Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West

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Overview

In Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance, John Riddle showed, through extraordinary scholarly sleuthing, that women from ancient Egyptian times to the fifteenth century had relied on an extensive pharmacopoeia of herbal abortifacients and contraceptives to regulate fertility. In Eve's Herbs, Riddle explores a new question: If women once had access to effective means of birth control, why was this knowledge lost to them in modern times?

Beginning with the testimony of a young woman brought before the Inquisition in France in 1320, Riddle asks what women knew about regulating fertility with herbs and shows how the new intellectual, religious, and legal climate of the early modern period tended to cast suspicion on women who employed "secret knowledge" to terminate or prevent pregnancy. Knowledge of the menstrual-regulating qualities of rue, pennyroyal, and other herbs was widespread through succeeding centuries among herbalists, apothecaries, doctors, and laywomen themselves, even as theologians and legal scholars began advancing the idea that the fetus was fully human from the moment of conception.

Drawing on previously unavailable material, Riddle reaches a startling conclusion: while it did not persist in a form that was available to most women, ancient knowledge about herbs was not lost in modern times but survived in coded form. Persecuted as "witchcraft" in centuries past and prosecuted as a crime in our own time, the control of fertility by "Eve's herbs" has been practiced by Western women since ancient times.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Even in ancient times, people limited the size of their families. Since the major responsibilities of pregnancy, birth, and child rearing fell on women, they found methods for controlling fertility and aborting unwanted children, and they have passed down this knowledge as an oral tradition that survives worldwide. Using early manuscripts of medical and botanical texts and the proceedings of court cases, historian Riddle examines the use of plants as contraceptives, offering a fascinating view of the early knowledge of reproduction and attempts to regulate it. As formal medical training evolved and the Roman Catholic Church gained power, these preparations were forbidden, and women offering or using them were tried as witches. The information remained available in disguised form, and, in many parts of the world, Queen Anne's Lace, Pennyroyal, and other botanicals are still used to "regulate menses." More scholarly than Shirley Green's The Curious History of Contraception (LJ 8/72), this work is recommended for academic and large public libraries.Barbara M. Bibel, Oakland P.L., Cal.
Booknews
Having demonstrated in "Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance" that until fairly recently women regulated fertility safety and reliably with an extensive pharmacopeia, Riddle (history, North Carolina State U.) now explores how they lost that knowledge in modern times. He finds that the knowledge was never lost, only made inaccessible to most women, and that it survives coded, persecuted as witchcraft in earlier days and as crime in ours. He begins with the Inquisition in 1390 and ends with a chapter on American herbs. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674270244
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 6/30/1997
  • Pages: 341
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.49 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

John M. Riddle is Chair of the History Department and Alumni Distinguished Professor, North Carolina State University.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction: Roe v. Wade 1
1 A Woman's Secret 10
2 The Herbs Known to the Ancients 35
3 Ancient and Medieval Beliefs 64
4 From Womancraft to Witchcraft, 1200-1500 91
5 Witches and Apothecaries in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries 126
6 The Broken Chain of Knowledge 167
7 The Womb as Public Territory 206
8 Eve's Herbs in Modern America 228
Epilogue 257
Notes 261
Index 331
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