Dangerous Menstrual Blood

Throughout the ages, societies around the world, at some stage in their history, have secluded menstrual women and those in confinement as dangerous pollutants to be cautiously avoided. Universally, many beliefs regarding the harmful, loathsome, even dangerous potency of menstruating women were common. In Natural History, Pliny the Elder implicitly warns that the touch of a menstruating woman blights crops, kills seedlings, rusts iron, turns wine to vinegar, dims mirrors, blunts razors, kills bees, and generally causes misfortune in all ventures. 

The fear of menstrual blood was deeply ingrained in early societies. Menstrual blood was believed to have a disastrous effect on the entire male population. In many cultures, therefore, women were forbidden during these times, under pain of death, to touch any utensils belonging to men. It was earnestly believed that their touch so defiled everything that later use of the utensils would be accompanied by certain misfortune. Such notions excluded menstruating women or those in confinement from being present at important ritual events, from participating in various religious acts, and from carrying out mundane everyday tasks, especially those related to gathering and preparing food. In various societies, contact with women during this time was limited, if not strictly forbidden, and often, they were expected to live secluded. Among North American Indians, Australian Aborigines, Indian, and East Indian tribes, a woman was not allowed any contact with food during her time of the month or during confinement. Similarly, it was firmly believed in many rural parts of Europe, that a woman in her courses or one about to become a mother should not salt pork as it would turn the meat bad; nor was she to make jam or butter; similarly, she was to abstain from bottling fruit, as all would not keep. Such notions were still recorded in Worcestershire, England, in 1945.179

Much of this superstitious fear and mistrust can be attributed to the ignorance that has always surrounded female physiology, which is only now fully understood and accepted by most civilised societies. In the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, it is stated: ‘If a woman have.... born a.... child: she shall be unclean.... She shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled....’.180 In Islamic societies, a menstruating woman is excused from the obligatory daily prayers and is required to cleanse herself ritually before resuming her religious duties. Orthodox Jews adhering to the laws on menstrual impurity, as laid down in the Talmud, must avoid all contact with a spouse during this time of the month. 

In Europe, the internal workings of women’s sexual organs were governed by numerous misconceptions, still firmly held by the orthodox medical establishment and the general populace until the late eighteenth century. In ancient times, the Greek philosopher, Plato (428–348 BCE), originally put forward the idea that the womb was an animal in its own right, existing independently inside a woman’s body, while medieval anatomical drawings depicted the womb as a mysterious organ with seven chambers. Because of gross ignorance, the regular, monthly discharge of blood from a perfectly healthy woman’s womb was widely regarded by most cultures as pollution, second only in severity to having contact with a dead person. 

Interestingly, it was not until 1831 that French physician Charles Négrier suggested that menstruation controlled ovulation. The realisation that woman menstruated because they had failed to conceive took hold some years later around 1877. Before this finding, physicians wrestling with the question of menses postulated that it had something to do with the disposal of superfluous blood or a cooling of the heightened emotions only women were prone to and that both processes were controlled by the phases of the moon. 

The stigma of uncleanness surrounding menstrual flow, pregnancy, and childbirth, was strengthened in Europe by the teachings of the Church. Archbishop Theodore’s seventh century Penitential forbade women to enter a church or receive communion during their monthly periods. The same ruling applied to pregnant women until forty days after childbirth Christian churching, therefore, was to purify and reintegrate the new mother into the religious community. Until the church ceremony of churching, or kirking, as it is referred to in Scotland, had been carried out, a woman after childbirth was looked upon as being unclean and believed to be a danger to her neighbours and the community. In Germany, it was believed that if a woman spun wool, hemp, or flax before having been churched, her child would one day be hanged. It was also thought that ‘if a woman within six weeks after confinement walks a field or flower bed, nothing grows on it for some years, or everything spoils’.181 In Scotland, she was not permitted to enter any house but her own, as she brought evil and misfortune with her. In Ireland, the belief was that should she appear out of doors and any harm, injury, or insult should come to her, she would have no recourse through the law. To deal with this situation, women were known to fasten a piece of thatch or slate to their bonnets when going out so that they could rightfully claim never to have left the shelter of their own roof. 

Such beliefs continued for centuries, throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.


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