know that they would not be helpful in securing any kind of period absorbant cloth or rag or moss or whatever. Secondly the notion that pads that will stick to your underwear has always been in use is, to say it plainly, false. Lots of older people in my country, Sweden, seem to remember pads being held up by string, and thus not really having anything to do with the underwear.

But we know women didn’t usually have underwear back in olden days. So what did they use when they had their period?

Well, to take a different perspective, it’s not sure they had as much period as women do today. Women in the medieval period had fewer choices when it came to birth control, and thus many women would have been pregnant or nursing during long periods of time. Also if you were poor your period would be significantly decreased, or dissappear completely, due to malnutrition.

So don’t we have any evidence for something absorbing menstrual blood in the middle ages? Yes, we have. In the book Montaillou – Village Occitan by Emmanuel Le Roi Ladurie, which is based on court proceedings from the south of France in the late 13th and early 14th century, a woman is being charged for being a witch since she’s carrying a pouch with, among other things, her daughter’s menstrual rags, meant to be put in wine given to the daughter’s future husband to make his love even stronger. St Brigid of Sweden also mentioned the rags. We do not, however, know if these rags were just used to wipe yourself between the legs when the need arose, or if they were held in place by strings. We can be fairly certain that they were not held in place by underwear.

But, and this is the part people have a really hard time believing: most women in later times seems to have let the blood flow freely, so to speak. This practice seems to have continued into modern times. A German account on making their own pads, as opposed to using commercial ones, from the late 19th century states that ”Most women seemed to have made their own pads or, like rural women, wore neither pads nor underpants. When they menstruated, they left a trail of blood behind them.” We also know that women did get blood on their shifts and this was considered quite normal.

So why can’t we accept what seems to be historical fact? Well, this is of course a topic for a whole new article/sociological study/book or whatever, but let me just remind you that contrary to what you see in the commercials blood is not blue. It’s red. And to me it’s no shocker that a society that can’t even handle that blood is red, or even exists, will find it very strange that once women walked around and ”left a little trail of blood behind them.” Because that is our culture. But it wasn’t theirs.

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