Many students of the Middle Ages now know that ‘Trotula’ is the title of a compendium of three texts on women’s medicine composed in southern Italy in the 12th century, not a woman’s name. What they may not know is how much that simple factual statement, over 20 years in the making, owes to developments in the field of gender history. Solving the mystery of the ‘Trotula’ – the mystery of the texts’ genesis but also the mystery of authorship and the reasons for the texts’ popularity all over Europe – involved untangling several elements of medieval understandings of sexuality and reproduction. Furthermore, the work entailed the examination of medieval attitudes towards gender roles.
Could a woman be a healer? Most women in medieval Europe were probably healers, in the sense they tended to the wounds and illnesses of themselves, kinfolk, and perhaps neighbours. But medicine was also a profession in the Middle Ages, a special skill for which one was paid and earned the acknowledgement of one’s community. In an article in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine in 1985, the historian John Benton documented the existence of a ‘medica’ (the feminine form of ‘medicus’, healer), in the southern Italian town of Salerno, by the name of Berdefolia. She died in the mid-twelfth century or earlier. In fact, several twelfth-century medical texts from Salerno refer to the ‘mulieres Salernitane’, ‘[the] women of Salerno’, as the source for certain medical practices. So when we find evidence for a female healer named Trota (or Trocta, as her name would be spelled locally), we should not be surprised.
Could a woman be an author? It was one thing to practise medicine, however; another to claim authoritative knowledge. No extant medical texts are associated with the ‘mulieres Salernitane’ as authors. Indeed, prior to the 15th century, we have yet to find any women credited with medical writings in medieval Europe save the German nun Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) and her older counterpart, Trota of Salerno. Why should Trota stand out among the ‘mulieres Salernitane’ as a medical writer? We can’t really say. What we can say is that even for her, her position vis-à-vis learned male medical practitioners was marginal. Trota shows no connections to learned traditions; she doesn’t cite other medical authorities. Rather, her writing is based on experience. ‘For ailment X, take remedy Y’, is the formula found most commonly in her general ‘Practical medicine according to Trota’. Trota is distinctive compared to her male peers in another sense as well: she has direct access to her female patients’ bodies.
Could a woman be an authority? We don’t know who assembled the ‘Trotula’ ensemble, but we do know how they did it. They took a text called ‘The book of women’s conditions’, which largely derives from a work that had recently been translated from Arabic into Latin, and a work called ‘Women’s cosmetics’, likely composed by a male author who gathered cosmetic lore from Muslim women in Sicily and other sources. And then they fused these with a rendition of Trota’s own teachings called ‘On treatments for women’.
The Wellcome Library’s MS. 550 contains that last text, in version 2: ‘Here begins the book of Trotula on the secrets of women’. As in MS. 544, the scribe of this early 15th-century manuscript seems to understand ‘Trotula’ as an author’s name. Her stature as an authority on women’s nature was surely seen positively, as in the portrait of her from MS. 544, and in another portrait in an early 14th-century French encyclopedia. But calling her an authority on ‘women’s secrets’ could also spin her image negatively, as when Chaucer included her in Jankyn’s ‘Book of wicked wives’, a compendium of misogynistic lore mentioned in the ‘Prologue’ to the ‘Wife of Bath’s tale’.
Could a woman be a reader? As with Trota herself, it is likely that gender differentials in men’s and women’s reading abilities and habits affected the later fate of the ‘Trotula’ texts. All known medieval readers of the Latin ‘Trotula’ were men: male physicians, but also clerics and even laymen. But was that true of the many vernacular translations, too? The Wellcome Library owns several of these. The Hebrew ‘Trotula’ (Hebrew MS. A37, 15th century) is the earliest of all known translations of the collection of texts, having been made in southern France in the late 12th century by a Jewish convert to Christianity who, repenting his conversion, wished to make Gentiles’ medical learning available to Jews. But he says nothing to suggest that he meant for women in particular to read his text. Nor do we have evidence that the French, German or Italian translations were meant for women.
Medicine had become highly professionalised by the late Middle Ages, and basic knowledge on women’s illnesses was an expected part of the average (male) physician’s repertoire. Although there are a few intriguing cases of texts on women’s medicine being addressed to female audiences, even the existence of the textual figure ‘Trotula’ didn’t guarantee that women would be leaders in the field of women’s medicine.