The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine

The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine

The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine

The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine


The Trotula was the most influential compendium on women's medicine in medieval Europe. Scholarly debate has long focused on the traditional attribution of the work to the mysterious Trotula, said to have been the first female professor of medicine in eleventh- or twelfth-century Salerno, just south of Naples, then the leading center of medical learning in Europe. Yet as Monica H. Green reveals in her introduction to this first edition of the Latin text since the sixteenth century, and the first English translation of the book ever based upon a medieval form of the text, the Trotula is not a single treatise but an ensemble of three independent works, each by a different author. To varying degrees, these three works reflect the synthesis of indigenous practices of southern Italians with the new theories, practices, and medicinal substances coming out of the Arabic world.

Arguing that these texts can be understood only within the intellectual and social context that produced them, Green analyzes them against the background of historical gynecological literature as well as current knowledge about women's lives in twelfth-century southern Italy. She examines the history and composition of the three works and introduces the reader to the medical culture of medieval Salerno from which they emerged. Among her findings is that the second of the three texts, "On the Treatments for Women," does derive from the work of a Salernitan woman healer named Trota. However, the other two texts--"On the Conditions of Women" and "On Women's Cosmetics"--are probably of male authorship, a fact indicating the complex gender relations surrounding the production and use of knowledge about the female body.

Through an exhaustive study of the extant manuscripts of the Trotula, Green presents a critical edition of the so-called standardized Trotula ensemble, a composite form of the texts that was produced in the mid-thirteenth century and circulated widely in learned circles. The facing-page complete English translation makes the work accessible to a broad audience of readers interested in medieval history, women's studies, and premodern systems of medical thought and practice.


In histories of women as in histories of medicine, readers often find a passing reference to a mysterious person called Trotula of Salerno. “Trotula,” for whom no substantive historical evidence has ever been brought forth, is said by some to have lived in the eleventh or twelfth century and is alleged to have written the most important book on women’s medicine in medieval Europe, On the Diseases of Women (De passionibus mulierum). She is also alleged to have been the first female professor of medicine, teaching in the southern Italian town of Salerno, which was at that time the most important center of medical learning in Europe. Other sources, however, assert that “Trotula” did not exist and that the work attributed to her was written by a man.

Any figure who could generate such diametrically opposed opinions about her work and her very existence must surely be a mystery. Yet the mystery of “Trotula” is inevitably bound up with the text “she” is alleged to have written. The Trotula (for the word was originally a title, not an author’s name) was indeed the most popular assembly of materials on women’s medicine from the late twelfth through the fifteenth centuries. Written in Latin and so able to circulate throughout western Europe where Latin served as the lingua franca of the educated elites, the Trotula had also by the fifteenth century been translated into most of the western European vernacular languages, in which form it reached an even wider audience.

Surprisingly, for all its historical importance this work exists in no printed form that can reliably be used by students and scholars. The Latin Trotula was edited for publication only once, in the sixteenth century, under the title The Unique Book of Trotula on the Treatment of the Diseases of Women Before, During, and After Birth, and the only modern translations available are based on this same Renaissance edition. While these modern translations have had some utility in keeping alive the “Trotula question,” they have in another sense perpetuated the confusion, since they have passed on to new generations of readers the historical distortions of the Renaissance edition, a work which is in fundamental respects a humanist fabrication.

The Renaissance editor, undoubtedly with the best of intentions, added what was to be the last of many layers of editorial “improvements.” These . . .

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