Copper IUDs seem very simple. There's no pharmaceutical chemistry required to make them.

If I traveled back in time to 1500, and said to someone, "Hey all you need to do for birth control is insert a copper coil of this particular shape", would they be able to do it? Or is there some dependency in the tech tree I am overlooking?

  • $\begingroup$ Looking at the wikipedia page you provide, I already have some doubts : "The copper IUD must be inserted by a qualified medical practitioner. It is recommended to consult an obstetrician/gynecologist, who has the equipment (like a speculum and tenaculum) to properly insert the IUD." $\endgroup$ May 14, 2023 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ I would say that if you introduced the understanding of sterile conditions necessary to make the insertion not a life-risking procedure itself, you'd probably go a long way towards ending the medieval period. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    May 14, 2023 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ Hmmm. I am not sure that there was a significant market for such devices in the 1500s, when the general problem for the civilized world was having too few people rather than having too many. AFAIK, the market for such devices is rather limited even today. @Tortliena: They had speculums in the classical antiquity, so that I presume that they still had speculums in the Late Middle Ages. As for the tenaculum, that's just a fancy medical name for ordinary pliers. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 15, 2023 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ The copper 7 is mechanically very simple. It fits up a tube, and springs out when it comes out of the other end, then becoming too wide to go back. You will need springy copper. Pure copper is ductile. Modern copper springs use beryllium, which they would not have had. A low-tin bronze might work. $\endgroup$ May 15, 2023 at 12:56

2 Answers 2


Could they make them? Probably - but I don't think that is going to be your biggest issue (Frame Challenge time!):

1: The inserting of them. They need to go into the Uterus itself and as per the Wikipedia page, there is a risk of injury during this process. Which is all well and good in a modern setting - but an internal injury in the Medieval period was a much more grave matter because of...

2: Risk of Infection. Sure they can make copper. Can they now make it sterile in such a way that it can be inserted without causing all sorts of issues? Even if there's no perforation of the uterus, you still need it to be sterile - and well, Medieval and Sterile aren't two words that go together

3: Religious and societal opposition. It's your job as a women to be fruitful and multiply, not to mention you need to have 10+ kids because the child mortality rate is much higher and there's no government retirement programs - your children are literally going to be the people who look after you if you are lucky enough to live to old age. Not to mention you need all the help you can get with the work that needs doing.

4: Side effects and accusations of Witchcraft. Some women have really adverse reactions to them - heavier flows etc. That combined with not having children - I can very quickly see any and all who took part in the production and installation of these would very quickly see themselves on the bad end of a pyre, being asked to renounce Satan.

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    $\begingroup$ Nah, witch burnings were an Early Modern period thing. They didn't really happen in the Medieval period. The Chirch might still condemn them for promoting sexual immorality, though. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    May 14, 2023 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ @nick012000 - I mean, dunkings, stonings, hangings etc. there's a myriad of other options if we rule out burning at the stake. $\endgroup$ May 14, 2023 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ @TheDemonLord: They did not persecute witches in the Middle Ages, not on any large scale anyway. In fact, for most of the medieval period it was considered a heresy to believe that effective witchcraft existed. Witch hunts are a post-medieval phenomenon. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 14, 2023 at 23:24
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    $\begingroup$ @TheDemonLord There were very few actual documented witch trials in the Middle Ages (and those that did happen, related more to heresy, i.e. a confessed belief of the accused that they were doing witchcraft), though from the many laws banning such trials and folk superstitions related to witches, we can conclude there probably were lynchings. How many, we don't quite know, but it can't have been very common. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    May 14, 2023 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ TLDR... Early Christendom made causing the deaths of others thru a witch hunt a capital crime that was punished by execution. Because "Witches are not real, and no true Christian believes in witches." $\endgroup$
    – Questor
    May 15, 2023 at 17:36

They could have made them, and they would have been a curiosity for the very rich.

No, not because of potential medical complications, or social norms pushing women to keep popping out children; they would just not make economical sense for anybody else.

That's because most of the motive power which made the medieval economic activity possible came from the humans, and this made children valuable. At just a few years of age, they could start doing things which did not require much strength (e.g. spinning, because you probably like to be clothed), leaving adults to do more strenuous tasks. The more children you had, the more workers there were in your family, which tended to make it more prosperous. For peasant families, which formed generally upwards of 80% of all families, had little prospect of becoming anything else than peasants, and tended to stop being peasants mostly because some calamity destroyed their farm, children were literally the best investment they could reliably make.

I could see them being used as effectively a status symbol by the elites, showing off how they do not even need to have children; or perhaps as a means to ensure peaceful succession among nobility by reducing the number of claimants. But such people were few, and having fewer workers would have made little economical sense for them too.

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    $\begingroup$ Hiding an affair among the nobility would be a powerful motive. I think you have the right social class, wrong motive. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    May 16, 2023 at 2:50
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    $\begingroup$ @AncientGiantPottedPlant, thank you. Arguably, hiding an affair falls within "ensuring a peaceful succession". $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    May 16, 2023 at 8:05
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    $\begingroup$ But that logic would apply to all forms of contraception. We know women used various forms of contraception (some completely ineffective) throughout history. It's just a question of would they have used this more effective one if they had it. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_birth_control $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    May 25, 2023 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ @wokopa, thank you. Yes, contraception generally made much less economical sense in the past than it does today. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    May 25, 2023 at 13:53

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