Herbs That “Provoke the Courses”

The latest push by the powers that be to restrict women’s access to reproductive healthcare has led to a lot of a renewed interest in herbal alternatives to birth control and abortion.  This is problematic on a lot of levels because there has been a great deal of misinformation that has gone unchecked for a very long time in the Herbal Community™, while historians thrashed a lot of this out after that ridiculous book was published in the 1990’s. 

I have decided that in the interest of sorting that all out, I am going to share with you what I have learned by attending to clients as a doula, studying the history of women’s medicine with people who understood it, and reading historical texts.

I am going to start by discussing a particular class of herbs that early modern medical practitioners believed to be emmenagogues.  You might see their actions described in early modern manuscripts as “Provoking the Courses” or as being used for delayed menses. This is not a euphemism.

I was once very confused about this issue myself because I would reference the old herbals, but I didn’t really understand the theory behind the list of uses. They didn’t jive at all with my family knowledge of midwifery herbs either, but I repeated them to be safe. Then I went to school and repeated that phrase a couple of times before a professor asked me the simple question, “What is the context, here?” and expected a thorough answer.

I started looking into why various plant preparations were thought to have this effect. After reading a lot of nonsense written in modern herbals, I finally found a woman who could explain it all to me. Mrs. Jane Sharpe, a published 17th century midwife tells us “The usual cause of obstruction of the courses is thick slimy humours; or from thick gross melancholly blood.”[1]  

She blamed the accumulation of obstructive humors on a poor diet, infirmity, or weakness. She also believed obstructed humours kept the afterbirth or a stillbirth from passing from the body. This is an especially important point, because a lot of historians who did not understand this erroneously wrote about herbs that expelled the dead fetus as abortifacients.

Humoral practitioners of antiquity, believed that if these humours were expelled, the courses, fetus, or afterbirth, would follow naturally. It was also widely believed that regulating a woman’s cycle this way would “cleanse” the womb and make her more likely to conceive. The following is from a translation of a book said to have been originally written sometime in the early 14th century, but it’s attributed to Aristotle.

This bloud is bred in womens bodyes, of superfluitie of moysture, and féeblenesse of heate… If it be expulsed & put out in due manner, it cleanseth and caseth all the body, and the Mother disposeth and maketh able to conceiue.[2] 

Aristotle?

Consequently, we see a lot of herbs said to “provoke the courses” that are included in fertility remedies which confuses people, until they understand the history. The class of herbs credited with “Provoking the Courses” had nothing to do with abortion, nor was it hidden knowledge. All sorts of early modern physicians wrote about it as a whacky medicinal theory.

Herbs that were thought to clear obstructive humours tended to be hot and thinning. The theory persisted for centuries. In the 1700’s physician William Salmon wrote “The much use hereof [of wormwood] brings down the Courses in Women and keeps them in due order.”[3]

The less clinical experience an author had, the more herbs they seemed to think would work this way.  In Parkinson’s herbal he mentioned well over 200 herbs which he thought would provoke women’s courses, while Gerard seemed to keep it to around 100.  Salmon who was generally more sensible because he saw a lot of patients and was more of an empiricist (someone whose practice was based on experience and not theory), spoke of fewer.  

The list included many culinary herbs like hyssop, thyme, marjoram, oregano, and basil as well as nervines like motherwort, lemon balm, catnip, that we normally think of as being safe. This is what leads to all the dire warnings about culinary herbs causing miscarriages (can I mention how problematic that term is) though it’s based on a completely obsolete medical theory.

The other day we were talking about this on my socials and one of my friends told the story that her mother wouldn’t let her eat basil while she was pregnant because it would make her placenta detach. Since my fourth child might have been one-fourth pesto at birth due to me craving it during pregnancy, I had a good laugh about that.

I find Parkinson’s herbal to be particularly annoying in this respect. Parkinson was primarily a botanist who spent more time socializing with royalty than he did working in an apothecary and had extraordinarily little practical experience of the things he copied from older sources. He seemed to believe that every herb that could help people to “break winde” would also provoke the courses. Of course, most of the herbals written for the next few hundred years copied him, so this information was passed along too much.

