A Controversial Practice
Respectable physicians advocated contraceptive methods in ancient Greek and Roman society. However, by the Middle Ages, contraception had become controversial, in large part due to opposition by the Church. Early Christians were not outspoken about contraception. The first clear statement about sin and contraception was made in the fifth century by Saint Augustine who, with others, wrote that contraception was a mortal sin, a pronouncement that continues to resonate in modern culture. Since the fifth century, the Catholic Church has retained its opposition to all forms of birth control except abstinence and the so-called rhythm method, a calendar-based method involving timely abstinence.
As Christian influence took precedence during the Medieval period, contraceptive knowledge was suppressed. One measure of the primitive level of this knowledge was the writing of Albert the Great (1193–1280), a Dominican bishop, whose writing about sciences included contraceptive recipes. To avoid conception, people were advised to wear body parts of a dead fetus around the neck or to drink a man's urine.
Many scholars suggest that couples continued to practice contraception during the Middle Ages, in spite of the limited level of official contraceptive knowledge. Even when religious authorities condemned contraception, women passed their knowledge of such practices to one another.
In addition, other religious and cultural traditions maintained support for certain types of contraception during the Middle Ages. Most Jewish authorities supported women's use of contraceptive devices. Islamic physicians were not limited by the Christian opposition to birth control, and medical writings from the Middle Ages included a wide range of contraceptive information. The Koran, the holy book for Muslims, supported the use of prolonged nursing, and did not oppose other methods. While European Christians condemned contraception, the practice continued in other countries and cultures.
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- Contraception - An Ancient Interest
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