Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Medieval Menstruation

Stories such as The King of Tars—where a Saracen sultan’s skin turns white upon being baptized—and The Man of Law’s Tale—in which a pale princess is held up as the epitome of virtue—make clear the contemporary audience’s desire for tangible, corporeal proof of faith.  This desire stems in part from medieval anxieties concerning false conversion, and the moral ambiguity of miscegenation; if a person was not “pure” of body—having pale skin, uncircumcised genitalia, and modest dress—then could they truly be pure of soul?  It seems plausible that the concern for corporeal piety was perpetuated by the Church and Christian authors alike as a way to establish the place of white Christian men at the top of the socioreligious hierarchy.  Like the moral threat posed by race, the visible functions of a woman’s body—predominantly, menstruation—raised questions of moral contamination that could not be ignored.
In terms of worth, women’s bodies were valuable bartering tools: A girl’s hand in marriage could end wars, unite countries, and ensure the legitimacy of male heirs.  However, none of these procedures could be put fully in motion until the marriage could be consummated—which meant that a woman couldn’t reach her full economic potential until she’d had her first period. 
having fun & syncing their cycles #blessed
Thought to be a form of divine punishment for Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, medieval medicine was ambivalent about the physical nature of menstruation.  While some believed it to be a sickness, it seems that most sources thought that a woman’s monthly courses served to cleanse her insides of the filth that they were constantly accruing as a result of impure thoughts and an inherently weak, susceptible nature.  For this reason, menstrual blood was thought to be toxic, capable of polluting men and killing crops; the use of herbal remedies, such as crudely-made tampons dipped in honey or moss-stuffed wool pads, were used to enhance the cleaning process. 
Significantly, many holy women did not menstruate regularly, which seemed to confirm medieval notions of the dirtiness of lay women.  It is likely that the extremely sparse diets of pious women, and the fact that many who turned to monasticism were menopausal widows, were the underlying causes of this phenomenon (or lack thereof)—not their piety.  Either way, it was believed that menstruation was proof of the inherently sinful nature of women; clearly, like the racial origins of men, the physical functions of women held heavy religious implications.

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