John XXI: The Pope Who Promoted Birth Control, Abortion and Aphrodisiacs

I love the oddities that can be discovered in the lesser known corners of Church history. Peter of Spain has gone down in history as Pope John XXI, whose brief papacy (1276 – 77) ended when part of the ceiling of his library fell on his head. He is also the only pope placed by Dante in the third book, “Paradiso” of the Divine Comedy. (He placed in Inferno, or Purgatorio – which says something of his view of the papacy.)


But it is not these two unique features of his life that interest me. I was browsing in London’s wonderful Foyle’s bookshop last night, and picked up a volume called “A mind of its own” – which is a social history of the penis.  A passage about a “Catholic theologian” caught my eye. That theologian was one Peter of Spain, who later became Pope John XXI. He warranted an entry in the history of the penis because, it is claimed, in an illustrious medical career alongside his work as theologian, he wrote celebrated treatises on the best ways to prepare aphrodisiacs. I fear that I resisted the temptation to buy the book, fun though it might have been: £20+  was a little rich for just one page that I really wanted, so the preceding lines are based on memory.

To check my facts, I have been reading a little more on – line. I have confirmed that he was a notable writer on medicine as well as philosopher / theologian. Alas, I have not found any on-line corroboration that he wrote about the preparation of aphrodisiacs, but it seems plausible. He does seem to have written about some remarkably effective methods of birth control.

……one of the most comprehensive recipe books for pre- and post-coital contraception was written by Pedro Hispano, who offered advice on birth control and how to provoke menstruation in his immensely popular Thesaurus Pauperum (Treasure of the Poor). Many of Peter’s recipes have been found surprisingly effective by contemporary research, and it is believed that women in antiquity had more control over their reproduction than previously believed (Riddle, 1994).


Before being elected Pope himself, Peter served as personal physician to Pope Gregory.

While serving Gregory in this capacity, Peter wrote his Thesaurus pauperum (Treasury of medicines for the poor.) The latter is, as its name indicates, a medical handbook for those who could not afford the care of a physician, and in time it would become a highly popular source of medical knowledge. The book paid special attention to herbal treatments, and despite his role as a priest, Peter even discussed plants a woman might use for contraception, including calamint, costus, pepper, rue, and sage. Elsewhere Peter discussed remedies for a wide variety of bodily ailments.


John Riddle’s exhaustively researched Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance
details Peter of Spain’s medical advice on contraception before he became John XXI.

The first advisory was to put a plaster of hemlock on the testicles before every coitus. Explicitly, then, the remedy was not to prevent intercourse but (implicitly) to reduce consequences. Among the remedies was to drink the juice of nymphea … for forty days. Herbs prescribed were pepper, rue, chaste plant, calamint, and costus.

There is a large chapter on plants to provoke menstruation, where Peter quoted from Gilbert the Englishman, Macer, and Dioscorides. Before relating information, however, from the authorities, he chose to give his own list: cinnamon, cardamom, sweet flag, pennyroyal, mint, sage, and satiureia.

So according to the immensely learned Peter of Spain, you didn’t need a birth control pill to perform what the religious right calls a “chemical abortion” – and he provided explicit instructions on exactly how to accomplish that. But despite the papal sanction of John XXI, today’s holier-than-thou hordes continue their insistence on avoiding unwanted embryos in a more “natural” way.

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That may surprise those who insist that until Humanae Vitae, the church insisted that sexual love was exclusively for procreation, and so all forms of contraception were absolutely forbidden. (Note in particular the reference to “post-coital contraception”. In orthodox modern doctrine, that would be described as abortion, or child-killing).  The truth, as always in church history, is that the past is never what it used to be. The Vatican and its apologists are fond of proclaiming that current doctrine has “always” been so, that there is a “constant and unchanging tradition” – but the only thing that is constant in Church history is the regularity of change.



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