In our society we have this theory which seems to apply to almost everything, that we can only better things by progressing; innovating and pushing forward. However in the retrospective community we tend to go off the beaten track slightly when it comes to this theory… so I’d like to look a little deeper by talking about the concept of lost knowledge. I believe that most societies are circular, and that we can gain and lose knowledge equally. My degree was in Ancient History so please forgive the pre-20th century examples!
When I was studying women in Ancient Rome, I discovered that there was a gap in our knowledge. We know from legislation brought in to encourage bigger family sizes, that the average family size was comprised of two or three children, and that society considered this number to be less than ideal. Rome wanted a large, flourishing population, both to sustain the current Empire and to expand it! The question posed is, how did Roman women achieve these low fertility levels? If they were having normal sexual relations and were perhaps using the unreliable methods of contraception that we’re aware of, it doesn’t make sense. There’s something missing here, either people were practicing abstinence or many families had greater than average levels of infertility. There is no evidence that couples were abstaining from sex, or that there were problems conceiving – and both of these topics are usually quite heavily covered by the male authors of any given society, female sexuality has fascinated and plagued men since records began! However, what is often absent from historical records is a female perspective on family planning. The methods of Roman contraception that we know of, such as citrus pessaries and herbal tea, weren’t reliable enough to provide effective family planning.
The conclusion we come to is that there existed a method of contraception that was highly effective and that we’re unaware of. Either we haven’t recognised it in the evidence we have found, or we haven’t found the evidence for it. This is what I mean by lost knowledge, western society has lost the knowledge of reliable pre-1961 contraception. We assume that women in antiquity were beholden to the inevitability of