Women today are thankful that have birth control so they can avoid having too many children to care for. David W. Tschanz writes that, contrary to popular belief, women in the past knew a lot about contraception. In order to get the right information, you just had to know where to look.
For instance, there’s a 2,500-year-old Greek coin that shows a woman sitting in a chair, holding a plant in one hand and pointing to her genitals with the other. The ancient people who used this coin knew it refers to a plant called silphion by the Greeks and silphium by the Romans, that was an herbal morning-after pill.
The first century BC Roman poet Catullus wrote about how many kisses it was safe to give his girlfriend. His answer? “As many grains of sand as there are on Cyrene’s silphium shores.”
But the supply of silphium was nearly gone after a few centuries of use. The plant only grew on a strip of land about 125 miles long and 30 miles wide on the mountainsides of Libya, facing the Mediterranean Sea. Attempts to cultivate silphium in Greece and Syria failed. By the 1st century AD, it had become very expensive and Pliny the Elder reported wrote that “only a single stalk had been found in Cyrene within our memory.” By the second century it was extinct.
Women had to find other methods of birth control, so asafetida, which is now used in Worcestershire sauce, was often used instead. Hippocrates, the “the father of medicine,” said the seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace worked as well. Other plants used were pennyroyal, artemisia, pomegranite seeds, myrrh and rue. In Aristophanes’ 421 BC comedy “The Peace,” Trigaius wonders if his female companion could become pregnant. “Not if you add a dose of pennyroyal,” says Hermes.
In the first five centuries AD, despite the fact that there were few wars or epidemics, the population of the Roman Empire declined, while life expectancy increased. Some historians blame infanticide, but there?s no evidence to back this up. The Greek historian Ploybius said couples were limiting their families to one or two children, so birth control is probably the reason.
Silphium is no longer around to be tested, but experiments using asafetida in rats show it inhibits the implantation of a fertilized egg 50% of the time. In 1986, it was shown that Queen Anne’s Lace blocks the production of progesterone, which is necessary to prepare the uterus for a fertilized egg. Pennyroyal contains pulegone, which terminates pregnancies in both humans and animals.
But there was much suffering and many unwanted births in later centuries, so how was this knowledge lost? Historian John M. Riddle blames the rise of trained doctors. Birth control information had been passed on from woman to woman, so professional male physicians didn’t know about it. The rise of medical training also meant that traditional folk wisdom began to be distrusted and much of it was lost. It wasn’t until recently, when men began to research birth control, that women became able to control their reproduction once again.
Women have long been the keepers of wisdom. Learn the secret about one of history’s most famous women?Mary Magdalene?on Dreamland this week.
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