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Birth control in an era of natural fertility: the heritage of Dioscorides

Etienne van de Walle, University of Pennsylvania

Societies without family limitation nevertheless leave room for birth control. The paradox is illustrated by the diffusion of Dioscorides' Materia Medica from its compilation in the first century of our era through the Middle Ages, and its revival during the Renaissance thanks to humanist interest and the printing press. Dioscorides is a founder of the sciences of botany and pharmacology, and while describing the virtues of some 900 simples (including more than 600 plants) he provided information on what Christian theologians called "potions of sterility" and on the main abortive method of the time, the vaginal suppository. The paper addresses the following issues: Are natural fertility regimes compatible with birth control? Why the emphasis on contraception rather than proception? Were the recipes effective? How did the work survive in Christian societies that proscibed birth control?

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Presented in Session 161: Fertility control in history