PLINY the Elder (a naturalist from the Roman Empire) published the Naturalis Historia
encyclopedia (circa AD 77–79). He wrote that:
Contact with the monthly flux of women turns new wine sour, makes crops wither, kills grafts, dries seeds in gardens, causes the fruit of trees to fall off, dims the bright surface of mirrors, dulls the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory, kills bees, rusts iron and bronze, and causes a horrible smell to fill the air. Dogs who taste the blood become mad, and their bite becomes poisonous as in rabies. The Dead Sea, thick with salt, cannot be drawn asunder except by a thread soaked in the poisonous fluid of the menstruous blood. A thread from an infected dress is sufficient. Linen, touched by the woman while boiling and washing it in water, turns black. So magical is the power of women during their monthly periods that they say that hailstorms and whirlwinds are driven away if menstrual fluid is exposed to the flashes of lightning.
Throughout history, many men apparently saw menstrual blood as an incredibly dangerous and destructive power (rather than as a natural monthly event for women).
I used to think there was a clear distinction between historical cultures that viewed menstrual blood as “dirty-dangerous” (such as Britain) and those that viewed menstrual blood as “magical-powers-dangerous”. Recently I’ve changed my mind. I think there is a strong overlap between the two views of menstruation.
Historically, the British people seemed to view menstrual blood as not just ‘medically’ harmful (poisonous to come into contact with) but also as ‘magically’ harmful. In the 19th century & earlier, many British people viewed menstruation as a sign of fertility, and viewed the smell as a way to attract men. As late as the early 1900s, women working in mills in Britain didn’t wear pads, they just let their blood drip onto the straw where they were working in, hoping that the smell and sight would attract potential husbands.
In Britain, menstrual blood was also seen as powerful in a ‘magical’ sense. The blood was used an ingredient in certain spells, and putting a couple of drops in a man’s drink was thought to make him fall in love with you.
This ‘magical’ power of menstrual blood was often feared. It was sometimes thought that menstruation would make food ‘go off’ or cause harm to the environment. In 1878 the British Medical Journal stated that menstruating women were medically unable to successfully pickle meat. Female factory workers in France at the time were asked not to work in sugar refineries during their periods for fear they would spoil the food.
With the advancement of medical knowledge in Britain and Europe, many old superstitions about the dangerous ‘powers’ of menstrual blood were set aside. Menstrual blood was still seen as dangerous, but the perceived ‘danger zone’ of menstrual blood was reduced – it now applied to the menstrual blood only, and not to the menstruating woman as well. Menstrual blood continued to be seen as contaminatory or poisonous in Britain, but only to people and things that made direct contact with it.
Today, many cultures around the world still view menstrual blood as incredibly powerful and destructive. In Polynesian cultures, menstruating women have to stay away from crops and from fishing areas (for fear that their presence will cause harm to the crops, and cause the fish to swim away). In many places, women are secluded in menstruation huts for their duration of their bleeding because men may be harmed if they come into contact with menstruating women. Some Orthodox Jewish men do not touch their wives at all during this time.
In traditional Roma society, a menstruating woman is marimé (polluted) and must not have any contact with others. In a house she must not pass in front of a man, or even between two men, but she must go around them in order to avoid ‘infecting’ them. When serving meals to a man, she must do this from the rear for the same reason. A woman cannot walk by a seated man, because her genitals would then be in the same height as his face. A man may not walk under a clothesline where women’s clothes are hanging. With the onset of menstruation, a girl’s clothing cannot be washed together with the clothing of boys, men, pre-menstrual girls and old women. [Read more about the Roma restrictions here: you will need to scrowl down & click on the “Month 10” page].