Reading Margaret Mead’s Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (New York 1950) in my second year at university was a turning point in my life. Here was an academic book I could actually enjoy reading without being distracted by a footnote every five seconds (I plead guilty here: I do love footnotes when I write in my academic capacity). It was also my first proper feminist read. I have not re-read the book since (Emma – I need my copy back!), but I do recall how Mead recorded no period pains and morning sickness amongst the Arapesh. She argued that cultural factors prevented Arapesh women from seeing menstruation and pregnancy as painful or unpleasant. Now that I think of it, this was my first encounter with cultural constructivism.
Cultural constructivism or not, morning sickness seemed quite real to me when I was pregnant. Not that it was unbearable, just tiring. And of course, I found out that this was the most ridiculously named ailment ever, as it lasts all day! I may have cursed Margaret Mead a few times, but all is forgiven now. Also frogiven are those well-meaning people who constantly advise pregnant women to eat ginger biscuits to cope with all-day sickness. Well, I love ginger, but it did not work for me. It actually seemed to make things worse. Anyway, enough whining now!
The ancients – or at least some of them – did recognize pregnancy-related nausea as an ailment. Last week, I told you about a passage in Pliny the Elder, where he described women’s use of lemon pips against nausea in pregnancy. Today, I’ll look at the works of Soranus and Aetius. Soranus (first-second century CE) devotes a long passage of his Gynaecology to what he calls kissa (pica in modern medical language), that is, the strange cravings and ailments that affect women from the 40th day of pregnancy, although they may start earlier. He describes pica as follows:
Those affected suffer from an upset belly, indeed it is full of fluid; nausea and lack of appetite, sometimes for all foods, sometimes for some; appetite for unusual foods such as earth, coals, vine tendrils and unripe and acid fruits; flow of saliva, malaise, heartburn, slowness in digestion and rapid destruction of foods [i.e. they feel hungry all the time]. Some women also vomit at intervals or each time they consume food, or they feel heavy and suffer with dizziness and headache, together with an abundance of raw humors, pallor, an undernourished appearance, hardness of bowels [i.e. constipation]. Other women suffer with distention of the belly, pain in the thorax, and these patients sometimes have a slight fever and swollen breasts, while others are jaundiced. (Soranus, Gynaecology 1.48)
The Greek words for ‘upset belly’ and ‘nausea’ are interesting. Anatrope (upset belly) refers to something that has been overturned; and nautia (nausea) is the ailment that affects people at sea, sailors. Thus the Greeks compared this female affliction with that of –mostly – male sailors. Soranus certainly does not deny the existence of pregnancy-related symptoms. To alleviate them, he recommends rest, moderate exercise, massage, limited amounts of easily-digested foods (of which he gives a list), adding that ‘one should not pay heed to the popular saying whereby she should provide food for two people’. For those women who suffer greatly, he recommends ointments and plasters to be applied to the belly:
Use on the belly ointments made from the oil of unripe olives, binding the belly with wool. And rose oil, quince oil, myrtle oil, mastic oil, and nard oil also restore the upset stomach; or smear on a cerate made from any of these oils. If, because of the vomiting, there occurs the need to use something more astringent, use plasters, such as those made from dried dates soaked or boiled in bitter wine, or in sour wine mixed with water; or apples and quinces similarly boiled, either on their own or with the dates, or in conjunction with one of the cerates mentioned above. (Soranus, Gynaecology 1.50)
No ginger in sight!
Another author who discusses pica at length is Aetius of Amida, a sixth-century physician. He gives Galen as his source, but to the best of my knowledge, that passage of Galen must be lost. Aetius’ description of pica and its treatment is similar to that of Soranus, but he also adds some explanation as to the causes of the ailment
All these symptoms occur because of an excess of blood. For the blood, usually expelled each month by means of the vessels of the womb, hindered by the embryo, moves upwards and attacks the belly… In the beginning, only a small amount of blood is used up as nourishment for the embryo; but later, as the embryo becomes bigger, more blood is used up. Thus, as the blood moves towards the womb to nourish the embryo, and the bad humour is removed through vomiting, these symptoms cease. (Aetius 16.10)
Let me explain this. The ancients did not know about blood circulation. They thought blood was transformed food – each time one eats food, new blood is made. Women, the ancients believed, were less able than men to ‘process’ food, thus producing too much blood. That blood had to be removed somehow: through menstruation, lactation (milk being transformed blood), or pregnancy, when the blood served as nourishment for the foetus. In this system, if the foetus did not consume enough blood because it is too small, that blood would linger in the body thus causing symptoms. It all makes sense doesn’t it!
This week, I have been creating my own ‘mummy butter’. It still needs some tweaking, so in the meantime let me tell you about homemade baby wipes. When my baby was six months, I went to Paris for a conference. Each day, I would fill up my hotel-room bin with disposable nappies, disposable wipes, disposable bibs etc. I felt very guilty. Upon my return, I decided it was time for a change and I switched to cloth nappies and cloth wipes. I regret not doing it earlier. Here is what I do for the wipes.
The wipe I have used here are from Bumdeal nappies, which is run by my friend Ella. You can use cheap face flannels instead, but if you decide to use cloth wipes, you will no doubt be tempted by some funky designs.
Brew some chamomile (I have used the flowers here but sometimes I use ready-made tea-bags).
When the liquid has cooled down, pour it in a click-lock tuperware. Add a few drops of lavender essential oil (be careful: you only need a tiny amount). Turn the wipes a few times in the liquid. Pour out any excess liquid.
Use for a lovely baby’s bottom (but always test on another part of the body before using on the bottom for the first time – reactions are rare but they can occur). Try to use all wipes within two days.