Because there are many women who have numerous diverse illnesses—some of them almost fatal—and because they are also ashamed to reveal and tell their distress to any man… to assist women, I intend to write of how to help their secret maladies so that one woman may aid another in her illness and not divulge her secrets. ~Trotula of Salerno, 11th century Italy.

Trotula was one of the most famous physicians of her time. Her work was devoted to alleviating the suffering of women.

Trotula taught at the school of Salerno, a famous university of the time, and first medical school in the world, where both men and women were educated. There was a tradition in Italy of women having access to higher education up until the time of the Renaissance.

It is important to remember Trotula of Salerno because she was a medieval scientist, a woman working diligently as a medical doctor specifically on the diseases of women. It is important for any modern medicine woman to know about our female predecessors who were discredited. Witchcraft, herbalism and wise women work is often assumed to be non-scientific.

Trotula of Salerno is the author of Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum or The Diseases of Women. The book is a vast reference on health issues specifically related to women’s bodies and minds. Trotula speaks openly of menses, conception, pregnancy, childbirth, sexuality, birth control and also stress and its effect on the body. Most remedies prescribed are herbs, spices and oils

She wanted to educate male doctors about the female body because she believed such knowledge was generally lacking. She also discovered that men have a part to play in the infertility in women. A radical idea in those days.

By the 16th century, Trotula had become a folk heroine and her books were still standard works on women’s medicine. The Medieval Woman’s Guide to Health, the first English gynecological handbook, was based on the writings of Trotula. It is said that in Victorian England they began to shy away from this text and believe it had to have been written by a man because it was so overtly sexual.

In Woman as Healer, Jeanne Achterberg writes that “Trotula was a skilled diagnostician who used all of her senses in the effort. This was most necessary, since the knowledge of the inner workings of the human body was left to the imagination, dissection never, or rarely, being possible. She discussed pulse and urine diagnosis, as well as the need to make careful note of the patient’s feature and words.

Some of her therapies were quite advanced. For instance, for vulval abcess she recommended lancing, dilating, draining, and applying medicated oils to soothe and aid healing. For prolapsed uterus she advised that the uterus be restored to its proper position and held in place by sponges or tampons soaked in astringents.

Judy Chicago’s representation of Trotula in “The Dinner Party.”

Trotula wrote on a wide variety of issues, including cesarean sections and beauty prescriptions. She was the first to describe the dermatological manifestations of syphilis. She gave opiates for pain, as well as anesthetic inhalations of hyoscyamine, hemlock and mandrake. Aloes, almond oil, orris root, silver and mercury were prescribed for skin problems—all agents in common use to this day.”(49)

Trotula even wrote of how women could “counterfeit virginity” when needed.

“This remedy will be needed by any girl who has been induced to open her legs and lose her virginity by the follies of passion, secret love, and promises…Let her take ground sugar and the white of an egg and mix them in rainwater in which alum, fleabane, and the dry wood of a vine have been boiled down with other similar herbs. Soaking a soft and porous cloth in this solution, let her keep bathing her private parts with it. The vagina ought to be fully washed. Or let her mix rainwater with well-ground fresh oak bark and make a suppository which she should insert in the vagina shortly before she expects to have intercourse or as follows: plantain, sumack, oak galls, large black betony, and alum cooked in rainwater and the private parts fomented with the mixture as above…But best of all this deception: the day before her marriage, let her put a leech very cautiously on the labia, taking care lest it slip in by mistake; then she should allow blood to trickle out and form a crust on the orifice; the flux of blood will tighten the passage. Thus may a false virgin deceive a man in intercourse.” (50)

Oh my!  Trotula of Salerno was a #NastyWomanWriter indeed!

©Theresa C. Dintino 2017


Hypatia’s Heritage by Margaret Alic

Woman as Healer: a panoramic survey of the healing activities of women from prehistoric times to the present. by Jeanne Achterberg, (Shambhala, Boston, 1991).  

Books by Trotula and based on the works of Trotula:

Medieval Woman’s Guide to Health: The First English Gynecological Handbook, Beryl Rowland, Kent State University Press, 1981

The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine