Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, February 2, 2024

Costanza Calenda, a Fifteenth-Century Medical Practitioner

Costanza Calenda, One of the Renowned mulieres Salernitanae (practicing medicine in 1422)

In her extended history of women and the practice of medicine, Leigh Whaley notes that during the Middle Ages, "Most commonly, women practising medicine were the daughters of doctors or surgeons, and they were instructed by their fathers of a male relative." Only in exceptional circumstances--if she were living in exactly the right place or at just the right time--could a woman receive any kind of formal medical education.

Manuscript illustration of 
a female healer, 14th century
(MS 544, Miscellanea Medica XVIII,
from Wellcome Collection, London)
Costanza Calenda was such a fortunate woman, one of the renowned mulieres Salernitanae ("women of Salerno") who were known to have been trained in medicine in that Italian city during the Middle Ages. 

A reference to this tradition was made by Antonio Mazza, prior of the Collegium Medicorum of Salerno, who wrote the earliest history of the institution. In Urbis Salernitanae Historia et Antiquitates (1681)Mazza noted that there had been "many erudite women" who trained at the school, women who "in many fields surpassed or equaled in ingenuity and doctrine not a few men and, like men, were remarkable in the field of medicine." 

Among those women was the "noble" and "erudite" Costanza Calenda," whom he describes as having a doctoral degree ("Laurea etiam Doctoralis Constantia Calenda")

In the early fifteenth century, Costanza Calenda was "diligently instructed in medicine" by her father, Salvatore Calenda di Salerno. In his multi-volume history of the the Scuola Medica Salernita, historian Salvatore de Renzi claims that Calenda's father was "called illustrious for his doctrine and for his expert practice" in medicine. With such a reputation, he was lured to Naples in 1415, becoming a professor at the collegio medico di Napoli, and by 1423 he was prior (or head) of the college. (There seems to be some scholarly dispute about whether he maintained an official position in Salerno as well as in Naples--it's an interesting debate, but not our focus here.) 

Salvatore Calenda also became the personal physician of Queen Joanna II of Naples. (Since I have no firm dates for the life of Costanza Calenda, I am posting about her today, 2 February, the anniversary of Joanna II's death in 1435). Salvatore Calenda was still head of the medical college in Naples as late as 1430. 

In receiving her training from a member of her family, Costanza Calenda is thus like most of the women known to have practiced medicine in the Middle Ages or in Early Modern Europe. But she seems also have have had more formal instruction, an opportunity that was afforded only a very few women

Citing Mazza's earlier work, Renzi claims that Costanza Calenda proved so knowledgeable that she earned a medical degree. In Renzi's own examination of contemporary historical documents, he cites two sources identifying Costanza Calenda and her activities: the first, a document from 1423 that refers to her as a doctor of medicine; the second is from 1426, but aside from noting that it refers to Costanza, Renzi includes nothing more about the document's contents.* 

Detail from 
MS 544, Miscellanea Medica XVIII,
from Wellcome Collection, London

In 1423, Costanza also received royal assent to marry Baldassarre di Santo Mango, lord of Santo Mango, a permission necessary to ensure  her dowry. There is no further documentation of any kind about the life and career of Costanza Calenda after the reference to her marriage, but I find this theory, from Henry Ebenezer Handerson (The School of Salernum: An Historical Sketch of Medieval Medicine, 1893) absolutely hilarious: "The silence of history on her subsequent career suggests the pleasing reflection that possibly she may have proved as excellent a wife as she had been brilliant in the rôle of a student of medicine." Poor Handerson! I know he is a man of his time, so I understand his daydream about Costanza Calenda becoming a good little wife, but I don't know what tickles me most--the implications of his use of the word "rôle" to describe Calenda as a medical practitioner or his uncertainty that she might settle down after marriage, signaled by his wonderful phrase "possibly she may have"!!!

Notably, Salvatore de Renzi doesn't focus on Costanza as a wife, nor even as a daughter. Instead, he provides details about Costanza Calenda in her own separate biographical entry, not including her in her father's entry, which immediately precedes it. 

*Renzi lists his documents by number, followed by the year. The two documents Renzi had access to in the nineteenth century were destroyed during World War II, but a modern copy of one of them survives. The modern copy confirms Costanza Calenda's practice but does not say she had the title of "doctor of medicine."

In "Trotula and the Ladies of Salerno: A Contribution to the Knowledge of the Transition between Ancient and Medieval Physick" (Proceedings of the Royal Medical Society, 1940), H. P. Bayon claimed that Costanza  "lectured on medicine ex cathedra some time during the reign of Giovanna I of Anjou (1326-82) in the University of Naples." But there is no citation, and he confuses Joanna I of Naples (Giovanna of Anjou) with Joanna II, so I'm not sure about the reliability of this!