‘Women’s Weeds’ Research Journal — Fun fact: The rise & fall of the mediaeval female gynaecologist

LFemale healer, Trotula, holding urine flask, 14th C Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Pen and wash drawing showing a standing female healer, perhaps of Trotula, clothed in red and green with a white headdress,
holding up a urine flask to which she points with her right hand.
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons

One thing I found fascinating this week, is in ancient Rome and Greece, up until the 2nd century, medical texts were written directly to midwives. It was expected that women would be taking care of women’s issues, but also that they would be literate (read Greek, Latin, and/or Arabic) and had knowledge of the full anatomy. They were respected medical practitioners. It was only after waves of plague hit north Africa and the Mediterranean during the 5th and 6th centuries that governments and organised education fell apart, entering in an age of chaos, which these various societies never quite recovered from for the next 600 years.

And by then (in the 12th century) when academic medical knowledge picks back up again, society had changed so much that women were out entirely. Yet another example of the past NOT being an ever-forward march towards enlightenment. The wheel goes round and round…

But then we have the 12th century ‘Trotula’ texts:

Three specialised texts would later be combined into a single compendium, the so-called Trotula ensemble. Two of the three texts, On Women’s Cosmetics and the book on the Conditions of Women originally circulated anonymously. The third text, On Treatments for Women, actually has a clear and consistent attribution in the manuscripts. (Green 2008 45)

On Treatments for Women was written by a woman—Trota of Salerno, to be exact. What is remarkable about women’s medicine in 12th-century Salerno is that at this one moment in time, not simply did women have considerable expertise in the properties of various medicinal substances and medical practices, but it was acknowledged that they had such expertise.


By the time Michele Savonarola (d. 1466) was writing his Regimen for the Women of Ferrara in the middle of the 15th century, ‘Trotula’ had long since disappeared from the pantheon of gynaecological authorities acknowledged by northern Italian physicians. The last Italian medical writer who made direct use of the Trotula was Niccolo Falcucci (d. 1412) and even he made only vague allusions to the text, never mentioning ‘Trotula’s’ name or acknowledging that he drew on the work of an alleged female authority. For Savonarola and his peers in the mid-15th century, gynaecology was a field where masculine authorities reigned supreme. (Green 2008 246)

After Trota’s work (and subsequent erasing of her from the Trotula) it wasn’t until 500 years later, in the 17th century, that women would once again write for women about women’s bodies.

And round and round we go again…

This week’s top fun fact comes from Professor Monica Green, historian on women’s health care in premodern Europe, medicine, and gender.

Sources & further reading…

Green, Monica H., Making Women’s Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-Modern Gynaecology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2008. Book.

One thought on “‘Women’s Weeds’ Research Journal — Fun fact: The rise & fall of the mediaeval female gynaecologist”

  1. So interesting! And yes, as with so many things regarding knowledge in ancient times, it hasn’t been a steady march toward enlightenment, but a back and forth from/into darkness for varying reasons; plague being one, and the rise of Christianity another. But don’t get me started… 😉

    Looking forward to your next update!

    Liked by 1 person

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