Medieval Women as Physicians

by Tracy Barrett

Since at least Classical times,[i] European women have generally been in charge of their family’s health.  In Medieval romances and lais, women are often portrayed as healers, not only in their homes but also in the community.  Nursing the sick fell within the purview of the charitable work that nuns (and monks) were supposed to perform.  The anonymous female author of a fourteenth-century Sister-Book described in detail the motherly care that her convent’s infirmarian, Anna von Wineck, took of her charges, saying that she served a woman with epilepsy

with devotion up to her death.  She lovingly washed off with her own hands the sordid stuff and dirt that the illness caused.  During the time when the sister was seized by this illness and yelled and foamed, [Anna] pressed her against her chest and patted her with motherly tenderness until she revived and the pain ceased . . .

She also served another sick sister, who similarly had lost the use of reason in her old age, as long as she lived with pious care. . . .

The third sister . . . had dropsy.  Her body was terribly swollen, and she lay paralyzed for many years.  The saintly sister . . . served her eagerly for God’s sake.  The Lord permitted that this paralyzed sister–although she, too, was undoubtedly saintly–became so impatient as a consequence of the hardship of a lasting illness that she neither obeyed nor pleased one of her servants.  She also could not speak with her [nurse] peacefully but often scolded her loudly.[ii]

By the twelfth century, medicine had become a topic taught at universities, side by side with traditional healing methods.  One author says that although

women participated fully in the religious revival of [the twelfth and thirteenth centuries], they were excluded from formal higher education once the university became the standard seat of learning.  The universities also guarded their monopoly on certain fields like medicine carefully.[iii]

“This upheaval” in education, turning medicine into an academic subject, says another scholar,

was difficult for many religious women because the shift in the world of medicine involved its transferal out of the monastic realm, which had allowed them to practice in various approved and non-threatening capacities for over five hundred years, into the university, where women were soon to be excluded altogether.  Outside the monastery, secular women who practiced medicine lacked a religious vote of confidence in their work, so the crackdown on them was particularly severe.  Men suddenly felt threatened by the number of secular religious women, or “lay healers,” whose “folk remedies” the general populace seemed to prefer over the scientific cures of the new university-trained doctors.  By the fifteenth century, European women who practiced medicine had been thoroughly discredited on a large public scale; their healing arts had been tied to witchcraft and black magic.[iv]

Some historians assume that women’s exclusion from university-based medical training was total.  The lack of regulation of medical practitioners practitioners led, according to one scholar who makes no attempt to remove scorn from his writing, “to the rise of a large number of uneducated practitioners, such as barbers, keepers of baths, and women of no particular training.”[v]  Other historians posit that in the Middle Ages men performed diagnoses and prescribed treatments, and women carried out the practical application of their prescriptions, especially when the patient was female.[vi]

Yet since ancient times the record shows women referred to as medica, or doctor.[vii]  And regulations such as a French edict of 1311 forbidding women to practice surgery unless “they have undergone an examination before the regularly appointed master surgeons of the corporation of Paris”[viii] demonstrates the existence of a mechanism, however rarely it may have been employed, to admit women to the practice of this most technically challenging area of the medical profession.  An even earlier law passed in Sicily in 1244 says that a medical student “must swear never to consult with a Jew or with illiterate women”[ix]–implying that it was allowable to consult with women as long as they were not illiterate, hence educated.

Sicily and mainland Italy, especially the south, are something of a special case.  Geographically, the region is within relatively easy reach of much of the Mediterranean, and by at least the tenth century, Greek, Roman, Arabic, and Jewish science (including medicine) had reached it.  A school of medicine was established in the city of Salerno, and by the eleventh and twelfth centuries it had little competition for its primacy in the field of medical education.  The school was secular and has been “credited with having arrested the decline of the science of medicine when learning as a whole was falling into decay.”[x]  It was, by some accounts, the “first university of Europe in modern times . . . in this part of the world.”[xi]  And what made it even more extraordinary was the presence of women as physicians and professors of medicine.

These female physicians were so well known that the mere mention of a salernitana would be enough to alert a medieval listener that the woman being discussed might have been trained in medicine.  One of the characters in Marie de France’s lai “Deus Amanz” (“Two Lovers”) says:  “In Salerno I have a relative, a wealthy woman with property.  She’s been there for more than thirty years and has studied medical arts for so long that she knows a lot about herbs and roots.”[xii]  Nobody in the lai reacts with surprise at the thought of a Salernitan women who has studied medicine formally.

Salerno was not the only medieval center with medical women.  The University of Bologna boasted a professor named Alessandra Giliani, who performed pioneering studies of the functioning of the human circulatory system.[xiii]  A twelfth-century translation into Latin introduced a Greek woman named Metrodora and her treatise on diseases of the womb (composed between the third and fifth century, making it perhaps the earliest medical writing by a woman in Europe), to Italy.[xiv]  Medieval medical treatises by women include Mercuriade’s On Crises in Pestilent Fever and On the Cure of Wounds; Rebecca Guarna’s On Fevers, On the Urine, and On the Embryo; Abella’s On Black Bile and On the Nature of Seminal Fluid.[xv]

Perhaps the best-known medieval medical woman was Trotula, sometimes referred to in English as Dame Trot. More about her next month.

[i] Beryl Rowland claims that “in ancient Greece and Rome women seem to have practiced medicine on equal terms with men” and that “according to Tacitus, the practice of medicine [among the Germans] was entirely in the hands of women.”  (Medieval Woman’s Guide to Health: The First English Gynecological Handbook.  Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1981, p. 2.)

[ii] Gertrud Jaron Lewis.  By Women, For Women, About Women: The Sister-Books of Fourteenth-Century Germany.  Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1996, p. 243.  Sister-books (Nonnenbücher or Schwesternbücher) are nine texts written by nuns of the Dominican Order in the first half of the fourteenth century.

[iii] Emilie Amt, ed.  Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook.  New York and London: Routledge, 1993, p. 5.

[iv] Marcia Kathleen Chamberlain, “Hildegard of Bingen’s Causes and Cures: A Radical Feminist Response to the Doctor-Cook Binary,” in Maud Burnett McInerney, ed.  Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays.  New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1998, p. 61.

[v] Donald Campbell.  Arabian Medicine and its Influence on the Middle Ages.  London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., 1926, p. 114.

[vi] Rowland, op. cit., p. xv.

[vii] Gillian Clark.  Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Life-styles.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993, p. 67.

[viii] James Joseph Walsh.  Medieval Medicine.  London: A & C Black, 1920, p. 166.

[ix] Thomas G. Benedek.  The Roles of Medieval Women in the Healing Arts, in Douglas Radcliff-Umstead, ed.  The Roles and Images of Women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Publications on the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Vol. III, 1975, p. 149.

[x] Campbell, op. cit., pp. 124-125.

[xi] Walsh, op. cit., p. 8.

[xii] Eugene Mason, trans.  The Lays of Marie de France and Other French Legends.  Everyman’s Library.  New York: Dutton, 1911, reprinted 1964, ll. 103-108 (my translation).

[xiii] Benjamin F. Shearer and Barbara S. Shearer, eds.  Notable Women in the Life Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 145-146.

[xiv] George Sarton.  Introduction to the History of Science.  Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1927, Vol. I, p. 283.

[xv] Walsh, op. cit., passim.

Tracy Barrett is the author of numerous books for young readers, most recently Dark of the Moon (Harcourt) and The Sherlock Files series (Henry Holt). She lives in Nashville, TN, where until recently she taught Italian, Humanities, and Women’s Studies at Vanderbilt University.

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