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Female Blood by Uta Ranke-Heinemann

Female Blood

by Uta Ranke-Heinemann

from Eunuchs for Heaven, German publication Hoffmann and Campe Verlag, Hamburg 1988; English publication by André Deutsch, London 1990, pp. 12-17. I have not been able to locate the publisher.

Chapter Two. Female Blood: The Ancient Taboo and its Christian Consequences

Intercourse with a menstruating woman was a particular taboo in the ancient world and one to which Christianity, too, subscribed. Like the physician Soranus of Ephesus (second century AD), who believed that conception could not occur during menstruation and that, consequently, intercourse with a menstruating woman was impossible. The womb being moist with fresh menstrual blood, 'the moisture not only saps the vitality of the semen but entirely neutralizes it’ (De legibus specialibus, 3, 6, 32). Philo was thus justifying the Old Testament prohibition contained in Leviticus 20: 8 - the Lord had told Moses that, if a man slept with a menstruating woman, they should both be ‘cut off from among their people’. Leviticus gives no reason for this draconian decree, though it does tell us (15: 19f.) that a menstruating woman remains unclean for seven days: all that she touches is unclean, likewise anyone who touches her or touches anything touched by her or anything touched by anyone who has been in contact with her. In the ancient world, Jews and heathens were equally convinced of the noxious properties of menstrual blood. Whereas Philo believed that the virulent effects of menstrual blood on semen were such that conception could not occur, the Roman naturalist Pliny (d. AD 79) condemned sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman because any children conceived during menstruation were sickly, afflicted with purulent blood serum, or stillborn (‘Historia naturalis’, 7, 15, 87).

In the opinion of such Fathers of the Church as Clemens Alexandrinus and Origen (c. 200) and Jerome (c. 400), children conceived during menstruation were born handicapped. Jerome: ‘If a man has intercourse with his wife at this time, leprous hydrocephalic children are born of this conception, and the effect of the tainted blood is such that the contaminated bodies of both sexes become either too small or too large’ (‘Commentary on Ezekiel’, 18, 6).

‘He that has intercourse with his wife during her period’, warned Archbishop Caesarius of Arles (d. 542), ‘will father children that are leprous, epileptic, or possessed by the Devil’ (Peter Browe, 'Beiträge zur Sexualethik des Mittelalters’, p. 48). Isidore of Seville (d. 636), whose encyclopedic ‘Origines’ was widely read for centuries, wrote of menstrual blood: ‘After contact with it fruits cannot germinate, flowers wilt, grasses wither . . . iron rusts, bronze turns black, and dogs that partake of it develop rabies’ (ibid., p. 2). Like Philo, he believed it so ‘corrupted’ semen that menstruation precluded conception. Abbot Regino of Prüm (d. 915) and Burchard of Worms (d. 1025) laid it down that priests in the confessional should question penitents on the subject of intercourse during menstruation.

Great theologians of the thirteenth century such as Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus condemned intercourse with a menstruating woman as a mortal sin because of its detrimental effect on children. Berthold of Ratisbon (d. 1272), the thirteenth century’s most celebrated preacher, made this abundantly clear: As for the children that are conceived at such times, you will delight in none of them, for they will be either possessed by the Devil, or leprous, or epileptic, or hunchbacked, or blind, or malformed, or feeble-minded, or club-headed ... Even if you have been absent for four weeks, nay more, for two years, beware of desiring her . . . Being honest folk, you know full well that the stinking Jew takes great pains to eschew the time in question’ (F. Göbel, ‘Die Missionspredigten des Franziskaners Berthold von Regensburg’, p. 354f.). Berthold mentions the Jews (‘stinking’ Jews in accordance with Christian anti-Semitism) because the fact that so few of them contracted leprosy was often ascribed during the Middle Ages to their careful observance of the ban on intercourse with menstruating women. The contrary circumstance - that leprosy and other ailments were especially rife among the peasantry - is attributed by Berthold to their habit of copulating with their wives at such times (Browe, op. cit., p. 4). John Hus (d. 1415) held that children born of intercourse with menstruating women were likely to be hunchbacked, one-eyed, epileptic, lame, and possessed by the Devil (ibid., p. 5).

Over the ensuing centuries, the belief that handicapped children had been conceived during menstruation was gradually ousted by advances in medical science. Cardinal Cajetan (sixteenth century), an opponent of Luther’s, classified menstrual intercourse merely as a ‘minor sin’ (‘Matrimonium’ in ‘Summula peccatorum’, 1526). Thomas Sanchez (d. 1610), a leading authority on marital matters and one whose influence endured for centuries, wrote that many theologians had ceased to regard menstrual intercourse as a sin proper, but that most of them held it to be a venial sin on the grounds that it was ‘unseemly’ and denoted a lack of self-control. He no longer believed that it harmed children because the detrimental effects of menstrual intercourse could very seldom be proved. Indeed, intercourse with a menstruating woman could sometimes be entirely sinless when justified by a sufficient reason, e.g.inordinate carnal temptation or a domestic quarrel (‘De sancto matrimonii sacramento’ lib.9,disp.21,n.7)

A different view was espoused by one or two theologians of the Jansenist sect.( a seventeenth -century revival of strict Augustinianism). The Belgian Laurentius Neesen (d. 1679) regarded intercourse with a menstruating wife as a mortal sin on the part of the spouse who initiated it (Heinrich Klomps, ‘Ehemoral und Jansenismus’, p. 190), though most Jansenists classified it as venial. Alfonso de’ Liguori (d. 1787), the eighteenth century’s leading moral theologian and one whose influence persisted through into the early years of the twentieth, took his cue from Thomas Sanchez. Until the beginning of our own century, therefore menstrual intercourse was generally regarded as a venial sin on account of its ‘impropriety’ and deficient self-control (Dominikus Lindner, ‘Der Usus matrimonii’, p. 218).

