Sunday, November 20, 2011

Medieval beliefs regarding female physiology:

(This is way more interesting than what I’m supposed to be reading…)

The medieval view of male and female physiology was quite different from ours: Men were thought to be more perfect by nature: hotter and dryer, and therefore better metabolizers. Their beards, chest hair, and more massive musculature were the endproducts of their exuberant metabolism. Women, on the other hand, were metabolically imperfect because they were essentially too cold. They needed menstruation to eliminate unmetabolized fluid, unless it was shunted via the “quilin vein” (Hippocrates) to the breasts, where it became milk, or to the uterus, where it nourished the fetus.

Unused, menstrual blood was a kind of poisonous byproduct of female metabolism. According to Vincent of Beauvais (8) (1478) menstrual blood could prevent cereals from sprouting, cause grapes to sour, kill herbs, make trees lose their fruit, rust iron, turn bronze black, give dogs rabies, and dissolve glue made of bitumen that was impervious to iron. But without the purgation of menstruation, a woman was dangerous to herself and others. Hence the association of older, menopausal women with witches: their glance could kill a child in its cradle, etc.This fear of women’s physiology has survived into our own day. Folk wisdom still has it that menstruating women can spoil pickles, bread, meat, or houseplants by a touch or glance (9).

Medieval doctors had some very odd ideas about the uterus. Plato had described the uterus as “like a wild beast of the forest” and believed it would wander around the body “vexed and aggrieved” if deprived of the function of childbearing (10). In the Middle Ages there was a treatment called “suffumigation” which involved putting sweet- or foul-smelling substances at the nose or vagina to lure the uterus back to its proper place (10).

There were two popular views of uterine anatomy which had been formulated on the basis of dissections of animals (monkeys, bears, and pigs), since for many centuries the Church forbade human dissection. Following Galen, some thought the uterus had two chambers, a warmer one on the right, near the vena cava, where male fetuses gestated, and a colder one on the left for female fetuses. Fascination with numerology
had led some others to see seven chambers in the uterus: three on the right for males, three on the left for females, and one in the middle, amazingly, specifically for hermaphrodites.

Notes

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  9. alexdotexe said: A friend of mine also mentioned that it was believed that frequent sex would keep the uterus in place - can’t vouch for the correctness of this statement, but it seems to correlate with the paragraph about ‘luring the uterus to its proper place’.
  10. raffinest said: gross generalization: women have typically been a “dark continent” from the point of view of the Church. Jeanne d’Arc burned for, among other things, wearing closely cropped hair and donning “male” attire. Scholasticism wasn’t much of an advance.
  11. noellejt posted this