Old Wives’ Tales

Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance

by John M. Riddle
Harvard University Press, 245 pp., $39.95

For thousands of years human beings have been attempting to increase or decrease their fertility. Modern interest in this history, for reasons that are transparent, has tended to concentrate on ways of limiting fertility. Precise notions about how to do this are first recorded in an Egyptian document of about 1850 BC, the Kahun Medical Papyrus, which includes three prescriptions for vaginal suppositories with allegedly contraceptive properties. There is no reason to think that such prescriptions were then new.

As recently as 1960 a great historian of the Roman Empire, Ronald Syme, could still write that there was “little or nothing on record” about contraception, but it is now recognized that artificial means of contraception were discussed at length by Greek and Roman medical writers and were alluded to from time to time in various classical literary works. And the Greeks and Romans, like us, commonly practiced abortion while often censuring it.

A paradox emerges from the evidence we have about contraception in classical antiquity. The methods that medical authorities and other men of learning recommended are regarded by modern scholars as in many cases ineffective, and at their worst as downright ludicrous:

There is also a third kind of phalangium, a hairy spider with an enormous head. When this is cut open, there are said to be found inside two little worms, which tied in deer skin on a woman before sunrise, act as a contraceptive, as Caecilius has told us in his Commentarii. They remain effective for a year.

Wear the liver of a cat in a tube on the left foot, or the testicles of a cat in a tube around the umbilicus, or else wear part of the uterus of a lioness in a tube of ivory. This is very effective.

It is generally agreed that some of the contraceptive methods that Greek doctors of the Roman period recommended, particularly the use of spermicidal substances and of other substances that blocked the os uteri, are at times likely to have worked. But so much bad advice is mingled with good that the effects on fertility—this, at any rate, has been widely assumed—cannot have been significant. All but four of the twenty contraceptive techniques mentioned by Dioscorides, the foremost pharmacological writer of the Roman Empire, are said by modern experts to be ineffective. The greatest authority of classical medicine, Galen, wrote in the second century AD (in a passage which Riddle does not explicitly discuss) that he was unwilling to discuss contraceptives or abortifacients, since most of them belonged to the category of remedies that were absurdly ineffective or dangerous.^5 Classical methods of abortion have for the most part been described by modern scholars as having been quite primitive.

On the other hand, diverse Roman writers, for instance Musonius Rufus and Juvenal, indicate unequivocally that practical and effective methods of contraception were in use. The paradox cannot be eliminated by saying, though it may well be true, that Musonius and …

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