Wednesday 25 February 2015

A Salon Guest: Contraception in Early Modern England

It's an absolute pleasure to welcome my guest, Sheila Dalton, author of Stolen, to the Guide today with a fascinating post on contraception!

“Take bear's foot and savin boiled, and drink it in milk, and likewise, hay madder chopt, and boiled in beer ...”:  Contraception in Early Modern England
In the course of writing my novel, Stolen, set in 17th century England and Morocco, I had to find out about birth control methods of the time. My heroine, Lizbet Warren, ends up ‘in keeping’ with a French privateer who works for the English crown. Needless to say, children were not on the agenda. So how would he go about preventing pregnancy?
The information I read was conflicting. Some articles and books maintained that not much was known about birth control methods in the 17th and 18th centuries. Historical records were scarce. 
Even the known facts led to different conclusions. The rate of birth within marriage was much lower than expected if fertility was allowed its natural expression (at least until the 1520’s in England; more about that later). This led many historians to believe that coitus interruptus was widespread. Others argued that different factors were behind a low birth rate: menstruation was not as regular as it is now - stress such as illness, food scarcities and wars would naturally make a woman less fertile. Also, other than amongst the nobility, it was not uncommon for women to marry around age 26 to 30, which meant up to 10 years of fertility were lost. Long periods of abstinence within marriage, such as in Lent, were common. And breastfeeding was a natural contraceptive, whether people were aware of it or not.
Others said that that even the churches and confessors tolerated abortion until after quickening, 
Yet other accounts gave information on herbal abortifacients that were used early in pregnancy.
It made sense to have my French privateer knowledgeable about contraception, even as early as 1633, when my book begins, because, historically, the French were thought to use birth control more than their English counterparts. The different rate of population growth in the two countries was used as evidence of this. Birth control was hotly debated in France by the 18th century, when the birthrate dropped so dramatically it became worrisome.
Whereas, in England, the population nearly doubled between 1520 and 1630. Poverty and homelessness became so widespread that people were picked up almost randomly to be transported overseas to the  colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean where labour was desperately needed.
So I decided that my privateer would have Lizbet drink herbal concoctions of tansy, willow leaves, savin, ivy and the leaves of white poplar, all known abortifacients of the time. He also introduces the use of brandy-soaked sponges and has her pass water hard after lovemaking - two methods mentioned in the literature, no matter than they were not proven effective.
Lizbet is not at first a willing participant in the use of these methods. She does, however, come round, realizing that she does not, at this point in her life, wish to have a child. Not while her life is controlled by a man who saved her from a public whipping, but at a price. 
Later, when she is freer to make her own decisions, thoughts of forming a new family must still be put aside, as she sets out on a quest to free her mother from slavery in Morocco. The book opens with a raid by Barbary Corsairs, active in the white slave trade of the time, who destroy her village and leave her to fend for herself in a hostile world.

About Sheila Dalton and Stolen
Sheila was born in Hillingdon, England, but has spent most of her life in Canada. She has written over a dozen books, including poetry, fiction, children’s picture books, and non-fiction about animals. Her YA mystery, Trial by Fire, was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis, Canada’s major crime writers’ award. The Girl in the Box, a literary mystery from Dundurn Press, was voted a Giller People’s Choice Top Ten.
She lives in Newmarket, Ontario. In addition to writing, Sheila likes to drum, meditate, draw, garden and spend time in nature.

Devon, England, 1633: Lizbet Warren’s parents are captured by Barbary Corsairs and carried off to the slave markets in Morocco. Desperate to help them, Lizbet sets out for London with the only other survivor of the raid, the red-haired orphan, Elinor, from the Workhouse for Abandoned and Unwanted Children. The pair soon separate, and Lizbet is arrested for vagrancy. Rescued from a public whipping by a mysterious French privateer, Jean, she is taken to his Manor House in Dorchester, where he keeps her under lock and key. Later, Lizbet is captured at sea by the pirate Gentleman Jake, and forced to join his crew. She forms complex bonds with both her captors; and uses all her skills to enlist their aid in finding her parents.  Her quest leads her to the fabled courts and harems of Morocco and the tropical paradise of Barbados.
Buy the Book


RADay said...

Thank you so much for hosting me today, Catherine.

Alanna Lucas said...

Sounds intriguing-Congrats on the book!

RADay said...

Thank you, Alanna. It was a fascinating book to write.

Debra Brown said...

It would be hard in those days to know what to do about contraception. Especially after the first five or six babies and not enough money to feed them all... I'm surprised to read here, though, that the birth rate was lower than we'd expect. Good post!

Catherine Curzon said...

It's been a pleasure!

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you!

RADay said...

Thanks, Debra. And thanks to Catherine for inviting me.