Ancient and Medieval Birth Control

Topics: Ancient Rome, Combined oral contraceptive pill, Birth control Pages: 6 (2003 words) Published: January 27, 2014
Since before the Common Era, mankind has placed a large importance on the evolution of health and medicine. The first medical texts date back thousands of years to ancient Egypt, and over these many years medicine has evolved. As practical medicine has evolved throughout history, so too has human sexuality, sexual health, and even contraception – the logical path of course, as without procreation this essay would not be written today. Though sex allows the human species to carry on, the fact of the matter is that throughout antiquity and the middle ages, the use of contraceptive methods of birth control were equally, if not more important and prevalent as the use of contraceptives in the modern age. Though modern science has led to breakthroughs in proven methods of contraception, those who lived in ancient and medieval times turned to herbal compounds, and even physical means of controlling the birth of a child. Dating back to the ancient Greek practice of “exposure”, the development of oral contraceptive herbal compounds, male withdrawal, and barrier protection methods; societies throughout antiquity and the middle ages have placed a large importance on contraception and birth control, much like the current practices of today. The practice of birth control can be traced back well before the Common Era. In ancient Greece, the practice of child “exposure” was used as a means of population control of children that were seen to be “not worth rearing.” Child exposure is simply a glorified term for infanticide; the killing of an infant. Where exposure and infanticide differ is that exposure literally exposes a child to the elements by abandonment, allowing them to die by “natural causes” such as starvation, weather, or even being eaten by an animal - whereas infanticide is the actual forceful killing of a child, similar to homicide. There were several common themes in ancient Greece behind the decision to expose a new-born child: the physically defective child, the illegitimate child, the unwanted female child, and poverty – having too many children to be able to care for1. The laws of ancient Greece permitted exposure, but it is important to note the distinction between exposure and infanticide based on the age of a child. In Athens, the ceremony known as dekatê indicated the celebration of a child’s tenth day of life, and acceptance into the family unit.2 Prior to being accepted into the family, the child was merely just a child, where the factors pertaining to exposure could be weighed against the decision to raise the new born, or abandon it. The deciding factors leading to exposure varied throughout history. In ancient Greek societies, the four aforementioned factors weighed into the decision, often ultimately decided upon by the father3. In ancient Rome however, it was written in the Twelve Tables of Law in 451 B.C., under the paternal powers, that a father “must quickly put to death just as according to a law of the Twelve Tables a boy marked by deformity4.” Here we see that the father had a legal obligation to not simply expose, but to promptly put to death a boy who was not born worthy of being raised. Roman societies through the middle ages also continued this trend of infanticide. However, it was women during this period who were responsible for so many infanticides. As historian Richard Trexler writes: “…it was thus at the end of the twelfth century: Innocent III instituted the hospital of the Santo Spirito in Rome because so many women were throwing their children into the Tiber5.” Though it can be clearly be regarded as a very crude and inhumane form of birth control, it is a fact that exposure or infanticide existed as legitimate form of postpartum birth control for parents of unwanted children, or children born into societies that would not accept them. Ancient and Medieval societies did not only rely on the cruel and inhumane methods of exposure or infanticide as a means of birth control; though the most...

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