A History of Contraception: Methods of Birth Control 1400-1800

Since the dawn of time women have both been having sex, and trying not to get pregnant. The history of contraception is long, and detailed, and usually kind of gross, but super important to think about when exploring the lives of women.

There’s lots of reasons why a woman wouldn’t want to get pregnant, both then and now. She might actually be unmarried (bad) or she might be a sex worker (worse). She might already have children and not want anymore (bad), or be able to afford anymore (also bad), or not want to rip her body apart again (bad). She might not like children or want them at all (monster).

Whatever the reason throughout history there has been a variety of disgusting methods (often with questionable success), but today I’m going to run through the history of contraception in the some ways that you too can stop yourself from getting pregnant if you accidentally end up trapped in early modern England, Outlander-style.

Method one: Don’t have sex!

Well, look, it’s the only birth control method guaranteed to work. No sex = no baby. Yes, I know that isn’t that fun, but after reading some of the other options, it might be looking a lot more appealing by the end of the list.

Method two: Move your body!

Vigorous jumping up and down, or hurrying downstairs can help to prevent your body from forming a baby, although it might spoil the post-coital mood somewhat if three seconds later you’re thundering up and down the stairs.

Method three: Wrap it up!

If you’re in the 1400 -1600s this might be more difficult, as condoms, often made from sheep or pig intestines and designed to go over the tip of the penis, were pretty rare and expensive. If you’re in the 1700s, though, good news – the market has grown and they’re on their way to being mass produced. Bonus point: they’ll also help stop you from getting syphilis, which is rampant.

History of contraception
Casanova blowing up condoms and bringing the memories of year 8 sex ed screaming back to me

Method four: Take your medicine!

(Insert crude joke about swallowing here)

There were lots of herbal and plant based contraceptives known to women including rue, juniper and savin. These were thought to be especially effective within ten days of having sex, or sometimes women would cook with them so that they had their protection during sex. French women during the 1600s used to drink onion juice (gag).

If you were a little further on than that, there were also herbs that you could take after you realised you were pregnant. Interestingly, English law followed church teaching in saying that abortion wasn’t illegal before the “quickening” of a fetus (around 16 weeks), and there were abortive herbal mixes to be found. These were usually inhaled, although Grace Mildmay talks about one medicine that was applied directly to the womb by placing it on a stick.

Method five: Steam your vagina!

Goop was way behind the times when it recommended sitting on a “throne” and steaming your vagina; women have been doing that for centuries although they probably didn’t pay $50 for the delight*. Post-sex, women would flush out or steam their vaginas, or sometimes douche them – a common method was to take a douche that had been soaked in fruit acids (e.g. lemon juice) and insert it in.

*Yes, I went and checked the price. It was cheaper than I thought

Method six: Don’t let it in!

Here’s another lemon-based option: why not soak the sponge in the juice and then slip it up just before your partner does? Alternatively you can use a whole lemon half, if that suits you better. Vaginal barriers have been a contraceptive for thousands of years, and if lemons don’t float your boat you could always try leaves or a thimble?

Method seven: Pull it out!

This does require your partner to be on board as well, but coitus interuptus, where a man pulls out before he ejaculates has been a common method since humans came into existence (I would imagine). It’s popularity is probably not really connected to its efficiency, especially as sperm can come out pre-orgasm, but that doesn’t stop people using that method now.

Method eight: Plan around your period!

Again, planning around menstrual cycles has always been, and still remains, a common and natural method of birth control. And again, be cautious – just because you’re less fertile at certain points, doesn’t mean that you can’t get pregnant.

So there we have it! 8 super simple and handy methods for keeping safe when you go on that dirty weekend to 1582. Let me know if you have any other helpful tips in the comments below!

Oh, god, sorry I have to say this, PLEASE DON’T rely on any of these methods except perhaps abstinence, if you use them and get pregnant, well it’s probably your own fault for taking sex tips from an early modern history blog but I couldn’t bear the responsibility for it. Thank you.

Liked this? Why not check out these?

A History of Menstruation

Attitudes to Queer Female Sex

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5 thoughts on “A History of Contraception: Methods of Birth Control 1400-1800

  1. Fascinating info! I became pregnant really quickly with our 2nd child due in Sep. I’d be comfortable with a 3rd (surprising myself here as someone who once wanted zero kids!) BUT my husband would be happy to see this post. He’s done after this:)

    Liked by 1 person

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