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No. 546:
Medieval Women Doctors

Today, fresh air blows through medieval medicine. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

How we mix up our images of Medieval Europe! The great run of years from AD 700 to 1450 included many ages. Some were dark, no doubt. But others were bright indeed.

After AD 1000, both the weather and the intellectual climate grew warmer. That was especially true in medicine. The 11th-century university at Salerno was one of Europe's first. Many women both studied and taught there. One famous Salerno teacher, Trotula, wrote books on medicine. She identified herself as a woman in those texts. "Women," she wrote,

on account of modesty ... dare not reveal the difficulties of their sicknesses to a male doctor. [Therefore] I, pitying their misfortunes ... began to study carefully the sicknesses which most frequently trouble the female sex.

She dealt with gynecology, obstetrics, cosmetics, and skin disease. Her ideas were sensible and humane. This is not the sort of witch-doctory we've been taught to expect from medieval medicine.

She wrote about good diet and the effects of emotional stress. She discussed birth control and problems of infertility. She explained that infertility is a male problem as often as a female one. She told how to sew up tears suffered in childbirth. She told how to avoid such tears in the first place. She gave clear directions for repositioning a breech birth.

She told us things we'd expect to hear today. And people saw the value of it. By the next century she was a folk heroine. By the 16th century her books were still standard works on woman's medicine -- often bowdlerized. Some editions now carried the names of male authors.

A century ago the Victorians had trouble with Trotula. On the one hand, they began to see what a dominant force women had been in medieval Italian medicine. On the other hand, Trotula wrote with such disarming frankness. She wrote on problems of sex and celibacy. She told how an experienced woman might pretend to be a virgin. The Victorians figured such things could never have been written by a woman.

Today, most historians accept the fact that Trotula was a woman. For one thing, we know that medieval women were a great deal more direct than Victorians. But primarily, the evidence is in the text itself. In the end, Trotula's legacy was a woman's understanding of female medical needs.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Alic, M., Hypatia's Heritage. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986, Chapter 3.

Since I did this episode in 1991, more has been learned about The Trotula. See, e.g. the fine translation and commentary: M. Green, The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine. University of Pennsylvania Press; 2002.

See also, this recorded account of The Trotula derived from  Green's book.