Monday, 18 March 2013

Sex and the Tudors

If The Tudors show is anything to go by, the Tudors were constantly at it.
I'm currently writing a Tudor romance, so I've been researching sex in Tudor times, as one does. Perhaps the most fascinating thing I've discovered is that sex wasn't entirely unprotected in those days. No, many couples went to great lengths to avoid pregnancy occurring.

This was despite the fact that contraception was against the law. It was considered a sin to have intercourse outside marriage, and therefore all intercourse was supposed to take place within marriage. Since it was part of God's plan that married couples should procreate - 'Go forth and multiply!' - trying to prevent that happening was considered a sin against God. Those who tried to interfere with that natural law could be condemned to death - and sometimes were, especially if they were of the wise old village woman variety, i.e. considered to be witches.

Nonetheless, this not being an ideal world, much sex occurred outside marriage, most commonly between men and prostitutes, between married men and their mistresses - sometimes married women themselves - and between young couples unable to wait for the sanctity of marriage. In all these cases, pregnancy would have been a very bad idea indeed.

Even married couples sometimes preferred not to add yet more children to their tally. (Childbirth being one of the key killers of women at the time, this is not entirely a surprise.)

So here are a few of the methods of contraception used by these more wily Tudors: 

Depending on who you ask, Elizabeth I either practised abstinence, remaining a Virgin Queen to her death, or else had several secret children by a number of different candidates, such as the Earl of Leicester.

Abstinence. Yes, well ...

Withdrawal. Still popular today, this was not a foolproof method of avoiding pregnancy, as a man is easily distracted at the vital moment.

Keeping the current child on the breast. (Clearly this was unreliable and only worked for those who already had a baby or young child.)

Avoiding the more fertile time of the month, a method which they didn't really understand, so not a great tool in the fight against pregnancy. So to speak.

Magickal objects (one source cites 'weasel testicles' to be worn about the neck), spells and incantations. Um ...

Pessaries and morning-after pills. These consisted of all kinds of grim and unpleasant substances, including the acidic medium of vinegar, taken orally or crammed inside the woman prior to intercourse, or sometimes after it. I should imagine most were utterly ineffectual. See magickal objects above.

Those concoctions designed to induce abortion may have contained pennyroyal among other herbs, and even mercury. Babies are notoriously hard to dislodge once implantation has taken place, so some of these potions may have killed the mothers as well as the babies they were carrying.

Condoms. Here, controversy enters. Some historians believe these may have existed in some minor form during Tudor times, others consider they did not arrive in England until the late seventeenth century. Some believe these early English condoms may have been made of leather, though animal intestines treated with oil were popular in other countries at this time, and parchment condoms have even been suggested. Bizarre!

Also see:
Sex in Elizabethan England by Alan Haynes


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