If we look for common sense, it is there. Obviously, a woman who is not having a regular menstrual cycle is far less likely to conceive and modernly we know that things like stress, anemia, and general malnutrition can delay menstruation. We also know that there are herbal interventions that can help with these conditions.

I am going to be generous and point out that medical theory at this point was based on trial and observation and that it’s possible that an herbal preparation that relieves gas, or water retention, associated with PMS and menstruation might have appeared to them to have this effect.

Also, around 20% of modern pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion due to an anembryonic pregnancy. I can only imagine how high this number was in the past. I am sure there was a great deal of correlation without causation going on.

I am not saying that no herbs have this effect, we will get to that in future posts. I am saying that people have been guilty of far too much reductionism and too frequently they translated any phrase that had anything to do with stimulating menstruation to using the herb as an abortifacient. Most of them didn’t seem to have even inkling of understanding of nuances of women’s health and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of them were men.

I cannot tell you what game of telephone they were playing in the 1970’s when they chose which herbs to talk about as emmenagogues. It has never made any sense to me. It says the same thing in Parkinson’s herbal about lavender and lemon balm as it does pennyroyal and mugwort. I can tell you that’s it’s unfortunate because poor translation is how knowledge became lost. I have had to go through them on a case-by-case basis and figure it all out.

For this post I decided to single out a plant that everyone likes to talk about using for herbal birth control, Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) as an example. So first I want to talk about what was said about Daucus historically.

Dioscorides advised decocting the seeds in wine. He suggested drinking this to “set the menses going” or giving it to people who pass water painfully and with difficulty, for edema, for pleurisy, and as an aid to conception. He also wrote that the root aids expulsion of fetuses when used as a pessary. This is important but we will get to it in a future post.[4]

Galen wrote that the roots are “diuretic and, if one uses them to excess, they are moderately unwholesome…Some call the wild carrot daukos; while more diuretic it is actually more poisonous and needs protracted boiling if one intends to eat it.[5]  I haven’t seen anything about the seeds in his writing but there is also not an English translation of some of his books and my Latin is not what it should be.

Ibn. Sīnā wrote about carrot seeds saying, “Oral intake or suppository of carrot specially of the wild variety increases the discharge of menstruation and urine.”[6]

The female physicians who wrote the Trotula mention wild carrot seed as an ingredient in a few compound medicines including Theriac and Trifera Magna which was a fertility remedy. They would put it into wine that had been decocted with mugwort for “disorder of the womb” caused by too much cold. The seeds themselves were not included in any of the formulas for “paucity of the menses.”[7]

I have a receipt for a syrup of carrots that came from the al-Andalus cookbook that says the syrup is beneficial for the “lack of urine,” increasing desire, dissolving phlegm, and warming the kidneys and other parts of the body. I am going to attach receipt down below for downloading just for fun.

I am going to skip ahead a bit now, but you will see that thinking about this plant didn’t change much through the centuries. Gerard wrote “The seed of this wild Carrot, and likewise the root is hot and drie in the second degree, and doth withal open obstructions…it breaketh and disolueth winde.”[8] He believed that it provoked the expulsion of urine, kidney stones, and stillbirths. He also wrote that it helped conception by bringing down the desired sickness so here again you see that idea that if a woman is menstruating regularly, they are more likely to conceive.

Parkinson shared a long list of uses for Daucus[9] including using it as the principal medicine to help the strangurie which was a condition whose symptoms included frequent painful urination and could be equated to a urinary tract infection. Diffuse griping pains, torments, and wounds in the bowels and so here we see the idea that it had carminative actions. He said it was used in poultices to relieve tumors and swellings and mixed into honey to help with old coughs. Most importantly he gave us a reason that the seeds were thought to provoke the courses saying they digest humours by “exhaling them through the pores.” Parkinson at least thought we were using carrot seed as a diaphoretic to purge bad humours.

He didn’t say anything about conception. If you are one of those people who is going to try to tell me that this this was forbidden knowledge and something that wasn’t written about, I am going to stop you right there by saying that Parkinson did write about herbs he believed “hindreth conception.” It’s a topic in the index of his herbal. Daucus just wasn’t one of them.

Mrs. Sharp also didn’t mention Daucus specifically but there is one entry in her book that includes carrot seeds in a very busy formula which included steel shavings and was said to “provoke the Termes.” This formula was probably a means of addressing types of anemia that were called “the green sickness” or chlorosis and before you scoff remember that there are iron shavings in Wheaties.

