18th Century Contraception: Catherine Delors

As Holly noted in her guest post on my blog, married women, in the 17th and 18th centuries, would become pregnant on average five or six times. This is far less than “natural” fecundity. So what was happening?

For one thing, people married relatively late. In 1789 France, the average age of first-time couples was 26.5 for brides and 28.5 for grooms. True, nobles married much earlier, generally as teenagers, but they represented only about 1% of the population, a tiny minority. For most French people, at least 10 years of reproductive life were thus “lost” to late marriages. The tremendous social stigma attached to out-of-wedlock births made them accidents to be avoided at all costs.

Once women married and gave birth to children, the most widely available birth control technique was breastfeeding. Peasant women in particular nursed their children--and served as wetnurse to others--well into toddlerhood, which allowed them to space out their pregnancies. Rousseau, for reasons independent from contraception, strongly advocated breastfeeding in his very influential Emile (published 1761) and the practice soon became fashionable among upper-class women as well.

Even the illiterate knew empirically about the contraceptive effect of breastfeeding. Other techniques, however, required an advanced understanding of conception. This was reserved to the more educated segments of the population. Pornographic novels (a thriving genre in pre-revolutionary France) extolled the virtues of the withdrawal method, and barrier devices like sealskin condoms and sponges dipped in an acidic liquid such as vinegar.

Catherine Delors is author of The Mistress of the Revolution. She connects with readers via Versailles and More.

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  1. I know that 5 or 6 pregnancies would be below the rate of fecundity for a woman who ovulates on a monthly basis-- but isn't there pretty decent evidence that ovulation rates with that level of regularity are a much more modern phenomenon? Any form of nutritional or physical stress could cause a woman to ovulate at a much more infrequent rate, which one could imagine would be the case amongst the plebe.

    I know for the Spanish American example, where marriage ages were still mid-20s, there was a tremendous amount of out-of-wedlock sex going on, and amongst the popular classes the children that these relationships produced were not always or immediately legitimized by marriage, but they might be eventually when the couple had saved up enough money to pay the priest to marry them or some other circumstances compelled them.

  2. Great post. I was amazed that folks married so old. I always assumed it was much younger.

    Glad I found your blog. Love all things history.


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