Things you probably didn’t know about the history of periods

While there’s still some stigma and eye-rolling surrounding conversations about the menstrual cycle (and unfortunately, women’s health in general), things have come a long way. Let’s not forget that NPR declared 2015 “The Year of the Period.” We talked a lot about periods last year, and advocates for women’s rights and women’s health brought the conversation to the forefront. In the age of menstrual cups, period panties and hashtags like #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult, it’s easy to forget just how far we’ve come. We’ve come a long way, you guys. You won’t believe how long.

Ancient beliefs about periods run the gamut from ignorant and sexist to just plain bizarre. You probably already know that many religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, believed a woman’s menstrual cycle was a sign of spiritual uncleanliness. But did you know that the Greek physician Hippocrates had some pretty nutty ideas about menstruation?

For instance, if a girl didn’t start her period by a certain age, her health would suffer.

According to a new and thoroughly fascinating piece for the Huffington Post written by British historian Greg Jenner (yes, a man…but he seriously knows his stuff when it comes to periods), Hippocrates believed that if a girl didn’t start her period by the age of 14, bad things would happen. Blood would start collecting around her heart, causing her to have violent outbursts, curse and think about suicide.

According to Jenner, “If the girl’s period refused to flow in good time then Hippocrates had no qualms in bleeding her from the veins, as he had no understanding of the womb’s lining being shed. To him, all blood was the same. Bizarrely, this intervention was thought essential; otherwise medical theory suggested her womb would wander aimlessly around her body!” I feel this is a good time to remind you that Hippocrates is widely considered to be the father of modern medicine.

Periods turned you into an evil sorceress.

Jenner’s article also touches on the belief that European women in medieval times were thought to be temporarily possessed with evil supernatural powers when Aunt Flo paid her monthly visit. He writes, “These outlandish scare-stories could be truly bizarre. Not only would beehives allegedly empty, swords rust, and fresh fruit rot in their presence, but nearby men could be cursed with just a glance, and a drop of blood on the penis could allegedly burn the sensitive flesh like it were caustic acid.”

What would happen if a man was “brave” enough (rolling my eyes so hard right now) to actually have sex with a woman on her period and that union resulted in pregnancy? The baby would be a redhead. Because that’s totally logical, right?

Menopause = poisonous vapors fill your body.

As bad as having your period might have been back in the Middle Ages, not having it was actually worse. As women approached menopause, they “were believed to have stored up a lifetime of excess blood (in line with Hippocrates’ theories) and this meant the poisonous vapors might escape through their eyes and nose, and contaminate — or even kill — babies and animals in their vicinity.” Run for your lives cats and dogs, there’s a perimenopausal woman on the loose!

Jenner also discusses the myriad ways women dealt with the practicalities of their periods in the days before modern conveniences like tampons and pads.

Oddly enough, before the Edwardian period, women mostly free-bled. I found this very surprising, given all the superstition surrounding the menstrual cycle. I mean, if society in general thought I was an evil witch and was expecting apples to rot in my presence, I’d be tempted to hide the bloody evidence. But hey, good for you, free bleeding medieval women! Way to own it.

With the Edwardian period came the menstrual apron, a washable linen contraption held in place with a girdle.

Comfy! It wasn’t until WW1 that things started really improving. Jenner says, “Field nurses looking after injured soldiers had been stuffing the bandages down their pants during their periods, and found them to be surprisingly effective. Cellucotton got wind of this and decided to market the pads as Kotex.”

And thus, the pad was born.

That’s right, folks. We have field nurses to thank for basically inventing the maxi pad. (Holla!) Tampons finally came along in 1929, although Ancient Romans and Egyptians made their own versions using softened cotton and papyrus, respectively.

Meanwhile, Egyptians were ALL about period blood, because they knew what was up.

Ancient Egyptians actually had a radically different theory about menstrual blood from the taboo opinions of Hippocrates. Jenner writes, “in Ancient Egypt period blood could be used positively as a medical ingredient. For example, a cure for sagging breasts was to smear it over the drooping mammaries and thighs, perhaps because the womb was the incubator of new life and so its blood possessed rejuvenating powers?” High five, ancient Egyptians! Finally we see someone in history showing our periods a little love.

You can check out the rest of Jenner’s account of the history of menstruation here. It’s a fascinating read, with the added benefit of making you pretty grateful that you lived to see “The Year of the Period.”

[Image via Shutterstock.]

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