The Lady in Red: Medieval Menstruation

Today’s post is a fascinating article by Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety, co-authors of ‘The Medieval Vagina:An Historical and Hysterical Look at All Things Vaginal During the Middle Ages.’

Karen Harris is a college instructor by day and a writer by night. Writing offers Karen a chance to dabble in her other areas of interest, including history and science. She has written numerous freelance articles and feature stories for publication. She is a hobby farmer, environmental volunteer, and advocate for volunteer firefighters.

Lori Caskey-Sigety started writing in 1991. She hasn’t stopped. Her writing includes blogs, book reviews, essays, lyrics, plays, poems, and puppet shows. Lori has authored two poetry books, and her other works have appeared in Wildfire Magazine, Orlo, Indiana Libraries, and Public Libraries. She is an artist, college instructor, librarian, and musician.

Book description:

In the Middle Ages much like today, the vagina conjured fear and repulsion, yet it held an undeniable allure. In the Medieval Vagina, the authors explore this paradox while unearthing medieval myths, attitudes and contradictions surrounding this uniquely feminine and deeply mysterious organ.

What euphemisms did medieval people have for the vagina? Did medieval women use birth control? How was rape viewed in the Middle Ages? How was the vagina incorporated into literature, poetry, music, and art? How did medieval women cope with menstruation? The Medieval Vagina delves into these topics, and others, while introducing the reader to a collection of fascinating medieval women – Pope Joan, Lady Frances Howard, Margery Kempe, Sister Benedetta Carlini, and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath – who all shaped our view of the medieval vagina.

The Medieval Vagina takes a quick-paced, humorous peek into the medieval world; a time when religious authority combined with newly emerging science and medicine, classic literature, and folklore to form a deeply patriarchal society. It may have been a man’s world, but the vagina triumphed over oppression and misogyny.

Website: snarkpublishing.weebly.com

Over to Karen and Lori!

The Lady in Red: Medieval Menstruation

By Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety

This blog post is not just a period piece; it’s a period period piece.

Throughout history, girls and women endured the dreaded monthly visitor, and the medieval era was certainly no exception.  As we reflect back on what we know about hygiene in the Middle Ages, we naturally feel empathy for the medieval maidens who had to suffer through their monthly cycles without the modern conveniences of pads, panty liners, and tampons. Menstruating in the Middle Ages was a vastly different experience than it is today. Lest we feel too sympathetic towards our sisters in antiquity, we should examine these differences and the innovative ways that these women dealt with Eve’s curse.

To start, medieval women had fewer periods than today’s women. The reason for this is threefold. First, although the average age of puberty then is not much different than today, (between 12 and 14 years of age), women reached menopause earlier, often in their late thirties. Second, fewer medieval women had regular monthly periods. Poor nutrition and hard work meant that many women had low body fat. A woman needs to have some amount of body fat or her reproductive system slows down and menstruation ceases. Today, this is only problematic for girls suffering from eating disorders or competitive athletes like distance runners or gymnasts. Lastly, mothers in the Middle Ages typically had more children and breastfed their children longer. Breastfeeding stymied menstruation. All this means that, over the course of her lifetime, medieval women had vastly fewer periods to contend with than today’s females.

Yet, they did have periods and they needed some way to handle the menses mess without the feminine hygiene products we have today. Medieval women had two choices, much like we do today: she could find a way to catch the flow after it left her body, or find a way to absorb it internally. In our modern words, medieval women could use a makeshift pad or a makeshift tampon. Pads were made of scrap fabric or rags (hence, the phrase “on the rag”). Cotton was preferred because the material absorbs fluids better than the alternative, wool. Wool not only repels liquids, but it is itchy and uncomfortable. (And menstruation is uncomfortable enough!) Medieval ladies then had to devise ways to keep the pad in place as panties and underwear were not yet popular. There is some archeological evidence to show us that some women may have worn panty-like garments to hold the menstrual pad. Women could also wind cotton fabric around a twig and use it as a proto-tampon.

