Review: Eve's Herbs

Eve's Herbs

Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West

by John M. Riddle

1999. Harvard University Press.

John M. Riddle, in his earlier book Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance, made a convincing case that common people in Western civilization have understood and used contraceptive drugs since ancient times. In Eve's Herbs, he continues to present evidence for that case, and investigates a new question: how did all that folk knowledge disappear from popular consciousness?

Riddle's basic conclusion, which you can read on the book jacket, is that extensive information about safe, herbal contraceptive drugs was lost during the Middle Ages as medicine became dominated by male physicians educated at Christian Universities that ignored contraception, as the European population became increasingly urbanized and dependent on specialists for botanical and medical information, and when thousands of midwives— the traditional fertility experts— were executed as witches by the Catholic church during the 1500s. This historical narrative discusses the attitudes of various civilizations toward fertility, and the motivations for these. It is supplemented by general descriptions of many historic contraceptive herbs and charms, and modern results of scientific testing on the herbs (the charms are left unjudged).

This is a dramatic and interesting history, but a few features of the book make it hard to read at times. Firstly, the author is trying to prove a hypothesis, and to this end he supplies abundant and sometimes repetitive academic research to support his case. Seemingly endless editions of Ancient Greek herbals and medieval European handbooks are compared, numerous obscure and incomplete records of historical court cases are quoted, demographic estimations are debated, etc. Secondly, because much of the evidence is partial, reconstructed, supposed to exist orally, or transcribed by biased parties, and because the author is trying to prove a point, Riddle relies on a lot of statements to the effect of “these facts, if true….” This got tiresome for me, as it felt like the bulk of the discussion I was slogging through was inconclusive anyway, and subject to manipulation.

Although all of the collected bits of evidence are related back to the historical narrative and the book's thesis, the limitations of the surviving documents mean that most can only be related in the most rudimentary ways. For example, different medieval abortion laws are quoted with different penalties and definitions, but it is unknown how widely they were enforced or whether the ethics of the laws were common in the population at the time. So, the only objective fact to be gained from the quotes is that they mention herbal drinks exclusively when discussing abortion methods, suggesting that herbs were indeed used for that purpose. Over and over again, new sources are quoted and then disputed, so that in the end they add very few ideas to the book beyond what is summarized on the back cover. Much of it is just trivia, which I suppose is the nature of a lot of history.

However, as with any history of contraception, some of the trivia and quotes are extremely entertaining, from the Ancient Greeks' invention of strange internal fluids to the extreme titles of old morality plays (Daniel Defoe wrote something called Matrimonial Whoredom decrying contraceptives in 1727). Thankfully, the book is very well-organized, with several levels of headings, so it is easy to skim if the snippets of documentary evidence get too dry for a casual reader in places.

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This review was originally posted in the Food & Cuisine zine of Fall 2004.

See also The Curious History of Contraception for a broader, world history.

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