Researching Ancient Gynecology 

In the rich tapestry of historical fiction, research is like the backstage pass that allows you to take a peek behind the scenes. It’s not just about getting the facts straight; it’s about setting the stage so your characters can play their parts authentically. Research doesn’t just make things accurate; it makes them believable. That’s why it’s so important to get it right.  

Those of you who have already read The Struggle for Love: The Story of Leah know I cast Leah in the role of midwife. The Bible doesn’t say that she was a midwife, but like most biblical fiction authors I’ve taken some poetic license. I try very hard not to contradict the scriptures in any way, but midwifery seemed like a plausible vocation for a woman of her day, especially considering some of the trauma of Leah’s youth. No spoilers here!  

So if Leah was going to be a midwife, I had to do my due diligence to give her the expertise that would make her believable. One of the great resources I found was Soranus’ Gynecology. It’s the fragmented remains of one of the oldest books about ancient gynecology that has been preserved. It was translated from Greek to English by Owsei Temkin and eventually printed and distributed by Johns Hopkins Hospital. For an author whose protagonist is a midwife, this book is a dream! I used information from it in several scenes.  

I’ll share a few of them, hopefully without giving away too much to those of you who haven’t read the book.  

Remember when Leah goes to Rachel’s house, concerned that if she gets pregnant a second time she will die? Leah holds out a small parcel, telling Rachel that it’s unripe oak galls and the inside of a pomegranate peel molded with wine to the size of a vetch pea. She encourages her to use it as a vaginal suppository before coitus to prevent pregnancy. Yes, women used contraception in ancient times! I wouldn’t run out looking for oak galls though, and what in the world is a vetch pea? Soranus Gynecology, pg 65.  

By the way, Rachel refuses until Leah slams the parcel on the table and tells her sister that if she doesn’t use it she will die and Leah will become Joseph’s mother and Jacob’s only wife. The dynamics between the sisters is very powerful. And it’s not a spoiler since it’s mentioned in the Bible, Rachel eventually gets pregnant again, dies in childbirth and Leah does becomes Joseph’s mother and Jacob’s only wife. Of course, Leah would do anything to reverse the situation. Her grief for her sister is one of the most poignant scenes in the book.  

In another poignant scene, Leah is called to the house of a woman who has been too long in labor, only to find out that she is the wife of Anasa, a good man who could have been Leah’s husband, had she been willing to compromise her faith. He has watched Leah from afar and knows she is a skilled midwife and that she trusts in the God of Abraham. 

 His wife has been in labor for over a day under the care of another, less skilled, midwife. When Leah examines the woman, she finds that the baby is presenting with a hand stretched forward. In this situation, Soranus gives instructions for the midwife to raise the baby’s shoulder with her fingertips, push it back into the cavity, then bend the elbow and straighten the arm. OUCH! So Leah saves the life of Anasa’s wife and baby. Soranus’ Gynecology, pg, 187. 

There were many more instances in the novel where I used Soranus. It was a treasure trove of information. But let’s move on. I promised you a sneak peek into the soon-coming prequel to The Struggle for Love.  

Some of you have heard my story of the evolution of The Struggle for Love: The Story of Leah over many years. I have so many iterations of the story, I’m using some of them to write a prequel. I love prequels to movies, but you never watch the prequel before the feature film. That takes all the fun out of it!  But I am going to give you just a little preview.  

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Excerpt from Prequel: The Struggle for Love 

Blood soaked the bed between her mother’s splayed legs and covered Michal’s apron. The sight and smell of it made Leah’s stomach lurch. She had never seen so much blood!  

The physician reached into his bag and retrieved a vial of liquid, poured its contents into a small clay bowl, and soaked it up with a fresh sea sponge. “It’s an emulsion of oak and willow leaves and the juice of myrtle berries. Simple to make if you can find the berries. It’s to reduce the inflammation. Insert the sponge as far as possible. It will absorb the discharged blood. We don’t want it to clot.” 

 Michal looked at Leah, some hesitation in her gaze. “Help me raise her legs, child.”  

Leah’s cheeks warmed. It seemed an invasion of her mother’s privacy to see her in such a position, especially in the presence of a man. But Michal needed her help. She would just have to deal with her inhibitions. 

 Together they raised her mother’s legs. Michal picked up the wet sponge and slipped it into place. Leah’s mother groaned, and Leah’s heart pounded against her chest.  

“I have another vial I’ll leave with you. Let’s clean her up.” It took the three of them to change the bloody bedding, trying not to move their patient any more than absolutely necessary. Michal and Leah wrapped bandages tightly around her mother’s legs and crossed them at the thighs, raising them above her head with pillows.  

The physician wiped his damp hands on the towel Leah provided and looked up at Michal, his hooded eyes sorrowful. “She is to rest. When she awakens, give her some spelt or bread, and a soft-boiled egg in vinegar.”  

His brows knit, and he pulled a long breath. “If she is still alive in a few days, start her on a bit of meat from a ringdove or a partridge. Under no circumstances is she to be moved. If she bleeds again, it will be the last.”  

The weary physician gathered his things in preparation to leave. He stopped and placed his hand on Leah’s shoulder. His countenance brought her no comfort.  

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I got a little carried away with all the remedies in this section. Too much good information. It will get a little trimming before it’s published.  

Thank you for stopping by The Write Place. While you’re here check out the Persevering Women blog for posts about how to keep joy in our lives, how to walk in faith in troubled times, how to keep from letting our children’s problems overwhelm us, and much more. I’ll see you over there!