Here is an interesting side note: A common type of bog moss found throughout medieval England, sphagnum cymbifolium, is remarkably absorbent. It was used as stuffing for menstrual pads, as toilet paper, and as a battlefield dressing for wartime wounds. The popular name for this moss is blood moss; etymologists contend that this moniker comes from its use in battlefield first-aid. This account, of course, oozes of heroism and masculinity. But is more likely the case that blood moss earned its name by helping medieval women with their uniquely feminine problem.

Whether they chose a homemade pad or a homemade tampon, medieval women worried about leaks and stains. This is a main reason why red was a popular color for medieval petticoats. The scarlet color was not only fashionable and decorative, but also functional as to disguise the menses.

So, instead of having the luxury of visiting the drugstore to pick up supplies for the monthly visitor, medieval women turned to nature. Or, she simply wore red.

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Comments

  1. Interesting post. That is the first mention of the reasoning behind red petticoats and kirtles I’ve seen.

  2. A. Robertson says:

    Cotton? Until the 19th century, cotton was an extremely expensive and rare fabric because it had to all be processed by hand and imported into England. I doubt that women would have used something that valuable for such a purpose. Linen was much more common and grown domestically. Also, I’d be curious to see what evidence there is to say that women wore red when they were menstruating. Even if red is the same color, why would you make your outer garments reveal something so taboo in society that it’s not commonly written about? It makes for a good story, but history is full of lots of good stories that aren’t necessarily backed up by evidence.

    • Robert, I am going to forward your comments onto the authors. Best wishes, Natalie.

      • Karen Harris says:

        Hi Robert, Much of our info on cotton was taken from books and websites on the topic, including http://costumedabbler.ca/cotton. From what I have learned in my research, fabric of any kind was expensive and valuable to medieval women, therefore they were careful to be sure than none of it went to waste. The clothes making process, unfortunately, left small scraps of fabric that would be too valuable to throw away. As for your comment about the red petticoats, it was my understanding that red petticoats were worn daily, not just when women were menstruating.

    • Teresa the nurse says:

      I didn’t take it to mean that red clothes were reserved for menstruation, only that women had red things to wear during their period. Only the wealthy, remember, had lots of clothes to choose from.

    • Victor van Zutphen says:

      This is becoming a “mediëval cotton dogma”. Research has proven that cotton was far more common in Europe, as from the middle of the 14th century, than most re-enactors are willing to believe. The article mentioned by Karen Harris in her reply is just one example. In “The New Cambridge Medieval History”, Volume 6 C 1300 -C 1415 is written that in the Po Basin, Italy, mass production of cotton led to cotton being “exported throughout Europe”. The cotton was used for every day clothing of both the wealthy and the poor. Even in Germany cotton prodoction centres arose.

      So prior to the first half of the 14th century cotton may have been a luxury good for (Northern) Europeans, after that is had become a more common product. As most of the production took place in Italy and the need for airy clothing was there greater than in the cooler climates of Northern Europe, the use of cotton in Italy would have been more wide spread than in Northern Europe. However this does not justify the ‘ban on cotton’ found in some re-enactment scenes

    • I think these medieval women most likely will sew cotton in cloth, do a few at a time, and then use clean air basks in later, after the next time menstruation came to use again

    • Jennifer Sule says:

      The scraps left from making their clothes were fashioned into “rags” for their menses. Rich were extravagant even back then…

  3. Charlie Farrow says:

    I very much doubt that medieval women used cotton for sanitary towels. Cotton was a vastly expensive import from the orient that was formed of ‘tree wool’ which they believed came from little lambs on the end of branches.

    • Charlie, I am going to forward your comments onto the authors for an answer. Best wishes, Natalie.

    • Karen Harris says:

      Thanks for your comment, Charlie. Much of our info on cotton was taken from books and websites on the topic, including http://costumedabbler.ca/cotton. From what I have learned in my research, fabric of any kind was expensive and valuable to medieval women, therefore they were careful to be sure than none of it went to waste. The clothes making process, unfortunately, left small scraps of fabric that would be too valuable to throw away.

  4. LoriCSigety says:

    Hello!
    Thank you for your thoughtful responses concerning cotton and menstruation. All of our sources have been checked. In addition, the end of our book contains an extensive bibliography. I have a master’s in library science, so I have experience in research.

