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date: 10 April 2021


  • Helen King


Contraception played a minor role in Hippocratic medicine, where the emphasis was rather on helping women to conceive. (See hippocrates(2).) The exception is a substance called ‘misy’, possibly copper ore, recommended as having the power to prevent conception for a year (e.g. Hippoc.Mul. 1. 76 and Nat. mul.98). It was erroneously believed that the most fertile time of the month was just before or just after a menstrual period, when the womb was open to receive semen. Any attempt to use this information in reverse, in order to avoid conception, would thus in fact have led to intercourse at the most fertile days of the month.However, it has been argued that many of the remedies given as general gynaecological cures (see gynaecology) in the ancient medical tradition did in fact contain substances, mostly of plant origin, effective both as contraceptives and as early-stage abortifacients. Some substances were used as barriers; for example, sponges soaked in vinegar or oil, or cedar resin applied to the mouth of the womb. These could have acted as spermicides. Others could either be taken orally or used as pessaries, and included pomegranate skin, pennyroyal, willow, and the squirting cucumber, which forcefully ejects its seeds. The degree to which these would have been effective is, however, very difficult to assess. The widespread practice of polypharmacy, by which a combination of several different remedies were used at once, together with the use of *amulets, other magical techniques, and non-fertile sexual positions would have made it difficult to judge which method was responsible in the event of a long period without pregnancy ensuing.

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