As to whether menstruating women should be permitted to receive Communion, this was regularly disputed until well into the Middle Ages, the Eastern Church being even more hidebound than the Western. Patriarch Dionysus of Alexandria (d. 264 or 265), a pupil of Origen, declared that it was unnecessary even to pose the question of permissibility for it would never occur to pious, devout women to touch the sacred Communion table or the Lord’s body and blood’ (Epistolae can. 2, PG10, 1281A). Cardinal Humbert, the papal legate who formally consummated the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches at Constantinople in 1054, reproached the Greek Church for discriminating against women in this respect. Theodore of Balsamon (d. after 1195), a celebrated Greek Orthodox canonist and patriarch of Antioch, supported the practice of discrimination, as did Cyril III, the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria (d. 1243). The Maronites did not abolish it until 1596.

The West adopted a milder stance. Although Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) did not forbid menstruating women to enter churches and receive Communion, he commended those that refrained from communicating at such times. He regarded menstruation as the consequence of guilt: a woman should not be ‘prohibited during these same days from receiving the mystery of holy communion. If, however, out of great reverence, she does not presume to receive, she is to be commended. The menstrous habit in women is no sin, seeing that it occurs naturally; yet that nature itself has been so vitiated as to seem polluted even without human volition’ (Letter in reply to Bishop Augustine of England, 10th answer ).

This inconsistency gave rise to ambiguous canonical legislation in the West. Menstruating women were forbidden to communicate in some places and permitted to do so in others. Canon Matthew of Janov (d. 1394) for instance, inveighed against priests who barred such women from Communion and declared that they should refrain from inquiring about such things in the confessional, this being ‘neither needful nor useful nor proper’ (Browe, op. cit., p. 14). As late as 1684, however, the parish records of Deckenpfronn, a village in the Black Forest, recorded that menstruating women lingered outside the church door and do not truly go in, but stand there as though in the pillory’ (ibid.).

Menstruation proved particularly disastrous to women wishing to hold ecclesiastical office. Theodore of Balsamon wrote: ‘The order of deaconesses was once known and had access to the altar. In consequence of their monthly pollution, however, their order was ousted from the ritual domain and the sacred altar. Although deaconesses are still chosen in the venerable Church of Constantinople, they are no-longer admitted to the altar’ (‘Responsa ad interrogationes Marci’ [Intern 35]; cf. Ida Raming, ‘Der Ausschluss der Frau vom priesterlichen Amt’, p. 39).

The blood of women in childbirth was regarded as even more noxious than menstrual blood. New mothers presented the antisexual Christian Church with additional problems, for instance in respect of burial. Unlike menstruating women, they could be presumed to have indulged in carnal pleasure, and carnal pleasure - almost invariably according to Augustine and invariably according to many of his successors - had sinful associations. It was even stated by the Synod of Treves (c. 8; 1227) that women who had given birth required reconciliation with the church and that they could not be readmitted to a place of worship until the said reconciliation had taken place. This ‘churching’, to use the modern term combines Jewish purification laws (it was forty days before Mary herself could re-enter the Temple after ritual lustration (cleansing)) with Christian denunciation of carnal pleasure and disparagement of the female sex. Mothers who died in childbirth 'unreconciled’ with the church were often denied burial in churchyards. Several synods notably those of Rouen (1074) and Cologne (1279) opposed the practice and argued that they should be buried like other Christians (Browe, op. cit. p. 20). Writing to John, Elector of Saxony, in connection with the Diet of Augsburg (1530), Luther mentions that in the papal Church women who died in childbirth were buried with 'a ceremony of their own’: instead of being placed in the middle of the church like those of other parishioners, their coffins were left just inside the door (Correspondence 7 Calw/Stuttgart 1897, p.258). In the diocese of Ghent, a deanery conference of 1632 prescribed that women who died in childbirth prior to churching should be buried in secret (Browe, op. cit., p. 21).

But new mothers had to fight longer for the right of readmission to church than for that of normal burial. On 13 January 1200, Pope Innocent III placed France under an interdict because the French king’s marriage to his mistress Agnes of Meran was declared invalid. This interdict ordained that all the churches in France remain shut except for baptisms. The pope ‘sternly’ forbade women who had just given birth to enter them for purposes of purification, nor, being still unclean, were they allowed to attend their children’s christening. They remained debarred from admission until the king sent Agnes away and the interdict was lifted a year or more later. This betrayed a certain inconsistency. In 1198, when asked by the Archbishop of Armagh if the Mosaic law concerning women in childbirth still held good, Innocent III had replied in the negative, ‘but if women desire to absent themselves from church for a while out of reverence, we believe that we cannot censure them’ (Ep. 1, 63; Browe, op. cit., p. 26). Where discrimination against women is concerned, it has always been expedient to straddle the fence.

The practice of churching women has endured atmost to the present day. Wetzer-Welte’s Catholic encyclopedia (1886) describes it thus: ‘Like catechumens and penitents, the puerpera [woman who has recently given birth] must initially stand or even kneel outside the church door. Not until she has been lustrated with holy water and priestly prayer does the priest conduct her into church after the manner of catechumens prior to baptism and, in former times, of public penitents on Holy Thursday’ (Wetzer-Welte, I, p. 1711). Churching was strictly observed as late as the 1960s. In 1987 a woman wrote to me: ‘My mother, I recall, was very embarrassed on one occasion. My youngest sister was born in 1960. My mother could not be present at her christening because she had not yet been “churched”. One afternoon some time later she slunk into the church on her own. The priest churched her. Only then could she once more attend divine service.’

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