When Third Place is a Win
On September 30, 2019, medieval historian Ruth Karras launched a poll on Twitter. “What medieval woman should I nominate,” she asked, to be considered for commemoration in the Long Room of Trinity College Library, Dublin? The famous hall – iconic among the world’s libraries – has been decorated since 1743 with the busts of famous scholars of world history. Currently, of the 40 busts, only men are represented.
Karras, the Lecky Professor of medieval history at Trinity College, posted the poll with the names of four women: Christine de Pizan (d. c. 1430), an Italian immigrant who came to Paris as a child, going on to become the first woman to make a living from her writing; Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179), a German nun, mystic, and writer of both theology and natural science; