So one of our readers asked us this question the other day, How did prostitutes in brothels non get pregnant during medieval times? From what I understand brothels were pretty popular during medieval times and contraception didn’t yet exist as we know it today.
Surely some medieval prostitutes, both those in brothels and those working on a temporary or contingency basis, did get pregnant. Court records from early 16 century London, for example, might explicitly note that a woman initially sentenced to dunking in the Thames for whoredom was ultimately spared “being with child.” It also seems to be the case that brothel keepers may have helped new mothers dispose of their children.
Nevertheless, medieval medical authorities held that prostitutes were infertile thanks to the extra dirt that built up in their wombs, which does suggest prostitutes developed rough methods of contraception. We know some women specialized in providing abortifacient herbs. In one 16th century German case, a former prostitute, even, was known to supply other women with herbs to, in the circumlocution of the court records, restore their monthly menstruation.
Ruth Mazo Karras, one of the most important scholars on prostitution in the Middle Ages, suggested one other option that subsequent scholars have generally agreed with. John Rykener is a rare case of a cross-dressing man charged with prostitution. In his own court testimony, he reported that none of his (male) customers had any idea he was actually male. That suggests that prostitutes had some sway with their clients in offering non-vaginal sex for sale.
Additionally, I need to mention one archaeological dig at Ashkelon in the Near East. This is a Roman bathhouse where the skeletons of many infants–born alive but dying shortly after birth–have been found in one of the drains. Archaeologists have posited that this bathhouse was the site of prostitution if not an outright brothel, and the dead infants were the victims of necessary infanticide.
The idea of contraception has existed probably ever since humans realized how babies were made. Some were related to superstition, such as the Greek gynecologist who recommended that women not wishing to have a child jump backwards seven times after having relations. Ancient Roman woman tried to avoid pregnancy by tying a pouch with a cat’s liver inside to their left foot or by spitting into a frog’s mouth. These were likely less effective than other methods.
Barrier methods for women have included pebbles, which the Arabs used to prevent camels’ pregnancies, half a lemon, and dried elephant or crocodile dung. In 1550 BCE, a concoction of honey, ground dates, and acacia tree bark was probably fairly effective, since acacia ferments naturally into lactic acid, which disrupts pH balances. In eastern Canada, a certain aboriginal tribe believed that drinking a tea brewed with beaver testicles would prevent pregnancy. And, then there’s silphium, which was a rare but extremely effective “morning-after pill.” Of course, it was extinct by the second century as it only grew in a small area of the Libyan mountainside.
The concept of “condoms”, however, did not come around with vulcanized rubber in 1844. Men traditionally used some sort of sheath, dating back to 1000 BCE. The ancient Romans and 17th Century British did employ animal intestines (which you can actually still purchase). Egyptians and Italians preferred fabric, sometimes dipped in a spermicidal solution. The main responsibility lies with women, though, with the first birth control clinic in the US appearing in 1913 and the pill appearing in 1960. Men have opted to continue using the sheath, although alternatives have been attempted.