Birth Control in Western Europe

Historians and demographers believe that seventeenth century individuals in Europe understood the ramifications of large families during demographic crises and the risks to women of multiple pregnancies. Thus, couples used coitus interruptus, abstention, abortion, potions, condoms, prolonged lactation after the birth of a child, late marriage, and other methods of birth control.

Summary of Event

Modern historians have debated the idea that premodern peoples employed primitive forms of birth control. Many historians working in the 1960’s and 1970’s viewed any practice of contraception prior to the nineteenth century as unimaginable. Discussions related to premodern contraceptive behavior became tied to larger examinations of religious attitudes, sexual conduct, gender relations, family structures, and demographic fluctuations. [kw]Birth Control in Western Europe (17th cent.)
[kw]Western Europe, Birth Control in (17th cent.)
[kw]Europe, Birth Control in Western (17th cent.)
Health and medicine;17th cent.: Birth Control in Western Europe[0050]
Biology;17th cent.: Birth Control in Western Europe[0050]
Historiography;17th cent.: Birth Control in Western Europe[0050]
Cultural and intellectual history;17th cent.: Birth Control in Western Europe[0050]
Europe;17th cent.: Birth Control in Western Europe[0050]
Birth control, Europe

Using these avenues of research, historians gradually came to agree that rudimentary forms of birth control, including coitus interruptus, abstention, abortion, herbal potions and lotions meant to inhibit sexual ability, primitive condoms, prolonged lactation after the birth of a child, and late marriage to reduce fecundity were all forms of contraceptive technologies employed consciously in the seventeenth century to limit family size. E. A. Wrigley, a demographic and economic historian, has argued that the English in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries limited family size by coitus interruptus, abortion, and infanticide, whereas Lawrence Stone, an early modern historian, determined that the English nobility was using some methods of birth control by the mid-seventeenth century.

Much contemporary evidence exists that premodern people practiced birth control. Catholic priests in the early Middle Ages, for example, issued prohibitions against coitus interruptus, popularly known as the “sin of Onan” from a story in the book of Genesis in which Onan “spilled his seed” instead of potentially impregnating his wife, Tamar. Cultural and medical historian Angus McLaren has argued that the sheer number of premodern penitentials referring to the sin of Onan undermines the argument of contraceptive ignorance. He further postulated that the growth of printing during the Reformation period and the publication of Bibles in the vernacular probably augmented general knowledge about coitus interruptus. In addition, there is some indication that couples may have practiced anal intercourse as a preventive measure against unwanted pregnancy. While anal intercourse was certainly viewed as a serious sin in the seventeenth century, it was not associated exclusively with homosexuality. Priests, pastors, and judges in the period discussed sodomy as an offense that both men and women might commit.

Knowledge of birth control methods in the seventeenth century was drawn not just from biblical sources but from ancient, medieval, and Islamic texts as well. Physicians in the Greek, Roman, and Islamic worlds wrote about contraception, and this knowledge was well known in the early modern period. Herbals and medical manuals in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reprinted age-old recipes that included oral potions meant to induce abortion, penis ointments used to promote abstinence, and recommendations for postcoital exercise. Oral contraceptives made from different combinations of ingredients, such as pepper, woodbine, rue, hemp, cumin, calamine, radish root, and castor oil, were meant to dampen the appetite for sexual intercourse.

Another form of abstinence involved refraining from sexual relations during certain months of the year. Demographers have argued that this was a conscious effort by agrarian peoples to limit births during the summer and early fall, when labor needs on the farm were most critical. Condoms made from animal bladders were also available to wealthy men in the seventeenth century. Historians, additionally, have identified a largely female subculture that disseminated knowledge about contraception. Midwives and wise women were familiar with techniques to prevent unwanted pregnancies and bring about abortions even though the seventeenth century midwife’s oath included a statement against giving abortifacients. Women;birth control and

Angus McLaren noted that early modern women secured abortions by magical, physical, pessary, and herbal means. Magical means might include a spell that could reverse a conception or involve an amulet to bring on a miscarriage. Physical means referred to bleedings, beatings, and vigorous exercise. Many of these recommendations actually were written in medical texts to reverse amenorrhea and prevent sterility, but remedies devised to restore menstruation might also be used to induce abortion. Pessaries, often made of iris root, almonds, or roots of lilies and sometimes mixed with vinegar, also were placed inside the vagina to induce abortion. Finally, women also used toxic and nontoxic substances in herbal potions to end unwanted pregnancies. The three most common abortifacients were pennyroyal, ergot of rye, and, the strongest, savin. In the seventeenth century, many women believed that an abortion was neither a sin nor immoral if it occurred before the “quickening,” around the fifth month of pregnancy, when mothers become aware of fetal movement.

