Red and Mossy: A Brief History of Menstruation

As a historian, as a former SCAdian (medieval re-enactor), as someone who likes neomedieval fiction, the question I’ve seen pop up the most is: What did people in the past do about issues like menstruation? Most SCAdians use modern products under their historical clothing, and fictional series can ignore it. But obviously real people didn’t have that luxury.

This isn’t a comprehensive study of every time and culture (though if someone wants to pay me to do that. . . ). Instead, this is the kind of info you can use to inform your ideas about Game of Thrones or Skyrim characters. Menstruation through largely a historical European lens.

So much about women’s history has been lost: literacy has generally been low until very recently (though, like so much else about the past, this is debatable, too), and the women who did write (and the men who wrote about them) rarely recorded such intimate details. We must take care not to extrapolate too much about the present on to the past. Still, I think we can say some constants remain. We all like being comfortable. People in the past were no more likely to let blood dribble down their legs than we are.

(The Museum of Menstruation, however, mentions a few cultures that do just that, bleed into clothing/let blood run down the leg, though there’s not a ton of supporting info. However, this is another reminder that very little is universal.)

(And given medieval doctors’ fascination with bloodletting, perhaps medieval people thought menstrual blood should just flow.)

1. Age

Historically, menstruation started at a later age than it does now (in the U.S.). In 2002, the average age for a first period was just over twelve years old. This appears to be, in large part, because of food. Before menstruation can begin, one must have a certain amount of body fat. In the past, or in places where food/calories are more scarce, that means it takes longer to reach that level.

That’s not to suggest people today are fatter/more obese (that’s a discussion for another day), only that it is much easier to access food now than in the past.

It’s hard to track the data over hundreds of years (because it does not exist), but a study from 1840s France shows a first period at age 15. The Institut national d’études démographiques explains:

In the past, girls in Europe had their first period between ages 16 and 18 on average, and likewise in southern countries until quite recently. But the age of menarche has fallen everywhere, and now occurs at age 12 to 13 on average in industrialized countries. . . . The earlier onset of puberty is attributed to better nutrition, education and modern lifestyles, which stimulate children’s nervous and hormonal functions. But the causes of this change are still not fully understood.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood suggests that in medieval Europe, average age of first menarche was 20.

Likewise, the age of first childbirth (and number of pregnancies) has changed. In the U.S., the average age for first childbirth is 24.9 years old. The The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) points out that in most countries, the average age of first birth has increased since the 1970s.

As a post-sequitur about food: Disordered eating, like anorexia, can lead to a cessation of menses. One of my history professors theorized that some women may have turned to religious fasting as a way to control their bodies — not just in terms of food, but in terms of menstruation and birth control. Nothing in the extant literature really supports this idea, just a hypothetical.

Additionally, sickness, stress, and physical activity can prevent or stop menstruation.

2. Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is common, historically, though not universal, especially among the upper classes. However, it could be used as a basic form of birth control. While menstruation can start up a month or two after birth, it can also be delayed for two years or more.

The Global Library of Women’s Medicine points out that,

In the modern world, if a couple initiates sexual intercourse when the woman is 20 years old or younger and continues at least until her menopause, without artificially limiting fertility, she can expect to conceive and carry to term an average of 10 live-born children.

Imagine, then, a historical person who begins menstruation at 16, marries at 18, first child at 20, and then children every two years or so after that. In medieval Britain, life expectancy at birth was 30; however, if one reached age 21, one  could expect to live another 40 years. That would give our historical person far fewer periods than a modern person.

(Historically, in late antiquity and medieval Europe, girls could marry at 12. But just because one could marry at that age didn’t mean one did; generally, it was more common for nobility to marry young, and generally marriages weren’t consummated until menstruation. Game of Thrones’s Sansa is a good example of this; she is betrothed, but not to be married to Joffrey until she “flowers.” Catherine of Aragon was betrothed to Arthur Tudor at age 14 and married in 1501 when she was 16 and he was 15. She swore the marriage was not consummated. Arthur died in 1502, after just six months of marriage.)

3. Clothing

I love studying historical clothing, in part because everything we know is contradictory.

For example, many people believed that history moved thus: wrapped breast band or no supportive garment, tightly lace dress or no supportive garment, corset, bra.  But a few years ago, researchers in Austria discovered linen garments from the 15th century that look very much like modern bras:

A fifteenth century linen garment from Austria, compared to a 1950s longline bra.
A fifteenth century linen garment from Austria, compared to a 1950s longline bra. Image from

Likewise, many believed that women didn’t wear underpants, only under-dresses. For example, this image from the Tres Riche Heures du Duc de Berry (1412-1416) shows a woman warming her naked vulva by the fire. She is otherwise fully dressed:

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. February calendar page.
Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. February calendar page.
©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda From Wikimedia Commons; click the link for a larger, clearer image.

However, her companion is warming his naked penis, while the man outside is clearly wearing underpants (braies, most likely). So it’s possible women wore underpants all of the time, some of the time, at least while on their periods, etc. Art from the period tends to depict women as either fully clothed or naked. Clothing tends not to last, not only because it is hard to be preserved but because it was often reused.

The “Ten Girls Mosaic” from 4th century BCE Sicily also shows women in workout clothes that look like modern underwear:

Mural showing Roman women in garments resembling bandeau bras and boy shorts
The “Ten Girls Mosaic.” 4th Century BCE female athletes. From Wikipedia.

The Austrian find also revealed a garment that looks very much like modern underpants. So it’s possible, probably likely, that people in the past had undergarments that could catch the blood, and possibly hold rags, natural sponges, or other receptacles for menstrual blood.

Another theory: it’s common to think of undergarments as being white, but it’s also possible people had special garments in a dark color. Perhaps she didn’t wear a pad or tampon, but she did wear special dark-colored undergarments.

If you read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, you probably remember Margaret learning about feminine hygiene and sanitary belts (pads that connected to a belt worn under the clothes). Who’s to say people in the past didn’t have something similar? It’s a clever idea if you don’t have adhesive. These were products that were used until the 1970s or so (and you can buy modern ones), but many people today probably have no idea they even existed except for books like Are You There God? So it’s possible that similar historical products also disappeared from the cultural memory.

1916 ad for feminine hygiene products.
1916 ad for feminine hygiene products. From Tranquilheart.hubpages Click the link for lots of cool pictures of historical products. The Museum of Menstruation has 19th century German patterns for making your own.

Okay, and this 2009 SNL ad for “Kotex Classic.”

4. Moss, Sponges, Pads, Tampons

The Museum of Menstruation describes Egyptian, Greek, and Hebrew writings that discuss using lint, soft papyrus, or other materials as a way to prevent conception; perhaps these products were also used as early tampons. Other people might have used wool, grass/plant material, or natural sponges. Sponges had the benefit of being able to hold spermicides.

Plants like Lady’s Mantle, thyme, woodruff, and fennel were also useful for treating PMS. (An extinct species of fennel may have been used for contraception.)

Sphagnum moss (sometimes called blood moss) was used to treat wounds. Specifically, it would be stuffed into a wound to stop bleeding. Perhaps it, too, was used as an early pad filler or tampon.

I would love to go back in time and be able to find out how this situation really was handled. While the Austrian finds show us history isn’t finished yet, I’m not holding out hope for the 14th century version of Are You There God? We can see that people have always been resourceful. It’s possible they did just let blood run down their legs or into their clothing. But it’s also possible they used any  of a variety of resources available to them.

By Natasha

History. Hindi cinema. Hugging cats.

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