- Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England by Sara Read
Although its title suggests a narrow focus on menstruation, this book offers a broad discussion of women’s reproductive health in early modern England. This is because prevailing views of the body taught that women lost blood throughout their lives in a range of ways, nearly all of which were linked in some way to menstruation: menarche, defloration, childbirth, and menopause. These “transitional bleedings,” in turn, marked key developments in early modern women’s social [End Page 804] lives: from maid to wife and from wife to matron. Sara Read examines representations and discussions of these physiological and social milestones in a variety of texts from the period, including personal and religious writing, medical treatises, judicial cases, plays, and poetry.
The book opens by exploring the lexicon of menstruation in early modern England. Euphemisms included courses, terms, flowers, and months, among others. Read then moves on to examine representations of menarche in literature and medical texts. She mines the spiritual writing of Elizabeth Delaval, for instance, to capture this little-recorded life event. Because women like Delaval were reluctant to write openly about such matters, Read’s discussion offers insightful speculations about menarche and focuses more firmly on Delaval’s adolescence, including her concerns about overeating, oversleeping, and wasting time. Two court cases from the Old Bailey illuminate prevailing assumptions about the link between early menarche and lustiness. In her investigation of how women viewed and understood menstruation itself, Read again carefully analyzes her sources for evidence of a topic that few women wrote about candidly. As a result of women’s reticence, some of the book’s analysis remains conjectural. One of the most direct discussions we have is Queen Anne’s use of the name “Lady Charlotte” to refer to menstruation in her correspondence with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough.
How did women in this period manage the day-to-day reality of monthly bleeding? Read looks in creative places to answer this question, including a court case and collections of poetry. She also provides an interesting discussion of sanitary provisions and negative assumptions about menstruation recorded in religious texts—for instance, likening a false idol to a menstrual cloth. The remainder of the book looks at a series of bleedings that readers may not, at first glance, consider to be menstrual: “hymenal bleeding” during the first time a woman engages in sexual intercourse, blood loss during and following childbirth, and menopause. Hymenal bleeding was thought to be a key step in women’s maturity, while bleeding during and after childbirth marked another significant transition to motherhood. Finally, menopause could include heavy bleeding and irregular blood loss. Aging was thought to accompany the drying up of the body’s humors, thereby explaining the decline of women’s “flowers” in their later years.
Menstruation and the Female Body offers an intriguing look at a range of related themes, including early modern women’s life cycles, reproductive health, and representations of women’s bodies and lives. Nearly all of the sources in the book are modern editions of early modern texts or are cited from secondary literature rather than the original manuscripts. To historians, this may come as a surprise in part because manuscripts can provide different information than modern editions; indeed, editors are most likely to cut the very passages where we would most likely find discussions of commonplace bodily functions like menstruation. The book’s strength lies in the inventive use of a range of writing to piece together prevailing representations of a bodily process that, as Read smartly puts it, was simultaneously mundane and taboo. [End Page 805]