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Poisons Of Sterility: Contraception In Boleyn Fiction

August 7, 2013

As far as we know, the only one of Henry VIII’s wives with any interest in contraception was Katherine Howard, who famously confessed to knowing how “a woman might meddle with a man and yet conceive no child unless she would herself.” (Fraser, The Wives Of Henry VIII, 340) Unfortunately for future social historians, she didn’t get into specifics, but judging by the literature of that and many previous centuries, she would have had quite a few options of varying effectiveness. These ranged from the herbs recommended by John of Gaddesden in his early fourteenth century Rosa Anglica (mint douches were supposed to be effective) to the talismans recommended in the Trotula of the late twelfth century, which survived for hundreds of years and circulated all over Europe in various translations. The anonymous author writes that “Galen says that women who have narrow vaginas and constricted wombs ought not to have sexual relations with men lest they conceive and die. But all such women are not able to abstain, and so they need our assistance.” A number of methods ranging from benign to mildly horrifying are then set forth.

If a woman does not wish to conceive, let her carry against her nude flesh the womb of a goat which has never had offspring. Or there is found a certain stone, [called] “gagates”, which if it is held by the woman or even tasted prohibits conception. In another fashion, take a male weasel and let its testicles be removed and let it be released alive. Let the woman carry these testicles with her in her bosom or let her tie them in goose skin or in another skin, and she will not conceive.

If she has been badly torn in birth and afterward for fear of death does not wish to conceive any more, let her put into the afterbirth as many grains of caper spurge or barley as the number of years she wishes to remain barren. And if she wishes to remain barren forever, let her put in a handful. (From The Trotula: A Compendium of Medieval Women’s Medicine, translated and edited by Monica Green, 2001).

Other sources relied less on charms and more on sponges, blockages of various sorts, and efficacious timing. The practice of contraception — often denoted by the standard phrase “poisons of sterility” — may have been officially discouraged but there was obviously a lively interest in it all the same. (It’s worth mentioning, however, that documentation on the condom is far murkier. Their first uncontroversial appearance is in the mid to late sixteenth century, as an anti-syphilis invention of Gabriele Falloppio. This isn’t to say that nothing similar was used earlier, just that if it was, no written record appears to survive).

So what does all of this have to do with Anne Boleyn? While she had a very strong interest in preventing pregnancy before Henry’s first marriage was annulled, neither historians nor the vast majority of fiction writers are inclined to believe that she slept with Henry for very long before Elizabeth’s conception, and I’m inclined to agree with them on the basis of her subsequent fertility. A woman who was likely already in her thirties when she married and who then experienced (at least) three pregnancies in three years would not have been at a lower risk of pregnancy in her twenties, and sponges, herbal douches and weasel testicles can only do so much. There’s no reason for a fictional Anne to have a long-standing personal interest in contraception, and so there’s no reason to go into much detail about it.

Mary Boleyn, however, is another story. Mary’s fictional career trajectory has been an interesting one: from being merely Henry VIII’s former mistress, she’s been promoted over the last eighty years to also being the former mistress of Francois I, as well being Francois’ loaner mistress to about nine or ten of his companions. Mary had two surviving children while married to William Carey, when she was in her twenties. When she was well into her thirties, she had what one must assume was an accidental pregnancy with William Stafford — the consequences for her were unfortunate enough. You would think that with this later track record, the young Mary Boleyn of fiction would have had to be trying something to avoid bringing any extra small Boleyns back with her when she returned to England. You would, however, be wrong. Mary, in her different incarnations, sleeps around the French court with gusto in Blood Royal (1988) and The Tudor Sisters (1971), with mixed feelings in Feather Light, Diamond Bright (1974), and completely unwillingly in The Last Boleyn (1983) and Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007). In exactly none of them is she shown as even worrying fleetingly about pregnancy (all sorts of other things, yes, but never a baby) although Blood Royal manages to save the situation when it shows her telling Henry VIII about her first pregnancy — Henry is dismayed, as he thought she was using a preventative.

“I had thought you were more … accomplished than to get trapped.”

Mary blushed. She knew all the devices of contraception, very necessary to know at the court of Francois. They were, unfortunately, not infallible. She murmured that she was sorry.

That’s the only mention we get, but it’s enough to at least establish that it was a concern. The nature of preventatives is gone into in more detail in Anne Boleyn (2010), whose author has evidently also read The Trotula. The other ladies-in-waiting, assuming that the newly-returned Anne will shortly become the infatuated Henry’s mistress, begin to offer her advice. “You must know the French way. Vinegar in balls of wool,” Lady Rochford tells her, to which Anne replies coyly that “It stings the woman and the man horribly. They say.” Other suggestions are blocks of wood, the anus of a hare, and weasel testicles. “Wear them on your wrist when … when you are with a man,” one of the ladies tells her. After all of this, Anne’s decision to refuse Henry entirely looks less like a power play and more like a commonsensical desire to avoid needless agony.

Condoms appear in unappetizing form in At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012) when Madge Shelton and her illicit (and imaginary) lover Arthur Brandon use a greased “linen sheath” in order to keep their lives from becoming even more complicated — they fail in this ambition since they manage to get married without realizing it beforehand (sorry, I’m not sure I’ll ever quite get over that). The sheath as described anticipates Falloppio’s device by thirty years or so and is described as being made by Dr. Linacre. Granted, a little timeline manipulation doesn’t hurt in the service of a story, but I think that book might have redeemed itself, just a little, if we had been able to see Madge adorning her wrist with a withered weasel’s scrotum.

At least one book has given Katherine Howard her due as a woman who knew how to “conceive no child unless she would herself.” The Autobiography of Henry VIII (1986) Katherine is thought, for brief period early in their marriage, to be pregnant. Henry is, naturally, overjoyed at the thought of a small Duke of York to be a backup for Prince Edward, but soon Katherine begins to bleed and ends up losing, not a baby, but a small pebble. As the physician tells Henry “Her womb expelled it. It had been put there to prevent a babe from growing within.” Henry, even more impressively delusional than most of his fictional incarnations, decides that the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk must have had this done to Katherine secretly out of spite, thinking there were quite enough descendants of that branch of the family already.

I don’t intend this as a demand that Boleyn/Tudor fiction feature more explicit contraception. A few details are interesting, but a little can go a very, very long way (one reason I never made it through The Crimson Petal And The White was realizing that if I kept reading I’d probably learn even more about nineteenth-century vinegar douches, and I already knew more than I wanted to). The trend for contemporary romances to show characters reaching for a box of rubbers in order to set a good example for the readership obviously doesn’t apply here, either. However, I would like to see just a little more concern about pregnancy, especially if characters are having affairs of long standing, are Mary Boleyn, or both. The reader will know that a particular historical woman didn’t get pregnant for X number of years, that agates have no effect on the menstrual cycle, and that douches aren’t fail-safe by a long shot. But the historical woman didn’t know that, and if she’s engaging in an illicit, or even semi-licit (royal) affair, she would have to be beyond reckless not to worry about it. It would relieve the reader’s mind greatly to know that the character has sufficient forethought to be concerned — even if we don’t need to know every last detail of how that concern is addressed.

From → Essays

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