Monday, September 3, 2012

Women Physicians of the Middle Ages

Women have always had the vocation to heal.
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] (Read entire post.)

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