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sweetsweetstephy's avatar

How did women deal with menstruation in early history?

Asked by sweetsweetstephy (338 points ) September 16th, 2011

Prior to tampons and sanitary pads, what would women use? And how would they explain a “period,” considering the information they had on hand (which would be limited) I mean from Dark Ages on.

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33 Answers

JLeslie's avatar

They used fabric, which is why it is nicknamed being on the rag.

fizzbanger's avatar

In the early 1900’s, people came up with various suspender-ish contraptions to go with the rags. I can’t imagine they were very comfortable.

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ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

In ancient Egypt they would use rolled papyrus as tampons.

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Sunny2's avatar

Before they had clothes, I suppose they did what animals do, just let it drip where they squatted. Jean Auel wrote several novels about early man and the communities they formed and their daily lives. She wove her research into the stories so you learn answers to the kind of question you asked here. Look for Clan of the Cave Bear.
During biblical times and later, in some communities, women had to go outside the village perimeter when they had their period. They were considered ‘unclean.’

AshlynM's avatar

I would imagine they would either make their own pads, used clothes, or just let it drip, which is gross.

trailsillustrated's avatar

depending on the period (haha no pun really) that you are speaking of, they used fabric, either rolled up and stuffed in or in a diaper or nappy fashion. For rich women, these were washed by laundresses, and regular women or tenant farmer women they were boiled and washed with lye. There are all sorts of tales about it. It was a subject of much ‘witchery’ and superstition. For you edificatiion, Jean Auel is a hack and you can learn so much more by reading other stories, check online or with your library if you would like to learn about medieval life sorry jean auel readers but yeah

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Jeruba's avatar

There’s a pertinent passage in the Bible when Jacob runs off from the house of Laban, taking with him his two wives, Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, and all their children. And Rachel has stolen some of her father’s images of gods—something that he valued—and stored them in a trunk. When Laban comes after them in a rage a few days later, he searches the tents, looking for his treasure. But Rachel sits on top of the trunk and tells him that she can’t get up because she has her period (“the custom of woman”), and so he doesn’t find the images.

30 And now, [though] thou wouldest needs be gone, because thou sore longedst after thy father’s house, [yet] wherefore hast thou stolen my gods?

31 And Jacob answered and said to Laban, Because I was afraid: for I said, Peradventure thou wouldest take by force thy daughters from me.

32 With whomsoever thou findest thy gods, let him not live: before our brethren discern thou what [is] thine with me, and take [it] to thee. For Jacob knew not that Rachel had stolen them.

33 And Laban went into Jacob’s tent, and into Leah’s tent, and into the two maidservants’ tents; but he found [them] not. Then went he out of Leah’s tent, and entered into Rachel’s tent.

34 Now Rachel had taken the images, and put them in the camel’s furniture, and sat upon them. And Laban searched all the tent, but found [them] not.

35 And she said to her father, Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise up before thee; for the custom of women [is] upon me. And he searched, but found not the images.

(Genesis 31:30–35, KJV)

From this I think we can infer that women made it a practice to stay put when they were bleeding, probably to sit on a pile of rags that they could later wash out.

We can also see that Rachel has a streak of her father’s own dishonest trickery, so we can’t feel too sorry for Laban.


Jean M. Auel is no great shakes as a writer, but she is a thorough researcher. (She writes about prehistoric times and not medieval life.) As I recall, her character wears some sort of leather thong so that she can remain active while she has her flow. Since there would be no record, this would have to be a matter of reasonable speculation.

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rooeytoo's avatar

My mom told of using torn up pieces of toweling and having to wash and reuse. Sounds hellish!

@JLeslie – I completely agree, I have often said tampons and birth control did more to liberate women than anything else I can think of!

Aethelflaed's avatar

Where they thought it came from? They thought that it (and other gynecological suffering, like cramps and the pain of childbirth) was the female sex’s eternal punishment for Eve’s crime with the snake.

They knew that it was a sign of fertility and health. Medieval medicine was based upon the humors, and they thought that if you had too much blood it was an imbalance of the humors (hence the bloodletting). But, because women bled naturally every month, they thought menstruation would flush a woman of her excess humors and buildup of bodily wastes, so women weren’t really bled that much (they did that more to the men). And they thought that it was bad when a woman stopped getting her period, that she then became poisonous and could poison men and children and others that she came in contact to.

