Invisible Blood: Hiding Menstruation from the Middle Ages to Today

Invisible Blood: Hiding Menstruation from the Middle Ages to Today

Prof Bettina BildhauerZoom

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Menstruation is an everyday experience for half the human population, essential for the species’ survival and a crucial marker of gender difference in many cultures. Yet it is almost entirely invisible in public life as well as in academic research due to the historical stigma and taboo surrounding menstrual blood. This paper turns its attention not so much to this hidden phenomenon itself, but to the mechanisms by which it has remained hidden in medicine, politics and culture, from premodernity to today. Menstruation is persistently imagined as an invisible secret that women and others who menstruate are, and cis men have, on the basis of a strict division between language and matter. Men share this object of knowledge to create a privileged community and to distance themselves from female (and often also young, poor, queer, foreign, non-white) embodiedness. If menstrual blood becomes visible, this is cast as the revelation of a pre-discursive truth: the inferiority and uncontrollability of women’s bodies. I will show this pattern in ancient and medieval humoural medicine, specifically in the thirteenth-century treatise The Secrets of Women, ascribed to Albert the Great. I will then demonstrate how it has persisted into modern medicine and thought, and even into contemporary fiction and politics. Most of my examples come from Scotland, which has just become the first country to make access to period products a universal human right, while leaving intact the perception of menstrual blood as something that needs to be managed and kept invisible.

University of St Andrews, UK
Wed 12:00 - 13:30
Gender and Sexuality, Shame and Stigma
Keynote