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Last weekend, Republican Presidential Candidate Hopeful Donald Trump caused outcry in America, when he stated in an interview with CNN that Megyn Kelly, one of his interviewers for the Republican Hustings on the previous Thursday Night, had ‘blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever’. Many were shocked at Trump’s comments, which have been read as a quip about menstruation (although Trump himself denies this), leading to him being dis-invited from RedState’s Saturday night Republican tailgate, and a number of women to send Trump live tweets of their menstrual cycle in protest. Yet, against all this outrage, one can also detect in Trump’s choice phrasing a history of attitudes to menstruation that goes back for millennia.

In particular, Trump’s condemnation of Kelly appears to recall the theories of Galenic medicine, an ancient system of medicine begun by the Ancient Greeks and Romans that continued in Western Europe for over 1600 years. Named for the theories’ most famous author (although many of the theories had existed for centuries before Galen was active), Galenic medicine centres on the idea that the body is made up of four humours: Blood, Phlegm, Black Bile and Yellow Bile. In order to remain healthy, Galenic theory tells us, it is important to keep these four humours in balance. Men, who are naturally hotter and dryer than women, are able to burn off any excess humours in their day to day existence. But women, who are naturally colder and wetter, can suffer from a build-up of a particular humour that then has to be excreted from their bodies within their monthly menstrual cycle.

So what’s that got to do with Trump? Well, along with the four humours, Galenic medicine also claimed that the uterus was not fixed in the lower abdomen, but could ‘wander’ around the woman’s body, causing havoc as it went. This disease was known as ‘hysteria’ and could cause any number of complaints, from headaches to sore feet. The cure was to coax the uterus back into its correct position using a combination of pleasant and unpleasant smells placed under a woman’s nose and between her legs (nothing like sitting on a smoking fire of lavender while sniffing a rotten egg to cure a dizzy spell…). If hysteria occurred during a woman’s menstrual cycle, this could lead to a woman suffering sudden bleeding from any part of her body: her nose, ears and, yes you guessed it, her eyes. In fact, it wasn’t just women who could suffer from this. Lisa Wynne Smith has found a number of men as late as the eighteenth-century suffering from monthly evacuations of fluids[1]: these could range from night-time ejaculations, to an unfortunate man whose little finger bled at the full moon.

But even if Trump was inferring that Megyn Kelly needed to be placed on top of the nearest rosemary scented woodburner- does Galenic medicine tell us that menstruation is a bad thing? The qualities of menstrual blood, positive or poisonous, have been a contested subject throughout history. Menstruation could be seen as a healthy process. Following a Galenic model, the menstrual cycle was a sign of health in that it allowed the removal of dangerous influxes of humours, although the humours themselves may have been intensely dangerous to touch.  A number of Late Antique and Medieval medical texts provide recommendations for ways to bring on the menses.[2] Cathy McClive has shown that in the late seventeenth century, the stopping of the menstrual cycle during the menopause was seen as a time of intense danger.[3]

Menstrual blood has often been seen to have intense power. Following an Aristotelian model, based on the medical theories of Aristotle, Galen’s predecessor, menstrual blood was seen as the raw material from which humankind was formed. In the Aristotelian understanding of reproduction, such raw material lay within the woman’s womb until the male sperm came along and shaped it into a human being.  As late as the 1680s, during the famous Parisian scandal of the Affaire des poisons, it was found that women were using their menstrual blood to make love potions, one of which was apparently used (to great success) on Louis XIV himself.

At the same time, however, menstrual blood was seen to contain dangerous substances, reflected in the fact that women who did not menstruate were believed to be at risk of becoming seriously ill. Alongside love potions, menstrual blood was often listed as an ingredient in much more dangerous forms of enchantments to curse and even to kill. Even today, in some parts of the world, women who are on ‘the curse’ (as it is still known) are extremely restricted in their movements, made all the more difficult by severe limitations in sanitary provision.

Menstruation, then, remains a hotly contested issue in the modern world. But Donald Trump may wish to think twice before mentioning Galenic medicine on CNN again. After all, one traditional Galenic medical cure for baldness is abstinence and a scalp lotion made of onions

 

Anna Jenkin is a final year PhD student at the University of Sheffield, specialising in eighteenth-century women’s history, in particular women accused of murder. You can follow her on twitter @acjenkin

 

[1] L. W. Smith ‘The Body Embarrassed? Rethinking the Leaky Male Body in Eighteenth-Century England and France,’ Gender & History, Vol.  23, No. 1 (2011) pp. 26-46

[2] Some think these remedies are subtly worded abortifacients, but this is a subject of intense historical debate: see J. M. Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Harvard, 1994).

[3] C. McClive et N. Pellegrin (eds), Femmes en Fleurs, femmes en corps, Sang, Santé, Sexualités, du Moyen Age aux Lumieres, (Saint-Etienne, 2010). See also C. McClive, Menstruation and Procreation in Early Modern France (Ashgate, 2015).

 

Image Sources: ‘Amra Padatick India, Menstrual Hygiene Day’ via wikicommons and Donald Trump Speaking at CPAC on Feb 10 2011 via wikicommons.

Tags : AristotleDonald TrumpGalenHysteriamenstruationsanitary protection
Anna Jenkin

The author Anna Jenkin

1 Comment

  1. Presumably Trump would also be delighted by Galen’s theory that his baldness is caused by him being so ‘hot’, virile and energetically masculine that his heat essentially burned off all his hair!

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