Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Medieval Douching and Fumigation by Karen Harris

Welcome again to History Undressed, guest authors, Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety! Here is another great article that Harris and Caskey-Sigety have recently penned from their new non-fiction book, The Medieval Vagina: An Hysterical and Historical Look at All Things Vaginal During the Middle Ages, now available on Amazon. Please enjoy another one of their fascinating articles--guaranteed to entertain!

Medieval-Style Douching

We have textual evidence that tells us women have douched since ancient times. This we must balance with the idea that women in medieval times bathed infrequently…very infrequently! Does that tell us that medieval maidens were concerned about the not-so-fresh feeling in their nether regions? Did they want to please their lovers with perfumed vaginas, while turning a blind eye (or nose) to sweat, body odor, and stinky breath? Probably not. Women in the middle ages douched, but they did it for different reasons than women today. And, of course, they used whatever douching agent was handy, rather than douching with store-bought, pre-packaged, applicator-included products.

First, we will tackle the “why” questions. Ancient medical texts tell us that women were advised to douche to cure vaginal infections. But folk remedies and word-of-mouth medical advice handed down by wiser, older women told us that they douched to wash away their lovers’ pus in hopes of preventing sexually transmitted diseases, which we know ran rampant in the pre-antibiotic Middle Ages. Medieval prostitutes and women of loose morals were even advised to douche after sex to “wash away” the semen and prevent pregnancy…sort of an early version of the morning-after pill.

Next, the “what”.  Ancient Egyptian scrolls revealed that women used a mixture of garlic and wine to douche. Of course, the old standby of vinegar and water was used as well. It was discovered early on that any type of mildly acidic liquid could be an effective douching agent. Olive oil, pomegranate pulp, tobacco juice, ginger water, acacia could all double as a douching agent. As could honey, lemon or lime juice, cedar oil, and frankincense.

Lastly, the “wow” factor. En vogue in the Middle Ages was vaginal fumigation. This treatment was often medically prescribed and assumed to be a means of curing yeast infections, cervical cancer, urinary tract infections, and menstrual cramps. Water mixed with herbs was boiled in a special vessel with a long tube protruding from it. The hot steam was forced through the tube which was inserted into the vagina of the patient. Vaginal fumigation is a perfect example of the cure being worse than the disease. Women no doubt suffered from burns and damage to the delicate skin of their vaginas, which could easily lead to more infections. And when we remember that medical instruments like vaginal fumigators were not sterilized between each use, we can see how easily infections might spread.

            To sum up, medieval women personally (and professionally, if you were a prostitute) went to various lengths, ranging from home remedies in the kitchen to prescribed vaginal fumigation, in futile attempts to cure venereal diseases and prevent pregnancy. These “cures” were all ancient and medieval women had to rely on before cleanliness and personal hygiene came into being.

Author Bios:

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

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