Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On Ada Lovelace Day: Trota of Salerno

Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day, 14 October 2014: Trota and The Trotula

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, described by its sponsoring organization as "an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)." As part of the worldwide event, we are all encouraged to write about an inspirational woman and her achievements in one of the STEM fields.

A fourteenth-century manuscript illustration of "Trotula"
To that end, I'd like to contribute the name of Trota of Salerno, a twelfth-century physician and medical writer.

Although her achievements--and even her existence--were disputed for centuries, Trota is now recognized as one of a number of women who were known as practitioners of medicine in eleventh- and twelfth-century Salerno.

According to Monica H. Green, "Trota and her medical practices are attested by three distinct textual sources." The first of these is Practical Medicine According to Trota (Practica secundum Trotam), "a compendium of seventy-one different remedies for gynecological and obstetric conditions," and includes a wide variety of treatments for other, more general, medical problems, from lice and burns to toothache, hemorrhoids, and fever.

The "second witness" to Trota's medical expertise is On the Treatment of Illnesses (De egritudinum curatione), an anthology that includes the work of seven medical writers, including Trota. The third text associated with Trota is The Treatments for Women (De curis mulierum); Green suggests this volume may well be "a transcript of Trota's cures as she orally recounted them to a scribe, who then added further elements of his/her choosing."

Trota's name ultimately came to be associated with a group of three crucial medical texts devoted to women's healthcare, known collectively as "the Trotula." From the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, the Trotula circulated widely throughout western Europe; today, nearly two hundred manuscript versions survive. A definitive edition and translation of these texts is Green's The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine. Her introduction includes information about the twelfth-century "school" of Salerno and its role as a center for medical study, information about "pre-Salernitan Gynecology," and a well-detailed discussion of women practicing medicine in Salerno in the twelfth century. 

Justine Siegemund, from the 1723 edition of her handbook
On this day celebrating the achievements of women in science, two other women practicing gynecology and obstetrics might also be mentioned here. Jane Sharp, a seventeenth-century English midwife, published The Midwives Book; Or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered in London in 1671. Some twenty years later, in 1690, the German midwife Justine Siegemund published The Court Midwife. (To view a digital copy of the 1723 edition; click here.)

Update, 25 December 2021: If you are interested in midwives and midwifery, you may also want to read about Sarah Stone (click here).