Some thought that virginal menstrual blood was different than the blood of nonvirgins; for example, that there was less of it, that it could cure leprosy, etc.

There’s a letter from Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) stating that women who are in the process of menstruating should not go to church or partake in communion (which suggests that they were at the time), praising women who did not partake of the Eucharist: “The menstrous habit in women is no sin, seeing that it occurs naturally; yet that nature itself has been so vitiated as to seem polluted even without human volition.” Eventually, women were not allowed to enter church, partake in the Eucharist, along with other menstrual restrictions, though several centuries later.

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espearite's avatar

You think rags are bad? I heard women used corn husks at one point in the past, not sure if it was in medieval times or if they did it straight. If so, it just sounds awful.

janbb's avatar

I think corn husks were used for cleaning bums, not menstruation.

jca's avatar

I can’t imagine corn husks or papyrus to be too absorbent. I don’t see how they would have been used.

janbb's avatar

Tampons were invented after World War 1 or 2 by a nurse who extrapolated the idea from packing cotton in bleeding noses.

asmonet's avatar

I was told once by one of my professors that some native american women, at least in the southwest, used saw dust and plant matter put in a sort of loincloth hat was changed out regularly.

gailcalled's avatar

I believe that the Amerinds used vegetative materials such as the fluffy heads of cattails.
Hey, @Asmonet

incendiary_dan's avatar

Crap, I was going to say the thing about cattail fluff, but @gailcalled beat me to it. Milkweed fluff is also good I bet, and it’s silkier. Basically anything absorbant, really. Lots of alternative health places sell small sea sponges for that purpose.

MagsRags's avatar

A related factoid – there are several different theories about the origin of the superstition about walking under a ladder. One of the possibilities proposed is that in medieval times, there was a common belief that a person who walked beneath a menstruating woman under a window or bridge for example might have some of her blood or negative energy fall on him, bringing about bad luck.

Jeruba's avatar

There’s quite a lot of information available online; for example, here.

One rather amazing source that I stumbled upon in my research 5 or 6 years ago (wanting to know what the normal procedure was at the time of World War I) is called Museum of Menstruation. It’s loaded with ads, many of them unappetizing, but there appears to be a lot of information indexed on the right. See, for instance, “Belts.” Here’s some historical information and discussion.

There’s also some content I’ve never seen or heard of elsewhere, such as the pre-Columbian bowl illustrated on this (NSFW) page.

Dutchess_III's avatar

The Indians popped the fuzz out of cat tails to line baby’s diaper. That’s what Sacajawea said, anyway. :)

gorillapaws's avatar

@Sunny2 I learned that in some Native American cultures that banished women to a special tent during their periods wasn’t because they were “unclean” as it was perceived by many European cultures. Instead, it was because they believed that women having their period had a very powerful magical force around them, and they were worried that it could overide/overpower any magic they were trying to make for themselves (such as rituals protecting tribe members on a hunt for example). So it was done out of respect for the power of women, not out of disgust. I’m not sure how widespread this belief was however.

wilma's avatar

An elderly neighbor once told me that they made sanitary pads out of old rags and they washed and boiled them and hung them behind the wood stove (where they were out of sight ) to dry.

I remember using a little elastic belt with a pad, there was a certain way that you hooked and twisted the long tail-ends of the pad onto the clips on the belt. The pads looked like small mattresses, I went for the tampons after about the second day of my first period.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@wilma Oh Lord yes! I finally rebelled at the elastic waist band thing but, as a consequence, the stupid thing slipped around. Not long after they came up with the sticky strip at the bottom of the pad. Duh! I can’t believe I’m talking about this…

faye's avatar

My mom used rags that were used for nothing else. She talked about having to stay home a day or two every month. I remember the belt and mini mattress, lordy, lordy.

asmonet's avatar

@Jeruba: That guy freaks me right the fuck out. And not because it’s a dude. But because it was in his basement. And visits were by appointment only and always solo. And he has that creepy self-portrait. Good information source, though.

jtmark07's avatar

I had read that Native Americans would use Moss.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Edit. Ack! I already answered this!

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