Lest we give dear Mrs. Sharp too much credit for being progressive, she didn’t know that’s what she was addressing.  According to Mrs. Sharp the Green sickness was most likely to afflict “maids of ripe years when they are in love and desirous to keep company with a man” and she considered marriage to be the Sovereign Cure for this condition but used her steel powder as a backup.

Culpeper believed there was little difference between the seeds of garden carrots and wild carrots but did express a slight preference for all wild plants. Culpeper’s book on midwifery which was published posthumously mentions using carrot seed as a diuretic for a condition called “Dropsie of the Womb.” All types of fluid accumulation were called dropsies at this time. He also mentioned carrot seed for addressing the dropsie that accompanied the green sickness.[10]

Salmon simply wrote “the Seed opens and expells Wind, provokes Urine, helps Fits of the Mother.”  Eventually I will write a post about that last condition because it’s probably not what you think it is, either. Mother doesn’t mean mother.

I feel like that’s an adequate representation of this particular plant’s history and it looks like this is one of those in that class of plants, thought to expel ill-humours and bodily fluids. You can also see that the “long history of being a contraceptive” is seriously in question at this point. 

I am perfectly aware of the “study” that floats around herbal circles. All 13 women in the study were using fertility awareness, barrier/withdrawal, and QAL seeds for birth control. Three of them conceived. That’s a 77% effectiveness rate.

The problem is there is no control in that study. I have been using fertility awareness and barrier/withdrawal as my only forms of birth control for 17 years now without getting pregnant, so I know that done well it could account for the success rate of that study. Until I see a study that shows that QAL seed is effective without the other two methods of birth control, I won’t be recommending it to anyone.

I feel like this is another one of those things that I write that’s going to set some people off. I don’t really care though. I have two daughters in their twenties, and I love them and a lot of their friends too much to sit on my hands while some nitwit is telling them that carrot seeds, rutin from lemons, or dill will keep an embryo from implanting. The timeframe during which people can legally address unwanted pregnancies in this state is too short for that nonsense.


[1] Sharp, Jane. The Midwives Book, or, The Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered.: Directing Childbearing Women How to Behave Themselves in Their Conception, Breeding, Bearing, and Nursing of Children in Six Books, viz. … / By Mrs. Jane Sharp Practitioner in the Art of Midwifry above Thirty Years. Vol. 2011 April (TCP phase 2), 1671. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A93039.0001.001.
[2] Bartholomaeus, Anglicus. De Proprietatibus Rerum. Edited by Batman, Stephen. 2003rd-01 (EEBO-TCP Phase 1). ed., 1582. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A05237.0001.001. Book IV. I could find a dozen of these.  I just like this one because the translation includes the original Latin.
[3] Salmon, William. Doron Medicum, or, A Supplement to the New London Dispensatory in III Books: 2012 November (TCP phase 2). London, England: Printed for T. Dawks, T. Bassett, J. Wright and R. Chiswell, 1683. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A60600.0001.001. pp 440.
[4] Dioscorides Pedanius. De Materia Medica. Translated by Beck, Lily. 2005 Translation. Altertumswissenschaftliche Texte Und Studien, Bd. 38. Hildesheim ; New York: Olms-Weidmann, ca. 65. pp 204.
[5] Galen. Galen: On the Properties of Foodstuffs. Translated by Owen Powell. 2003 Translation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 160AD.
[6] Sīnā, Ibn. Canon of Medicine  Book II: Materia Medica. 1998 Translation. Vol. 2. 5 vols. New Delhi, India: Department of Islamic Studies, 1025. pp 142.
[7] Green, Monica, trans. Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. 2001 Translation. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1100.
[8] Gerard, John. The Herbal Or General History of Plants. Edited by Johnson, Thomas. 1975 Reprint. New York, NY: Dover Publication, 1633.
[9] Parkinson, John. Theatrum Botanicum. London, England: The Cotes, 1640.
[10] Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives: Or a Guide for Women.  The Second Part. London, England: George Sawbridge, at the Sign of the Bible on Ludgate-Hill., 1676. pp 39 & 101.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website www.domestic-medicine.com

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