"Who/What was Trotula?" ~ by Monica H. Green

“Trotula” (also called: Trota of Salerno, Trotula of Salerno, Trotula of Ruggerio, Trotula Platearius, Trocta) is a name of female physician and writer (hypothetical lifetime: ? - 1097?) and also referring to a group of "three texts" on women's medicine (Conditions of Women, Treatments for Women, and Women’s Cosmetics). Was an eleventh- (or twelfth-) century physician (or midwife) who did (or did not) write the most important medieval text on women’s medicine and who did teach at the medical school of the university of Salerno, perhaps even holding a professorial chair. In the 12th century, the southern Italian port town of Salerno was widely reputed as "the most important center for the introduction of Arabic medicine into Western Europe".

She (Trota of Salerno) had a husband and sons with whom she collaborated and even wrote a medical encyclopedia. You will find that there is a street in Salerno named after her and a women’s clinic in Vienna. You will even find a website showing where on the planet Venus the “Corona Trotula” is located. (This is a great site, by the way: all the major geographical features on Venus are named after Earth women, both historical and legendary). Trotula texts circulated widely throughout medieval Europe, from Spain to Poland, and Sicily to Ireland, "Trotula" has historic importance in "her" own right. 

Trota, who served as an obstetrician, gynecologist, and physician in Salerno, where there was at that time a school of medicine of significant fame. The school was a key entrance point into European Christian culture of the ideas and practices found in Arabic medical texts. Some historians identify Johannes Platerarius of the school as her husband, and Matthias and Johannes the Younger, also medical writers, as her sons.

Many of the practices in her books are based on medical beliefs now known to be scientifically questionable or unfounded, such as "wind" in the uterus, or a "wandering womb." The books contain many herbal and other remedies for various medical conditions. Some practices are surprisingly modern, such as the use of silk thread to repair tears that occur during delivery, or the instructions for how to handle abnormal birth presentations. She recommended the use of opium in childbirth, contrary to church teachings that women must suffer in childbirth.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales refer to this physician and writer as Dame Trot.

Trotula transitional ensemble, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 7056, mid-13th century, ff. 84v-85r, opening of the De ornatu mulierum.

1. Liber de sinthomatibus mulierum ("Book on the Conditions of Women")

This work was novel in its adoption of the new Arabic medicine that had just begun to make inroads into Europe. As Green demonstrated in 1996, Conditions of Women draws heavily on the gynecological and obstetrical chapters of the Viaticum, Constantine the African's Latin translation of Ibn al-Jazzar's Arabic Zad al-musafir, which had been completed in the late 11th century.

The Arabic medicine was more speculative and philosophical, drawing from the principles of Galen. Galen, as opposed to other notable physicians, believed that menstruation was a necessary and healthy purgation. Galen asserted that women are colder than men and unable to “cook” their nutrients; thus they must eliminate excess substance through menstruation. Further, the author notes the possibility that the womb rises to the respiratory organs. Other authorities cited include Hippocrates, Oribasius, Dioscorides, Paulus, and Justinus. The author explains that womb suffocation results from an excess of female semen (another Galenic idea) and proposes several possible remedies. Other issues discussed at length are treatment for obstetric fistula and the proper regimen for a newly born child. There are discussions on topics covering menstrual disorders and uterine movements, chapters on childbirth and pregnancy, in addition to many others.

2. De curis mulierum ("On Treatments for Women")


This is the only one of the three Trotula texts that is actually attributed to the Salernitan practitioner Trota of Salerno when it circulated as an independent text. However, it has been argued that it is perhaps better to refer to Trota as the "authority" who stands behind this text than its actual author. The author does not provide theories related to dermatological conditions or their causes, but simply informs the reader how to prepare and apply medical preparations. There is a lack of cohesion, but there are sections related to gynecological, andrological, pediatric, cosmetic, and general medical conditions. There is a focus on treatment for fertility. In keeping with the concern with fertility, this work also discusses whether women are hot or cold, as factoring into conception. Surprisingly, the author acknowledges that women have a desire that can cause them to suffer if it is not satisfied. There are a range of pragmatic instructions like how to “restore” virginity, as well as treatments for concerns such as difficulties with bladder control and cracked lips caused by too much kissing. In a work stressing female medical issues, remedies for men’s disorders are included as well.

3. De ornatu mulierum ("On Women’s Cosmetics")

De ornatu mulierum ("On Women's Cosmetics") is a treatise that teaches how to conserve and improve women's beauty. It opens with a preface (later omitted from the Trotula ensemble) in which the author refers to himself with a masculine pronoun and explains his ambition to earn "a delightful multitude of friends" by assembling this body of learning on care of the hair (including bodily hair), face, lips, teeth, mouth, and (in the original version) the genitalia. As Green has noted, the author likely hoped for a wide audience, for he observed that women beyond the Alps would not have access to the spas that Italian women did and therefore included instructions for an alternative steam bath.

