Menopause is an inescapable fact of life. Why is history silent on it?
Mariella Frostrup, Kate Codrington, Davina McCall and others have recently been on a mission to end present-day silence around the menopause. But the omertà is deeply historical. The term was only coined in 1821. Some scholars argue it was not historically recognised as a condition.
Though technically meaning the cessation of menstruation, ‘menopause’ and ‘pre-’ or ‘perimenopause’ are commonly used as labels for a cluster of debilitating conditions. Each woman’s experience is unique but the most common symptoms include disturbed sleep and fatigue, night sweats and hot flushes, headaches, muscle tension, ‘brain fog’, memory loss, irritability, mood swings, moments of intense rage, loss of libido and genital discomfort, anxiety attacks and shortness of breath, dizziness, restless legs, gastric problems, low mood to severe depression and a sense of attack on one’s identity (gender, beauty, youth, intelligence and usefulness): symptoms that are commonly belittled, are together disabling and, one suspects, would have been taken very seriously if they affected men.
Most scholars say menopause was not a major concern in the early modern period and point to the lack of cures or treatments in receipt books. If treatments for menopause are lacking, that does not tell us that it didn’t bother women: rather it tells us that menopause was seen as being as unavoidable and irreversible as ageing, and had not yet been pathologised.
Nor is it entirely absent from such literature anyway. One example: An Account of the Causes of some particular rebellious distempers, published in 1670, recommends a ‘True Balsamick Electuary’ that women should have recourse to ‘at such time as the Courses of Nature are about to leave them’ or else suffer ‘vapours, flushings all over the body, the Whites in abundance, pursiness at stomach, loss of appetite, cholicks, faintings, and other the like Weaknesses and Indispositions’. It certainly sounds like menopause was a recognised condition.
Often when the menopause makes it into history, it is from the perspective of its consequences for men. Katherine of Aragon’s likely menopause in her 40s in the 1520s is given as explanation for why Henry VIII left her. But what did it mean for Katherine’s experience? There is every chance that as her husband had his illegitimate son ennobled, started a new affair and sought to annul their marriage, she handled these emotional upsets against a background of fatigue, pain and anxiety. Reports of her response to Henry’s self-delusion show no lack of articulacy but her experience may have felt quite different.
Or there’s the witch-hunts. Lyndal Roper has demonstrated that the women accused of witchcraft were singled out, not just because they were old, but because, being menopausal and postmenopausal, they were no longer fertile. Envy was thought to prompt older women to attack fecund young mothers. Might menopausal moments of intense anger explain witches’ reputations for cantankerousness?
The link between menopause and evil should not surprise. Anna Graham has argued that one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches refers to the menopause. In Lady Macbeth’s ‘unsex me here’ soliloquy, she summons the courage to commit murder, but in so doing refers to ‘thick blood’ (the common phrase for blood that could no longer be purged), ‘the visitings of nature’ (menstruation) and breasts that give gall instead of milk. All these changes will leave a woman who is ‘unsexed’ and can be filled with ‘direst cruelty’.
Humoral theory suggested that, without a monthly bleed, older women would become unbalanced. In The Woman’s Doctour (1652), Nicholaas Fonteyn warns that the unpurged blood ‘would turn to rank poison should it remaine in the body and putrify’. Postmenopausal women were a form of Other – distinct from gender-conforming younger women.
And, yet, all this is to see them as men did. What we need to add back into history is women’s experiences of this inescapable part of their lives.
Suzannah Lipscomb is author of The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Early Modern Languedoc (Oxford University Press, 2019), host of the Not Just the Tudors podcast and Professor Emerita at the University of Roehampton.