    Best,
    Lori

    • Yes, but it’s still wrong. The websites and sources you mention are simply not reliable.

      Not even queens used cotton for menstrual pads: Queen Elizabeth herself had linen rags, mentioned in her inventories. Linen, not cotton.

    • theres actually a degree for catalog searching and doing research? you are NOT serious?

  5. Was going to say the same thing as above…very unusual topic for a book, but would love to read it all the same.

  6. Lauren McLain says:

    I’m very curious to hear the verdict on cotton being used by medieval women during menstruation. Is there any response from the authors? As for petticoats being red, it’s been my understandIng that petticoats were worn underneath dresses, so the red would theoretically show very little or not at all. Would all women have had access to that color, or just a select group?

  7. Lauren McLain says:

    Actually, I see that my questions have pretty much been answered…Thank you!! It’s good to see someone (multiple someones, actually) paying attention to this topic and making this information more easily accessible for the rest of us. I’m looking forward to reading your book.

  8. Lorraine Hickman says:

    Cotton is easily rinsed out and rags were reused.

  9. LoriCSigety says:

    Hi Lauren!

    Yay! We are glad that your questions were answered! We hope you enjoy the book! 🙂

    Best,
    Lori

  10. Norma Postin says:

    I enjoyed reading this article and would like to add my own observations. I have the book ‘ Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII’ by Maria Hayward which is essential reading for those interested in Tudor fashions. Admittedly the reign of Henry VIII is not the medieval period but I was interested in what Maria Haywood had to say about female undergarments at this time. She says that smocks and shifts ‘ were made exclusively from bleached white linen’ and forms of linen included lawn, holland and cambric. Re the colour red, I think that in The Canterbury Tales , the Wife of Bath had red shoes ( unable to find my copy to check this ) but a red shift ? Interested in reading Karen Harris’ book to find out the sources of this evidence.

  11. Marianne Lewis says:

    Has someone tried a modern day re-enactment wearing the standard linen shift, fashionable red petticoat and a regular gown? That may give a reasonable answer, even with our modern focus on cleanliness and lack of body smell. I expect that the recreating woman would only need to try it out for one day to determine if allowing it to drip down the legs and into the shift and petticoat was feasible in the least.

  12. I’ve seen a couple of medieval stories of using rags as tampons, but also heard they simply used the old traditional isolation method that’s still in use today in undeveloped areas. Though of course blood wasn’t the only problem, and I bet they wore pantie stashes along with chest ones, as depicted in roman frescoes.

  13. Undergarments were always natural linen. The kirtle was the visible dyed garment that the author spoke of. women used linen rag, and sphagnum moss during their menses and other toilet needs.I get my information from Lucy Worsley Joint Chief Curator at H.R.P..She knows a thing or two about a thing or two. She is Oxford educated and no shrinking violet. She has addressed this topic many times in her lectures.

  14. Shaunn Munn says:

    The common medieval & renaissance reds for ordinary use would have come from natural dyes. They would have been red/brown, dullish, & not very colorfast. Doubtless, they were dyed & redyed during the lives of the garments. Women would clean her personal hygiene products after use & mend & them at need. She would not have gone about town much in normal life, usually being way more home bound than men. If she was a heavy bleeder, she would be even more isolated. Pregnancy was seen as the natural “cure” for menses. Medieval thought was as soon as she started menses again, she was ready for pregnancy.
    Women’s lives were usually short. Most never made it past the late 30’s at best. A woman’s chief value was her ability to procreate. Overall hygiene was a huge killer of women. It was generally a filthy, smelly time for everyone, but women got the worst of the deal. Men thought it just part of Eve’s curse & gave it no importance. Women’s menses & men’s control of their bodies were a major cause in their subjection through history. Think how modern hygiene products have liberated us! We’re only “free” when we get our menses under our complete control!
    Another thought on dying clothes: Because it was hard to get stains out, people opted for colors to hide this lack. Of course it was another burden on women to wash clothes. She opted for colors to ease her life.

