The Monthly

Here's Jo, responding to a question sent in by Artemesia. Artemisia, you win a book from me.

"My Curiosity overwhelms me.  A woman's menstrual cycle is seldom mentioned in any historical novel.
Occasionally, in passing, there is a reference to "courses" and only once did I read of the heroine's "padding."

What did they do?  How did they handle this problem?  My own grandmother told me she used newspapers or rags.  I've read that sanitary napkins as we know them did not appear till early 20th century. What did Lady Whatsit use?"

In a Wenchly conclave we felt that we'd covered this. In fact, that I'd covered it. Telling, I'm sure that I was instantly interested in the topic, and yes I had blogged about menstruation in response to a question, but it was way back in 2008 and the question had been about PMS. So I reckoned I could have fun with the topic again.

However, it's really difficult to find relevant images to go with this subject, so I'm experimenting with a non-illustrated blog. How do you feel about that?

 "A woman's menstrual cycle is seldom mentioned in any historical novel."

Is this true? The other Wenches tended to think so, and that it was reasonable. Do you agree? I don't.

In these discussions menstruation is often listed along with urination and defecation, and that's reasonable, because they are all normal, regular, and in the case of the last two, frequent. Among readers and writers, the above are sometimes also listed with rotten teeth, fleas, and sweaty clothing.

There's a huge difference. I can dictate that my characters all have good teeth, because good teeth are possible. I know people who've never had a cavity (It seems to be to do with natural resistance to caries.) I have reasonable straight and even teeth and I've never seen an orthodontist. I can assume that they and their homes are flea-less, and that they wear clean linen every day (many did) and take reasonable measures to freshen their silken finery.

I cannot assume they never pee and poop. Or that a woman who isn't pregnant doesn't menstruate at roughly monthly intervals. So why on earth would I try to banish these normal, healthy events from my books? Why would anyone want them banished?

Question #1 What's your preference. Ignore such things entirely, or include them when it's relevant to the story?

My opinion.

As a reader I often find their absence distracting.

I'm not saying they need emphasis any more than other natural functions, but there are circumstances when I need a mention. Lady Prunella is kidnapped by the rapacious duke, escapes into the woods, where she becomes lost and wanders, afraid of the duke's minions, for a day and a night. Sooner or later, she's going to have to relieve her full bladder. In addition to reality, how she deals with it will tell me a lot about her. Does she struggle on, legs more and more crossed, because she cannot face the prospect of hiking her skirts, and dealing with her split drawers if she's wearing them, and letting it out?

Or, does she face up the necessity with practical common sense and just do it?

It's even more stressful, and thus interesting, if she remains a captive and has to ask the duke to allow her to relieve herself. She might make this a means of escape, but I'm going to think pretty poorly of the villainous duke if he allows her out of sight.

Let's talk about menstruation.

if the couple are having sex regularly and the story carries on for more than a few weeks, menstruation becomes an issue in this reader's mind. Why ignore the reality when it throws interesting light on the characters and their relationship? How do the man and woman deal with this aspect of intimacy for the first time?

Of course if she doesn't menstruate she's probably pregnant, which is important, but which also might be something she wants to hide. It's easier to pretend to have a period than to conceal one.

I have a broader point on this. Why do women treat menstruation as an unspeakable subject? It's a basic part of womanhood, deeply part of our sexuality and fertility, and we should at least accept it, and at best be proud of it, especially in our special genre. Comments?

Question #2. Have you come across romance novels which include menstruation as part of the story? Please share titles where you think it was particularly well done.

How did women manage menstruation in the past?

Clear facts are hard to find. I did find some 18th century health books that dealt with first menstruation, but they dwelt on the importance of preparing girls for the event and dissuading them from being invalidish about it. Fresh air and activity were the key.

So what did women do to cope with the flow?

This site has some information, as does this one.

Both are worth exploring, but I simply can't believe one argument there — that women did nothing; that they simply let it dribble out as they went about their lives. There's more on that here. I hold it generally to be true that people in the past had as much common sense as we do and in general tried to make their lives as comfortable as possible.

The above site talks about staining the shift. What a bother that would be, and it'd get through to the outer clothing too, so she's walking around with a bloody stain on the back of her clothing, probably with all the dogs in the house or village sniffing after her. Believable?

True, some women menstruated rarely, but what about the young girls and other single women?

Female servants were nearly always unmarried. Did they drip around the house every month? I wonder if there's anything interesting to be found in documents to do with life in convents.

Given all the problems, it doesn't take a leap of inventiveness to come up with the idea of rags or wool or other absorbent material that could be held in place by a sling tied to a belt of some sort, and in fact women in various cultures have done just that, either washing cloths or discarding the wool, paper et al.

I am a bit startled by the newspaper mentioned by Artemisia's grandmother. I wonder how that worked.

So for my purposes, I assume that to be the case — that it was the common practice for most women up to the 20th century when commercial pads became available. I found sanitary pads for sale in the 1901 catalogue of Eatons, a Canadian company. "Sanitary diapers. Antiseptic bleached cloth made of specially selected bleached cotton, guaranteed chemically pure and absorbent, soft finish in sealed packages of 10 yards each." It came from 18" to 27", priced from 65c to 95c.

This was fairly expensive, and for a long time poorer women would avoid that expense by using folded rags and washing them for re-use as they probably had for centuries, but the pads were clearly not a new-fangled thing in 1901.

On the subject of rags, oddly, the earliest citation in the OED for "on the rag" is 1967! I'd assumed it was much older.

Just stay home?

Another way to manage the monthly applies mostly to the richer classes — the woman simply staying at home for a few days. This would be particularly welcome if she had cramps. I still think she'd have used some padding to avoid staining clothes, bed, chairs etc. It 1661 Pepys  wrote, "My wife now sick of her menses at home."

Question #3 However, I don't think I've come across a heroine opting out of the story for three or four days. Have you?

Another relevant reference is from Travels Through the Interior Parts of North-America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768 Jonathan Carver, John Coakley. "The Indian women are remarkably decent during their menstrual illness." They go on to describe a practice of the women retiring to a building when menstruating. Their approval suggests this would be decent practice back in Britain, but also that it's not always the case?

Question #4 How would you interpret it?

Question #5 Do you have anything  data to add to the above?