The author does not claim that the preparations he describes are his own inventions. One therapy, by a Sicilian woman, he claims to have personally witnessed, and he added another remedy on the same topic (mouth odor) which he himself endorses. Otherwise, the rest of the text seems to gather together remedies learned from empirical practitioners: he explicitly describes ways that he has incorporated "the rules of women whom I found to be practical in practicing the art of cosmetics." But while women may have been his sources, they were not his immediate audience: he presented his highly structured work for the benefit of other male practitioners eager, like himself, to profit from their knowledge of making women beautiful.

Six times in the original version of the text, the author credits specific practices to Muslim women, whose cosmetic practices are known to have been imitated by Christian women on Sicily. And the text overall presents an image of an international market of spices and aromatics regularly traded in the Islamic world. Frankincense, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and galangal are all used repeatedly. More than the other two texts that would make up the Trotula ensemble, the De ornatu mulierum seems to capture both the empiricism of local southern Italian culture and the rich material culture made available as the Norman kings of southern Italy embraced Islamic culture on Sicily.

London, Wellcome Library, MS 544 (Miscellanea medica XVIII), early 14th century (France), a copy of the intermediate Trotula ensemble, p. 65 (detail): pen and wash drawing meant to depict "Trotula", clothed in red and green with a white headdress, holding an orb.

The Trotula texts are considered the "most popular assembly of materials on women's medicine from the late twelfth through the fifteenth centuries." The nearly 200 extant manuscripts (Latin and vernacular) of the Trotula represent only a small portion of the original number that circulated around Europe from the late 12th century to the end of the 15th century. Certain versions of the Trotula enjoyed a pan-European circulation. These works reached their peak popularity in Latin around the turn of the 14th century. The many medieval vernacular translations carried the texts' popularity into the 15th century and, in Germany and England, the 16th.

All three Trotula texts circulated for several centuries as independent texts. Each is found in several different versions, likely due to the interventions of later editors or scribes. Already by the late 12th century, however, one or more anonymous editors recognized the inherent relatedness of the three independent Salernitan texts on women's medicine and cosmetics, and so brought them together into a single ensemble. In all, when she surveyed the entire extant corpus of Trotula manuscripts in 1996, Green identified eight different versions of the Latin Trotula ensemble. These versions differ sometimes in wording, but more obviously by the addition, deletion, or rearrangement of certain material. The so-called "standardized ensemble" reflects the most mature stage of the text, and it seemed especially attractive in university settings. A survey of known owners of the Latin Trotula in all its forms showed it not simply in the hands of learned physicians throughout western and central Europe, but also in the hands of monks in England, Germany, and Switzerland; surgeons in Italy and Catalonia; and even certain kings of France and England.

If "Trotula" as a female author had no use to humanist physicians, that was not necessarily true of other intellectuals. In 1681, the Italian historian Antonio Mazza resurrected "Trotula" in 1681 in his Historiarum Epitome de rebus salernitanis ("Epitome of the Histories of Salerno"). Here is the origin of the belief that "Trotula" held a chair at the university of Salerno:

"There flourished in the fatherland, teaching at the university [studium] and lecturing from their professorial chairs, Abella, Mercuriadis, Rebecca, Trotta (whom some people call "Trotula"), all of whom ought to be celebrated with marvelous encomia (as Tiraqueau has noted), as well as Sentia Guarna (as Fortunatus Fidelis has said)."

Green has suggested that this fiction (Salerno had no university in the 12th century, so there were no professorial chairs for men or women) may have been due to the fact that three years earlier, "Elena Cornaro received a doctorate in philosophy at Padua, the first formal Ph.D. ever awarded to a woman. Mazza, concerned to document the glorious history of his patria, Salerno, may have been attempting to show that Padua could not claim priority in having produced female professors."

In 1773 in Jena, C. G. Gruner challenged the idea that the Trotula was an ancient text, but he also dismissed the idea that "Trotula" could have been the text's author (working with Kraut's edition, he, too, thought it was a single text) since she was cited internally. (This is the story of Trota of Salerno's cure of the woman with "wind" in the womb in the De curis mulierum.) And so the stage was set for debates about "Trotula" in the 19th and 20th centuries. For those who wanted a representative of Salernitan excellence and/or female achievement, "she" could be reclaimed from the humanists' erasure. For skeptics (and there were many grounds for skepticism), it was easy to find cause for doubt that there was really any female medical authority behind this chaotic text. This was the state of affairs in the 1970s, when second-wave feminism discovered "Trotula" anew. The inclusion of "Trotula" as an invited guest at Judy Chicago's feminist art installation, The Dinner Party (1974–79), insured that the debate would continue.

Perhaps we will never know if "Trota of Salerno" was ever real person-physician and author. But the same legends circle around Pope Joan. I wrote about her HERE* (text in Polish language*).


Other sources about, "Trotula" texts:


2.  "Women in Medicine" (txt)
3. "TROTULA" (txt)

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