We've all probably heard of the "morning after" pill women take after sex to try and prevent pregnancy, right? Is it possible for a culture with largely medieval technology to create such a pill, or something with a similar effect?
Medieval "Chemistry" Was Hit and Miss
Herbal Abortifacients were a thing, but they tended to make you pretty sick too, and that was assuming the shady (supposedly) midwife selling it wasn't just trying to con you with literal snake oil for some coin. Also keep in mind that they were made in an era where most people tended to not be literate and tended to believe things worked based on magic rather than science. They had no way of testing for potency in their mixtures and they had very imprecise measurements like "a dram of X, a dollop of Y, a smidge of z" etc etc.
In medieval times one had to be very very desperate to risk using Abortifacients as they were just as likely to poison you as they were to do absolutely nothing at all. In addition Medieval culture had a very very negative view of abortion as well as fornication outside of marraige. Dependent upon region a woman caught trying to abort her child could be accused of offenses ranging from crimes against nature, satanic worship, adultery, prostitution, murder, etc etc.
Effective abortificients didnt really come out until 18th and 19th centuries. These abortificients were often advertised as health tonics or menstrual relief cures with very sly hints that they were actually for abortion. Some would outright have prominent dire "warnings" (whic hwere actually the real advertisement itself) for pregnant women to avoid them or suffer certain miscarriage, while others used more sly terms such as this one which claims to cure "suppressed menstruation" (aka pregnancy). Another popular underground marketing phrase for these abortion pills was "cures irregularities." Note the italics used to denote what kind of "irregularities" they were really "curing." In the first image there are two advertisements for such drugs cleverly hidden in with two ads for scam diet pills.
Silphium was a medicinal plant whose resin had supposedly effective contraceptive properties along with a list of other possible effects. It was valuable enough that its likeness was used in coinage and was likely harvested to extinction mostly becasue it could never be cultivated outside Cyrene. If the plant had survived this could have offered what you need. If this is a fictional planet or setting simply having something like silphium and a greek level medical knowledge may be enough.
The Greeks also recorded various other concoctions with contraceptive properties so again if these documents survived "likely in Islamic libraries" they could offer what you need. Modern studies of these methods confirm a surprising portion were actually effective so it is certainly possible for you to have one for your story. Although keep in mind some prevented implantation or ovulation like modern pills (contraceptives) and thus are fairly safe, far more induced spontaneous abortion and could be far more hazardous (abortifacients), and of course even more methods that did not work at all. They did however have access to mechanical abortion so there is that, although again high risk.
As a note the people at the time do not seem to be able to tell which are effective and which are not, a lack of modern scientific methods more or less meant no test for effectiveness happened, it was all up to an individual's impressions.
An herbal morning after pill is requested. A morning after pill is not an abortifacient. It hormonally prevents implantation.
First, how do currently available morning after pills work?
Three types of emergency contraceptive pills are available: combined estrogen and progestin pills, progestin-only (levonorgestrel, LNG) pills, and antiprogestin (ulipristal acetate or mifepristone) pills. Progestin-only and antiprogestin pills are available as dedicated (specifically packaged for use as) emergency contraceptive pills. Combined estrogen and progestin pills are no longer available as dedicated emergency contraceptive pills, but certain regular combined oral contraceptive pills may be used as emergency contraceptive pills.
Morning after pills act thru the female steroid hormone receptors. Plants definitely make compounds with hormonal activity. Red clover is one that is famous for reducing sheep fertility.
Ingestion of pastures containing large amounts of phyto-oestrogens can result in both temporary and permanent infertility in sheep. Temporary infertility occurs when ewes graze isoflavone-rich pastures at or about mating, with normal reproductive performance being recovered 3 - 5 weeks after the ewes are removed from such pastures. Permanent infertility, also known as "clover disease", occurs in ewes which have a history of grazing isoflavone-rich pastures
These are phytoestrogens but there are some plants which make phytoprogestins. Dimeric progestins from rhizomes of Ligusticum chuanxiong
The affected sheep are eating a lot of the hormonally active plants - maybe their entire caloric requirement for days at a time. Could there be enough phytohormone in something humans eat or apply to affect fertility? Supposedly breast cancer survivors need to be careful about phytoestrogens out of concern that these might estrogenically stimulate renegade cells and lead to relapse but I have never seen hard data. On the other hand supposedly lavender extracts were enough to grow breasts on young boys! Prepubertal Gynecomastia Linked to Lavender and Tea Tree Oil
There are other sources of exogenous progestins besides plant. The estrogen supplement Premarin is made from the urine of pregnant mares, which sounds very alchemical / medieval to me.
1: Medieval morning after pill (as opposed to abortifacient or some general poison that makes woman so sick she aborts) would be made of hormones or hormone analogs - either plant or animal derived.
2: Pill would not be some herbal plant salad or dried herbs but a concentrated fat soluble extract containing the hormonally active compounds.
3: You would not know if it worked because when you take it you would not know if you were pregnant.
Yes, in Medieval times they knew of mild poisons that induced abortion, like the ones made with Rhubarb, Pennyroyal or Queen Anne's lace.
They are the origin of the Moon tea in A Song Of Ice And Fire.
So your Medieval civilization can discover a working poison that is effective against unwanted pregnancies.
However, women get pregnant less often than now: malnourished and with hard works, most of them had an irregular menstruation that started late in their lives. Also, natural misscarriages and children born dead were usual. And practicing infanticide wasn't that hard. So, if your society looks like our Medieval one, there isn't a pressure for finding an abortive potion, with all "doctors" in the era looking for a method to secure the birthings.
I read about abortifacients in the Clan of the Cave Bear book series, which is a sort of prehistoric fiction. A quick Wikipedia search found a starting point for you to research.
Though pills and pure chemicals were not available in medieval times, abortion methods were pretty common for way longer.
These method were somewhat gruesome and carried a large risk for the woman using them, but this was seen as a "necessary suffering" to balance the "sins" of having out-of-marriage sex and abortion.
These method were either
- mechanical: using anything available to "ravage" into the woman vagina and uterus to remove the fetus. Usually resulting in massive bleeding and infections, often lethal.
- chemical: applying substances known for irritating the vagina and the uterus, to prevent fetus implantation or to induce its removal
- a mix of the above. Usually resulting in massive bleeding and infections, often lethal.
I am not going to reference more in details those methods, as they can still be used for illegal and/or out of medical control abortion.