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
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
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 much of which is based upon
Green's book from 2001.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.