Magazine article Times Higher Education

There Will Always Be Blood: Books

Magazine article Times Higher Education

There Will Always Be Blood: Books

Article excerpt

Helen Fulton looks at social attitudes to women's monthly cycle in the 16th to 18th centuries.

Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England

By Sara Read

Palgrave Macmillan,

272pp, Pounds 55.00

ISBN 9781137355027

Published 16 October 2013

If the idea of blood makes you squeamish, look away now. This is a book full of blood, a gendered blood that drips, leaks, gushes and floods from women's bodies on to beds, floors and clouts in an uncontrollable stream.

Sara Read's study of menstruation and women's blood in early modern England is a hard-working contribution to a specialised aspect of social history concerned with women's sexuality and reproductive functions. Building on earlier scholarship, she situates menstruation as part of the life cycle of early modern women. Monthly bleeding is placed in the context of other types of female reproductive bleeding, particularly "hymenal" and post-partum bleeding. There is a chapter on the menopause and the gradual decline of bleeding as a normative part of a woman's life. Read argues that "transitional bleedings" such as these defined the rites of passage of a woman's life, from child to woman, from wife to mother, and from mother to grandmother.

So far, so predictable. There is nothing surprising in the fact that women in the early modern age (I find I can't use the word "period" here) experienced patterns of bleeding more or less identical to those of modern women. Nor do we need to be reminded that menstruating women are thought to be unclean or polluted, that the Bible instructs men not to have sex with women who are bleeding, that virgins are supposed to bleed when the hymen is ruptured; all this is well known - and indeed still part of current thinking - especially among the 50 per cent or so of the population who might be called non-specialists.

What gives the book its time-specific focus is the written evidence for social attitudes to women's bleeding in the 16th to 18th centuries, evidence drawn from medical handbooks, letters, diaries and, unexpectedly, court cases. A few criminal cases tried at the Old Bailey (and found by Read at the wonderful Old Bailey Online website) offer a grim perspective on female bleeding and its associations with violent crime such as rape and murder.

Much of the evidence is either extraordinary or hilarious, but Read can stretch it to dubious lengths, assuming that what could easily be innocuous remarks are coded allusions to some type of female bleeding. …

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