by: Leslie H. Nicoll
We live in the age of safer sex. Men who are sexually active are encouraged to wear condoms to help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and AIDS. Contemporary erotic authors, in an effort to respond to current social and sexual mores, generally have their characters use condoms appropriately or if they don’t, include an explanation as to why not and comment on the risk they are taking by not doing so. But stories that take place prior to the emergence and identification of the human immunodeficiency virus generally do not include condom use. If the author of a historical fiction story wanted to include characters using condoms, would it be anachronistic? Based on my recent research, probably not.
There is evidence that condoms were used by early Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. While some speculate that Egyptian men wore a type of penis sheath or sack to prevent against sunburn and bug bites, others have found artifacts of sheaths made from animal intestines or bladders. They were so small and covered such a small portion of the penis that they could not have been used for protection from sweat and sun and thus must have been used during sex.
Hippocrates, the Greek father of modern medicine, had some understanding that conception involved both the man and the woman. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that the man’s semen was what produced an embryo; the woman was just a receptacle. Even so, both men wrote that birth control was the woman’s responsibility. Despite their advice, there were Greek men who chose to practice birth control on their own. Ancient writings discuss intercourse “not according to custom,” which might mean coitus interuptus or anal intercourse. But there is also evidence that men used animal intestine condoms, similar to the Egyptians, as a birth control device, too. Given that Greek society was sexually permissive, it makes sense that men would take some responsibility for contraception – especially those men who chose to consort with women of lower ranks or slaves.
The Romans also used condoms for contraception but it is in their writings that the notion of sexually transmitted disease prevention comes up for the first time. Soldiers recognized different types of infections and realized they were likely getting them from the prostitutes and “comfort women” (usually captives) who traveled with the legions. Soldiers lumped all such diseases together under the term Mount Vesuvius’s Rash. Legions kept herds of goats for milk and meat and the soldiers used the bladders and intestines as penis sheaths – a technique they might have learned from their enemies, the Greeks.
Except for the one little blip with the Romans, condoms were used primarily for birth control for the next 1800 years or so – and in agrarian societies that valued large families with children as workers, birth control wasn’t particularly desired, period. Much of the knowledge about condom materials and use that had been passed around among the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans was forgotten during the dark and middle ages.
Then, in 1495, the first widespread epidemic of a sexually transmitted disease occurred. Called at first “the Great pox,” to differentiate it from smallpox, syphilis was named by Girolamo Fracastoro in his epic poem, written in Latin, entitled Syphilis sive morbus gallicus (Latin for “Syphilis or The French Disease”) in 1530. Until that time, as Fracastoro notes, syphilis had been called the “French disease” in Italy and Germany, and the “Italian disease” in France. It is not clear where Fracastoro got the name of his main character, the afflicted shepherd, Syphylus, from which the name syphilis emerged. Some think he borrowed it from Sipylus, a character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, while others think he made it up. Whatever the source, the name seems to have caught on because it did not identify any one group, country, or culture as being the source of the scourge.
“Treatments,” none of which were very effective, abounded but it wasn’t until 1564 that anyone put forth the notion of disease prevention. Gabriello Fallopio wrote a treatise on syphilis and in it, he described the first modern condom. He claimed to have invented it which is understandable, given the fact that all prior condom knowledge was buried in ancient texts that Fallopio likely did not have access to. As an aside, if Fallopio’s name looks familiar, that is because he was an anatomist and is credited with identifying and naming the Fallopian tube.
Fallopio’s condom was linen, tied to the glans of the penis with a pink ribbon. His instructions were precise: prior to intercourse, a man should wash his genitals, then tie the linen over the glans, drawing the prepuce forward. He should then moisten the linen with saliva or lotion. Fallopio claimed to have tested his condom with 1100 men, not one of whom became infected with syphilis. To further prevent infection, Fallopio soaked the condom in a chemical solution which also acted as a spermicide. Thus his invention had a dual role: disease prevention and contraception.
From Fallopio’s writing, condom use spread. In addition to linen, condoms during the Renaissance were made out of intestines and bladder, same as in ancient times. In the late 15th century, Dutch traders introduced condoms made from “fine leather” to Japan. Unlike the horn condoms used previously, these leather condoms covered the entire penis.
From at least the 18th century, condom use has been opposed in legal, religious, and medical circles for essentially the same reasons that are given today: condoms reduce the likelihood of pregnancy, which some believe is immoral or undesirable; they do not provide full protection against sexually transmitted infections, but at the same time, belief in their protective powers was thought to encourage sexual promiscuity; and they are not used consistently due to inconvenience, expense, or loss of sensation.
Despite this opposition, the condom market grew rapidly. In the 18th century, condoms were available in a variety of qualities and sizes, made from either linen treated with chemicals, or “skin” (bladder or intestine softened by treatment with sulphur and lye). They were sold at pubs, barbershops, chemist shops, open-air markets, and at theaters throughout Europe and Russia. They later spread to America, although in every place they were generally used only by the middle and upper classes, due to both expense and lack of sexual education. In the US, fine “French letters” and other imported condoms were always preferred, even after “the rubber” was invented by Goodyear in the 1850s. In London, “condon hawkers” were a common sight, especially in St. James’s Park, Spring Garden, and the Pall Mall, all known spots for illicit assignations between men and women, and men and prostitutes, both male and female.
What about men who were having sex with men? Were they using condoms? Present day experts contend that they were not used by gay men until the 1950s and then only as a sex toy; however, poetry from the past contradicts this. Besides, if people understood that sexual intimacy led to infection, it wasn’t much of leap for men to realize that if they could infect their female partners, they could just as easily infect their male partners, too. As an example, the following excerpt is from the poem, Almonds for Parrots, written anonymously in 1708. While it was meant to be a satire about sex, it does give a hint about condom use by men having homosexual relations:
But Art surpasses Nature; and we find
Men may be transform’d into Woman-kind.
O happy Change! But far more wond’rous Skill!
That curse’s Loves Wounds, without the Doctor’s Pill:
Anticipates ev’n Condon’s secret Art,
At first invented to secure the Part.
Writing a sex scene that includes condom use can be a challenge for an author; putting one on is a somewhat clinical act that can interrupt the flow and passion of the moment. (People make the same argument about using them in real life but to that, the best advice is: figure it out.) Historical authors have more free rein to ignore and skip the issue altogether. But if a daring author wanted to have a male character cover his “lovely manhood” with a linen sheath and tie it with a pink ribbon, as a way to protect his lover from disease, evidence suggests this would not be an unheard of action and in fact, may be more common than previously thought.
Leslie H. Nicoll is the owner of Maine Desk LLC, an editorial writing and consulting business located in Portland, Maine. She is also the Publisher for Bristlecone Pine Press, an ebook publishing imprint and subsidiary of her business. While she desires to write fiction, she seems to have more success in the non-fiction world. Her latest books (both 2008) are The Editor’s Handbook, co-authored with Margaret Freda and published by Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins and The Amazon Kindle FAQ, co-authored with Joshua Tallent and DeLancey Nicoll and published by Bristlecone. For more, please visit http://www.mainedesk.com and http://www.bcpinepress.com.