so this winter i read a couple of books on self induced abortions. all of them excellent and really different from each other. the first book, i mentioned in a previous post, john riddle's contraception and abortion from the ancient world to the renaissance. this is a history book laced with lots of botanical and medical information and studies. basically, he is proving that through out human history, around the globe, humans have known of various ways to induce abortion and delay pregnancy (contraception). historians before him have concluded that people in the ancient and medieval and renaissance, really up to a hundred years ago, knew very little about how conception occurred and thus could not have known how to prevent it or end pregnancy.
on the contrary, riddle argues that a lot of the ingredients that are listed in various ancient herbals, medicinals, medical canons, folkloric poems, etc. as abortifacients or contraceptives were plants and substances that did have the effect of creating conditions that led to a self induced abortion. or decreases the chances of conceiving.
for instance, ancient greek medical text, on the diseases of women, recommends mint, rue, juniper, celery seed, queen anne's lace and other herbs that have been shown in laboratory tests to cause miscarriage in small mammals. ( reading about all these tests of rabbits and mice and cows being impregnated and then fed extracts of plants to force abortions made me nauseated. brought up for me what we do to females of all species in our culture. also, none of these tests were necessary to achieve an understanding of the abortifacient qualities of plants. it is cruel and sad and horrific.)
this knowledge of herbs was women folk knowledge. passed down from mother to daughter. traditional knowledge. from wise woman to virgin.
and the male writers throughout antiquity made casual mention of women's knowledge of contraceptives and abortifacients. as a matter of course. the male doctors and physicians who wrote the great classical medical texts that were then added to and reformulated by islamic physicians such as avicenna, mentioned abortifacients. some more freely than others. and the argument around whether or not abortion was moral was not for most of human history and argument about whether or not the fetus was 'human', had 'rights', had a 'soul'. but rather focused on the right of the father to have as many living children as possible.
'..a woman who procured an abortion for herself should be sent into temporary exile by the governor; for it would appear shameful that she could with impunity deprive her husband of children' ... nowhere (in roman law) is there a clear statement that the embryo/fetus was being protected, only the rights of the living...
the working knowlege of fertility plants was llikely held by women and transmitted orally. men, who wrote on the subject, were dependent on women as well as on their written sources.
and once i think about it. of course, women have always known how to make decisions about their own fertility. our survival as a people as a species had depended so much on women's culture regulating the population numbers. a lot of the plants in classical mythology and rituals that are associated with fertility are actually abortifacients or contraceptives: pomegranate, pennyroyal, chaste tree (sometimes just the common name of the plant tells you a lot!), artemisia, myrrha, etc.
he also writes a bit about women physicians including hildegard de bingen's work, physica.
not relying primarily on texts, she described usages that she learned from her friends and neighbors. although she lived in a cloister, she was worldly enough to know of seven plants that she said were emmenagogues and abortifacients.anyways i will probably reference this book a lot. he weaves a lot of disciplines together to make a convincing argument about the power of plants and women's culture.
check out some of the quotes and notes from his book