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  • Jewish Male Menstruation in Seventeenth-Century Spain
  • John L. Beusterien (bio)

In seventeenth-century Spain, in addition to being accused of spreading the plague, Jewish males were commonly assumed to menstruate: the Jewish body supposedly leaked impure blood. Certain important Spanish doctors—the king’s own physicians—demonstrated menstruation to be symptomatic in Jewish males. These physicians and other sources from the time typically combine the accusation of menstruation with that of hemorrhoids, classifying a blood flow from the anatomically ambiguous lower strata of the male body as a Jewish disease. While this was not a new accusation, in seventeenth-century Spain it was combined for the first time with legal language that sought to create a notion of “impure blood” as referring to one’s family or caste. In the following study, I argue that medical discourse about menstruation was here uniquely combined with legal discourse in order to create a notion of racial impurity. 1 [End Page 447]

In 1632 Doctor Juan de Quiñones, an official in the court of King Philip IV, devoted an entire treatise to Jewish maladies, focusing on the allegation that Jewish males menstruated. He wrote: “every month they suffer from a blood flow as if they were women.” 2 Holding a similar conception of the Jewish body, another royal physician, Dr. Gerónimo de la Huarta, also asserted that Jews suffered from a permanent menstruation, a blood flow from their lower regions. Both of these physicians assumed that the substance itself, impure blood, pulsed through the veins of the Jewish body; they considered the inner workings of the body as a world apart, a place of hidden activities, upon which they projected their own ideologies.

Their diagnosis can be understood in the context of prevailing socioreligious presuppositions about menstrual blood. Some ancient physicians attributed leprosy and other diseases to contact with menstruating women. 3 The impurity of menstrual blood had various biblical precedents. In the Book of Genesis, for instance, Rachel hid the family’s household gods that Laban sought to destroy:

Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel’s saddle, and sat upon them. Laban felt all about the tent, but did not find them. And she said to her father, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of the women is upon me.”

(Genesis 31:34)

Rachel hid the forbidden religious cult objects in a gesture that placed menstrual blood alongside a hidden object of worship. Although this connection between the cover-up of an outcast religion and menstruation was found in Hebrew scripture, the Christian physicians of seventeenth-century Spain reappropriated the notion and turned it against Judaism. Quiñones felt that although one could not see the hidden Jewish religion through any external corporal sign, one had to look for the hidden sign of pollution: “when recognition is difficult from the look [End Page 448] of the face, one should resort to the hidden signs of the body.” 4 For Quiñones, the physical sign of menstruation would reveal the hidden, rejected religion.

The parallel that Quiñones and Huarta drew between impurity and menstrual blood, an assertion found in Hebrew scripture, formed part of early Christian tradition. The Christian foundational texts treated blood flows as unclean and as signs of pollution. In general, in the language of the church, involuntary bloodletting from the sexual organs was a sign of sickness. One of the many miracles performed by Jesus in his capacity as healer was the arresting of blood flows (Matthew 9:20; Mark 5:25–34). The miracle continued in histories that formed the tradition of Christian hagiography. For example, in one story the saint’s attention was drawn to

a woman who lay in the colonnade of the main street (of Scythopolis), isolated even from her fellow beggars by the stench of an uncontrolled menstrual hemorrhage. “He came over to her in the colonnade and said . . . ‘This my hand I lend to you, and I trust in the God that I worship that you will be cured.’ Taking the saint’s hand she applied it to the hidden part, and immediately the...

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