medieval birth control

The Trotula Collection

This collection of medical manuscripts is commonly referred to as ‘The Trotula’. These three texts: “On the Conditions of Women”, “On Women’s Cosmetics”, and “On the Treatments for Women” were aggregated by the 12th century, and remained the most popular assembly on the topic of women’s medicine from the late 12th until the 15th century (Green, Trotula: English xi). The original text was written in Latin so it was able to spread quickly throughout the Western Christian world.

The Trotula is a treasure trove of fascinating treatments for sometimes horrifying conditions afflicting women, many that affect both genders equally, and more than a few that are specifically for men (42, 44, 45, 87, 95, 104, 199). Many attribute the collection to a Salnertian doctor of great repute who also happened to be a woman.

Scholars debate the attribution to this day, and little to no historical proof exists that a woman named Trotula, or Trota, lived in Salerno in the 11th or 12th century. However the translator of the collection presents the thesis that ‘On the Treatment of Women’ was likely written by a woman because of the nature of five ‘treatments’ in particular. She cites recipes to make a woman appear to be a virgin when she is not. Green posits that because this information is pragmatically given despite the culturally subversive nature of this sort of deception, the author of this text is most likely a woman with training in classic medical theory as well as empirical knowledge of midwifery (42). She presents an argument I find compelling. There are other differences in the way that ‘On Treatments of Women’ is written when compared to ‘Book on the Conditions of Women’ and ‘On Women’s Cosmetics’. Treatments addresses women’s concerns pragmatically, and makes the unconventional suggestion (in a medieval context) that woman might experience desire for sexual intercourse but not be permitted to express that desire for practical reasons. More shockingly, the text suggests this might be painful for the woman and provides an ointment to relieve that pain (91).

Treatments also lacks the strong influence of Arabic medical writings that Conditions and Cosmetics both share. It has some influence from Galen’s theories and classical elemental theories of medicine, but is otherwise fairly unique (37). I noticed that it also lacks the structure typical to most historical medical texts. Usually the treatments start at the top of the body and work their way down very systematically. This convention is followed in Conditions and Cosmetics, but Treatments is not organized in any noticeable order.

Before 1600 CE, however, The Trotula was widely thought to have been written by a woman, and I think my Welsh persona would find it inspiring to consult a medical text written by another woman. I certainly do.

A lot of my research and recipes on this site stem from this amazing source because this book is an absolute MUST if you’re researching medieval medicine, women’s history, or traditional midwifery. This volume is well translated by a marvelous medieval scholar, Monica H. Green. Not only is it a great addition to your collection of translated medieval sources, it’s an opportunity to support women of color in academia.

My only complaint is that the paperback version has several indices that are indispensable. One you can use for identifying historical names for various ingredients and another with recipes for several standard remedies of the time. Which means if you’re intending to document and redact recipes for Arts & Sciences competitions you will need both the paperback and the hardcover versions.

When I got the hardcover with the English translation side by side with the Latin text I was really disappointed I couldn’t pass my paperback copy along for someone else to enjoy. I consult the various indices all the time!

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