The history of menstruation

Julia Margaret Cameron's Hypatia

Julia Margaret Cameron’s Hypatia



Everything has a history: even menstruation. I managed to write an 80,000 word doctoral thesis on menstruation in classical Greece, which just goes to show that there’s a story to be told there! I’ve shared a few of the weirder beliefs here. One of the questions I couldn’t answer in my thesis was ‘What did women actually do about the bleeding?’ Did women in the past lose less blood, so that just bleeding on to their clothes was an option? Or did they use pads, and if so how did they make them and how were they attached – to the body or to the clothes?

In 2008 Sara Read wrote a fascinating article about early modern women’s menstrual practices. In it she referred to a version of the story told about the late antique philosopher Hypatia. Hypatia threw her menstrual cloths – in Jacques Ferrand’s early seventeenth-century version, which Sara used, the Latin is pannus menstruus – at an unwanted suitor, presumably to put him off his idealised image of her by confronting him with the realities of the female body. Following up eighteenth-century readings of this story, I found that some men regarded Hypatia as a model of virtue; unable to face up to the original sources, they transformed the item she threw into ‘a handkerchief, of which she had been making some use on that occasion’ (The Female Worthies, 1766). Others, seeing her as ‘an impudent school-mistress’, told the story but left this particular incident in the decent obscurity of the original Greek (The History of Hypatia, 1721).

A similar cloth turns up in a passage of ‘On Treatments for Women’; part of what Monica Green called the ‘Trotula ensemble’ of medieval texts on the female body. Here, women with ‘bloody flux at the same time as the menses’ are told to sit on wild rocket cooked in wine, with a linen cloth (pannus lineus) put between them and the rocket. Although this is a remedy, not what is done for normal menstruation, it may hint at normal practice too.

The Latin pannus menstruus translates a Greek term, ‘the rhakoi of women’. Rhakoi are ‘rags’, as in the modern phrase ‘on the rag’. The great German historian of ancient Greece, Theodore Mommsen, once got very over-excited about the inventory of gifts left for the goddess Artemis at one of her sanctuaries. He spotted the word rhakos and decided that girls used to dedicate their menstrual rags to Artemis. He then got into a terrible state trying to work out where these would have been stored in the sanctuary. More recent scholars have pointed out that we don’t need to go this far. The word simply means ‘ragged’, and indicates that those making the inventory were observing that some of the clothing dedicated by women to the goddess was looking a bit threadbare.

Sara pointed out that one of the reasons why we don’t really know for certain what women did is that they didn’t talk about it either. It’s men who tell us the few things we know, and we don’t know whether women’s attitude was the same or not. We don’t even know what level of blood loss they expected – apparently this can vary with diet, and people were not as well-fed in the past as we are now – but the Hippocratic gynaecological treatises assume a ‘wombful’ of blood every month, with any less of a flow opening up the risk of being seen as ‘ill’ and hence leading to remedies like the dreaded beetle pessaries. Maybe I’ll come to them on another occasion!

However, the next stop for this blog will be one of the much-touted myths about ancient Greek women: the story that the ancient Greeks invented tampons…


Further reading:

Sara Read, “‘Thy righteousness is but a menstrual clout’: sanitary practices and prejudice in early modern England,” Early Modern Women 3 (2008), 1-25

and check out the Museum of Menstruation


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