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Durham e-Theses
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Evacuating the Womb: Abortion and Contraception in the High Middle Ages, circa 1050-1300

HARRIS, LYDIA,MICHELLE (2017) Evacuating the Womb: Abortion and Contraception in the High Middle Ages, circa 1050-1300. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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Author-imposed embargo until 27 November 2020.

Abstract

This thesis examines contraception and abortion in high medieval legal, ecclesiastical, and medical rhetoric, focusing specifically on the negative perception of women detailed in these treatises and the suspicions their sexual bodies aroused in contemporary narratives.

Gynaecological literature flourished during the high medieval period. Impacted by the influx of Arabic and Hebrew translations and the emergence of formalised university centres, medical knowledge represented a unique relationship between the religious and the secular. As most medical volumes were housed and disseminated in monastic libraries across Western Europe, the literate sections of medieval society were exposed to different perceptions of anatomy: female physiology was just one of these areas. However, these medical texts were overwhelmingly written by celibate men, creating methodological questions concerning the audience, purpose, and remedial expertise of these treatises.

This thesis examines several perceptions of reproductive control, emphasising the fluid definitions ascribed to these terms. Firstly, this thesis examines sterility and infertility, discussing how both men and women who suffered from these ailments were perceived in medieval society and the inherent value placed on reproductive capabilities (Chapter I). In addition, some chose to deny their sexual functions in lieu of a life of abstinence, often portraying pregnancy and childbirth as undesirable, disgusting, and possibly hazardous (Chapter II). Those that did engage in sex were not always portrayed in procreative pursuits, as contraceptive techniques like coitus interruptus or penile barriers were prescribed in contemporary medical manuals, showing men to be as equally desirous of controlled reproduction as women (Chapter III). In addition, abortive methods were also prescribed in medical texts and these actions were usually associated with promiscuity and lascivious sexuality (Chapter IV). Finally, this thesis examines how these texts were disseminated and whether the female voice may be extrapolated from these male dominated manuals (Chapter V).

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:medicine; gynaecology; medieval; gender; sexuality; abortion; contraception
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > History, Department of
Thesis Date:2017
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:04 Dec 2017 11:53

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