Menstruation: A Cultural History

In a recent issue of the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 64(1), Rima Apple reviewed Menstruation: A Cultural History. Although she was generally unimpressed with its presentation as a whole, she also notes that there are a few gems.

Much of the historical research has dealt with negative aspects of menstruation: as pollution, as disability, leading to hysteria, and the like. Several essays in this volume show that menstruation was not always conceived in these terms. For example, Hippocratic physicians called menstruation katharsis, translated as “purification.” Previous scholars have taken this to mean that the processes of the female body were pathological and in need for treatment. In Luigi Arata’s interpretation, lack of menstrual flow was the disorder and katharsis must occur to maintain a woman’s health (18). This casts a more positive light on menstruation than normally assumed. Similarly, menstruation is discussed in affirmative terms in Sabine Wilms’  explication of medieval Chinese medicine. Dianne E. Jenett studies the poetry of South India, uncovering connections between menstruation, divinity, and women-focused rituals. In doing so, she too reveals a culture that, unlike the Western world, attributes positive qualities to menstruation. In particular, women’s bodies were considered especially potent in ananku (divine vivifying female power) at menarche, during menstruation, and after childbirth (176).

As an edited volume, this may be a useful source of individual course readings.  For historians of psychology in particular, the chapter by Julie-Marie Strange uses records from nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century British lunatic asylums.  In that context, menstruation was understood to be “a physical illness with implications for mental health.” However, Apple warns that there is no integration between the chapters; lecturers will have to provide this themselves.

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

2 thoughts on “Menstruation: A Cultural History

  1. Anyone interested in the subject of menstruation might enjoy looking at Leta Hollingworth’s 1914 PhD dissertation on “Functional Periodicity” which is available online on Chris Green’s Classics site.

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