Abortion 400 years ago: the old Meichsner woman and her daughter
Unwanted pregnancy and interference by the State is not a new problem. Literature all around the world is replete with such stories, and anybody who engages in research in libraries or archives will come across them too.
One example from an old tradition comes from the small town of Zwettl in Lower Austria (in 1576 Zwettl’s population was just over 1200), where the town council records from the year 1606 reveal the story of a girl and her mother who were reported on suspicion of abortion.
The story concerned 'the old Meichsner woman' and her unnamed daughter, who was employed as a maidservant by a Thomas Rechbrunner. The rumours were that the mother had prepared an apple for her daughter in such a way that 'her big tummy disappeared'. Both mother and daughter denied the allegation: it had not been question of an abortion, the problem had been that the daughter had eaten too much pork – 'greedily' no less – and washed it down with too much water, leaving her feeling sick and bloated. She had felt nauseous and had even had a high temperature.
The treatment for this had been a bouillon made of powdered ginger, wild pepper and a piece of human jaw bone. Both admitted that the daughter had not had 'her things', i.e. her periods, for two months, but attributed this to the illness.
Some context to the clinical picture of the ‘swollen belly’ is provided by the ‘four humours theory' of the time, according to which men have a warm, dry body, which is why their primary sex organs are on the outside of the body, while women have a cold, damp body, so that the vagina, womb and ovaries are protected inside women’s bodies. ‘Humour imbalance’ results in illness, even to 'blood statis', in which ‘phlegm’ and blood swell up in the belly. Fiery, warming spices or foods were believed to help with this.
The two women were able to beat the accusation because the treatment given fitted with the clinical picture, and this aspect of the case was resolved. Then Thomas Rechbrunner was arrested for having started the rumours. He admitted having found Caspar Trumelschlager 'lying in her bed’. She had been previously sentenced for ‘fornication’ with the Chaplain Hanss Khierch, who was from out of town.
The usual punishment for ‘fornication’ was banishment, and this was indeed the punishment meted out to the young woman. But the man who reported her didn’t get off scot-free either – his ‘debauched and licentious talk’ earned him a custodial sentence in the ‘slammer’.
From the information available it is impossible to tell with any certainty whether this was a case of abortion. The swollen belly and missed periods, as well as the established intercourse, would suggest that it was. However, the swelling might indeed have been the result of an intestinal disorder and the long absence of menstruation might also be otherwise explained – food scarcity and poor health meant that in those days women often began menstruation later than they do today, and they missed periods more often too.
Our thanks to Mag. Cathrin Hermann and City Archivist Friedel Moll for their expertise in this case. The original wording of the Zwettl Council records can be read in the Appendix.
Museum for Contraception and Abortion (MUVS), Mariahilfer Gürtel 37, 1150 Vienna, open Wednesday to Sunday, 2 to 6 p.m., and at www.en.muvs.org