  15. M.A. Williams says:

    Shaunn: Very insightful info about the delemma for women, hygiene issues, & control over their own bodies. Your information is not surprising & still relevant in modern times. It has been a long-standing observation of mine that it is often the most practical explanations of history that is the real history. Unless otherwise supported by objective & indisputable facts, documented history remains subjective in nature because it is written from someone’s point of view and the social influences of the day. I say “social influences of the day” as representing the overarching umbrella to the myriad of issues during those times as those in our time. Having said that, there are issues for women back then & even now that still speaks to the stigma of “Eve”; the prevailing attitudes of men about women as human beings & not objects and the inequities that plagued women then as it does now. I also applaud all women who invest in our history & tell the stoires because it is important for all women to know them because we have yet to attain complete equity with our male counterparts; our own humanity over being objectified; and our complete & equal freedom over subjugation & subjectivity.

  16. I enjoyed this so much. It is a real treasure to find historians who write without the distance of hindsight. Objective, interesting, and relevant – this has been an awesome site and I will be contributing as I work through my Book on the ”The Craft of the Historian, the Life of Time’s Best Detectives.”

  17. W. Ferrell says:

    Cotton was definitely a luxury cloth until the invention of the cotton gin. Very labor intensive. Which is probably why even rich Americans didn’t start wearing underwear until about 1815.

    • Victor van Zutphen says:

      Alas, this is not true, it is though a very stubborn misconception (t stay in line with the topic). In medieval times underwear was indeed worn. About a year ago bra’s were found during the restauration of a German (or Austrian) medieval castle. The bra’s were made of linen. Underwear for men at least was known since the fully closed hosen. The underpants were basically the original breeches cut short.

      In the late 13th/early 14th Northern Italy saw the rise of a large cotton industry. In the second half of the 14th century a similar industry arose in Southern Germany. Cotton was a bulk product, that was exported all over Europe. It was considered to be a cheap replacement for wool. Under the name of Bombasin it was used as stuffing for gambesons and doublets. Notably in the form of fustian (a combination of linen and cotton). The heavier sort was used for sails(!). Lighter sorts were used for clothing. This would have been mostly clothing to work in in warmer days. There is an Italian summary of what a lady’s wardrobe should consist of. This includes cotton dresses to work in, on warm days. Chaucer mentions in the Canterbury Tales a knight with a gypon (jupon) made of fustian. Besides, brushed cotton could look very much like velvet. Velvet, being a luxury good, was mentioned in sumptuary laws and was the prerogative of the nobles and the very rich. With brushed cotton the lower classes, with a bit of money, could look just as fancy without breaking the law. You won’t find cotton under whatever name in any sumptuary laws. Another clue that it was not a luxury good.

      • W. Ferrell says:

        How could the Germans or Italians produce cotton cheaply? The cotton gin separated roughly the quantity of seed from raw cotton that a diligent man or woman would need 3-4 weeks to accomplish! There were several additional innovations right after the cotton gin that rendered cotton relatively inexpensive; this was one of the really important developments of the Industrial Revolution.

        To say that examples of underwear have been found from Medieval Europe is not to make a case that such a thing was common. America in the 1790s was probably richer than Europe per capita, and yet they weren’t wearing underpants. Were Europeans? If not, why the regression if cotton were cheap?

        If you can provide more evidence for your assertion I would be interested.

        • Victor van Zutphen says:

          For starters read “the Italian Cotton Industry in the Later Middle Ages, 1100 – 1600” by Maureen Fennel Mazzaoui (associate professor of History University of Wisconsin), Cambridge University Press 1981.

          There is one more argument for cotton not being a luxury product in the late middle ages. By that time any luxury and expensive fabric had been mentioned on one sumptuary law or another, regulating the use of these materials exclusively by the high and mighty. Cotton has not been mentioned in these laws. As from the rise of the cotton industry in Northern Italy in the late 13th century it spread all over Europe.

  18. I’m curious… what term/word for a period did women use in the medieval era for menstruation?
    Thank you!

  19. I think one of them was Flux..which means flow JL

  20. ..also ‘menses’… looked it up ?

  21. sent that too early JL. .. looked it up and another was ‘Courses’ they are the main ones like think. Could be loads more you as there are today

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