It is amazing where researches for a book take you. Regular readers will know that I am embarking upon my first historical novel – and that it is set in early medieval times – late AD600s to be precise.
So my wise-woman is going to help a female Saxon slave to ensure she doesn’t conceive. Umm – and how does she do that? The male in question is not going to be party to any care that needs taking – so off into the depths of the internet I go – following one thread after another until I find some answers – and other interesting facts…
One thread took me back so far that the herb in question had become extinct even before the years I was looking at! But was fascinating anyway. A herb that was the making of Cyrene – wanted for so many reasons apart from that of being the most effective contraceptive potion available. The plant was known as Silphium and it featured on the coins of the country – that’s how important it was! It appears to have been only able to grow in a narrow strip of land – and, despite many attempts, could not be propagated anywhere else. Seeds simply did not grow, roots or cuttings did not work elsewhere.
Silphium had properties that also made it a go-to culinary condiment and ingredient, where leaves, stems and roots were used – as well as making the meat of sheep grazed on it most wonderfully tender. It was used to treat a wide range of maladies – and then there was its powerful contraceptive properties. It was so valuable that Julius Caesar had a cache (1,500lbs or 680kg) stored in the official treasury. Ultimately it was harvested (or eaten by the sheep) into extinction!
Medical Texts from ancient Greece and Rome
In many medical texts available at the time, there were lists of mixtures designed to ‘hurry the menses or cleanse the womb’, therefore these mixtures were usable to end an unwanted pregnancy, especially very early or before it had begun! One version of the Antidotarium has several recipes for ‘quickening the menses’ utilizing a number of herbs including arum, birthwort, artemisia, century plant, lupine, pepper, Queen Anne’s Lace, myrrh, licorice, pennyroyal, rue, peony, parsley, and cypress.
Did they work? Well, I’m not sure about pepper but pennyroyal, parsley, and Queen Anne’s lace for instance, are so effective that modern women are recommended to avoid them if they want to become pregnant. In fact, for many of them to work, the concentration had to be so high as to be dangerous to the women themselves. (Yes, I’ve looked a lot of these up – and many are on the Poisonous plants list!)
Herbs could also be used as physical barriers for conception or as pessaries, pulped and often mixed with pungent oils, honey or even animal dung. Ewww!
I need something that would be growing in Ireland at the correct time, and so far have settled on Queen Anne’s Lace – the wild carrot. Modern day use of this as a contraceptive suggests a number of ways, but chewing the seeds for a number of days after intercourse looks like a method that could have been used in Eire in that time, and would be a safer alternative. Apparently it works because chemicals in the seeds block progesterone synthesis, thus disrupting implantation thus preventing pregnancy. I wonder – how did they find that out in the first place!?
Now to find out if the plant grew there, then! Harder than you might imagine as it will only be if it has been traced by pollen in samples or if a book written, at the correct time in Eire, mentions it, even though it is described as a native plant nowadays – I have discovered this does not necessarily mean it grew there in AD 600.
Do you end up down the rabbit tunnels of the internet – just because you looked up one thing?
Have you ever wondered how they managed these things back in deepest history? – when being pregnant was a very dangerous condition – resulting in death more times than we like to think about.
Do share your thoughts – as always I am fascinated to learn