Dorothy McLaren, a historian of women’s history, underscored that women in the seventeenth century knew of the contraceptive effects of frequent breast-feeding. She examined female marital fertility patterns in women of the upper class as well as the lower class in the seventeenth century and found that wealthy women who used wet nurses were more fertile than less wealthy women who breast-fed their own children. Prolonged breast-feeding produced amenorrhea of lactation in early modern women, making it harder for them to conceive and thus allowing them some mark of forethought in attempts to plan family size. Breast-feeding women tended to reproduce every twenty-four to thirty months. This allowed women to space births over the course of their reproductive years. Wealthy women who used wet nurses, however, tended to have larger families because they became pregnant every twelve to fifteen months.

Recent statistical studies on northern European society in the seventeenth century also reveal one final observation of past contraceptive behavior. Wrigley and other members of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure developed an innovative technique called “family reconstitution” to study early modern European population shifts. Family reconstitution involves linking data drawn from parish records to reconstitute fertility and death rates for any given period. Rates of illegitimacy, premarital pregnancy, and family limitation practices can also be determined. These findings reveal a northern European marriage pattern predicated on late marriage, usually age twenty-five to twenty-seven for women and twenty-seven to twenty-nine for men. Late marriage was an especially effective form of premodern birth control that allowed for the adjustment of fertility to changing economic conditions. The later a woman married, the less time she spent in the childbed or birthing chair, thus reducing the number of pregnancies she experienced in her lifetime. Late age at marriage was not popular, however, in southern Europe, where women tended to marry between the ages of seventeen and nineteen.


Twentieth century historical and demographic research reveals that people in seventeenth century Europe had a number of contraceptive options that they could pursue. The idea that they were ignorant of various aspects of reproduction and their abilities to prevent conception, affect the outcome of conception, or both is no longer tenable. While some of their methods of birth control were both crude and ineffective, others offered viable and successful means of limiting family size. This research shows that seventeenth century Europeans had real agency when it came to reproductive decision making and underscores that they did not always abide by religious strictures that linked intercourse with procreation only. Their behaviors indicate a willingness to use “family spacing” technologies that decreased fertility and allowed women more control over their bodies.

Some scholars have indicated, moreover, that even the more crude abortion potions, bloodletting regimes, and exercises might have been quite effective in the seventeenth century when pregnancies overall were more precarious because of diet and poor standards of living and miscarriages were much more commonplace than today. The most significant decline in fertility before the advent of the contraceptive pill occurred in the modern period between 1870 and 1920 in northern European urban centers. Nonetheless, Angus McLaren points out that this decline was based not on the development of new contraceptive knowledge or techniques but on increased use of methods that were already well known and employed in the seventeenth century.

Further Reading

  • McLaren, Angus. A History of Contraception from Antiquity to the Present Day. London: Basil Blackwell, 1990. Offers a key chapter on early modern contraceptive behavior.
  • McLaren, Angus. Reproductive Rituals: The Perception of Fertility in England from the Sixteenth Century to the Nineteenth Century. New York: Methuen, 1984. The author argues persuasively that premodern people employed rudimentary contraceptive practices.
  • McLaren, Dorothy. “Marital Fertility and Lactation, 1570-1720.” In Women in English Society, 1500-1800, edited by Mary Prior. London: Methuen, 1985. This article argues that lactation amenorrhoea was a seventeenth century contraceptive “technology.”
  • Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1977. Stone argues that marriages were loveless before the eighteenth century. He also discounts knowledge of contraception by the majority of the population before 1700. Current historians reject this thesis.
  • Wrigley, E. A., et al. English Population History from Family Reconstitution, 1580-1837. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A major work exploring the logic between fertility and mortality.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

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