Thursday, May 13, 2010

Trotula: The Medieval Physician

The Odious Women Tour: To cure a wandering uterus -- an ailment which usually afflicts virgins, widows, and women otherwise celibate -- insert putrid-smelling herbs in the nostrils overnight (if coaxing the uterus downwards) or insert sweet-smelling herbs into the vagina overnight (if coaxing the uterus upwards).

The celebrated female physician, Trotula, gave this advice in her eleventh or twelfth century work On The Diseases Of Women (De passionibus mulierum).

Although we cannot verify her actual existence, Trotula may have been the first female professor of medicine who taught at the Schola Medica Salernitana, an academy renown from the ninth through the thirteenth centuries as providing the best medical training throughout Europe. The school had accumulated mass amounts of medical knowledge from Arabic sources and held the illustrious manuscripts of Hippocrates and Galen, the doctors often translating the texts into Latin themselves. Physicians and professors then contributed more, writing a large body of literature about their craft.

Particularly fascinating was the large number of female physicians and professors in Salerno. (Their existence, interestingly, coincided with the reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples.) In all, more than five dozen references to Salernitan women can be found in the medical texts of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.

We come to know Trotula (a common woman's name in southern Italy at the time) only through her written manuscripts. She seems particularly expert in the fields of gastrointestinal disorders and ophthalmology. Her most well-known On Treatments for Women give some wonderful remedies for common ailments:

For Removing Wrinkles: For wrinkled old women, take stinking iris, that is gladden, and extract its juice, and with this juice anoint the face in the evening. And in the morning the skin will be raised and it will erupt, which rupture we treat with the above-mentioned ointment in which root of lily is employed. And first pulling off the skin, which after the rupture has been washed, it will appear very delicate.

A Good Constrictive: for the vagina so that they may appear as if they were virgins. (Trotula mentions six. Here I give two -- my italics --) ... take powder of natron or blackberry and put it in; it constricts [the vagina] marvelously. What is better is if the following is done one night before she is married: let her place leeches in the vagina (but take care that they do not go in too far) so that blood comes out and is converted into a little clot. And thus the man will be deceived by the effusion of blood.

For Worm of the Ears: Take an apple and hollow it out and place in on the ear, and if there is any worm, it will come out.

Today, you can visit the Giardino della Minerva that claims to be the location where part of the medical school once stood. Located in Salerno's old city center, the gardens have four terraces that overlook the sea. On each terrace, placards mark the various herbs and the floor has many water canals. Fountains, hanging vines, and trees make this a tranquil spot. The museum inside consists of one room that displays a manuscript and old medical implements. Nothing about Trotula is mentioned here, the story of her life -- her loves, her parents, her troubles and celebrations -- left entirely to our mind's fictions.

Recommended Reading: The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine by Monica H. Green, editor and translator (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).


Diana and "Guido" said...

I blanch at the thought of trying any of that. Maybe the 21st century isn't so bad...

Barbara said...

Ha! I'm with you, Diana. :)

Mary said...

Put leeches where??? Sorry, just makes my skin crawl.

My great great grandfather was one of the founders of the gynecology department of the Ospedale degli Incurabili in Naples. Now I think I understand why:)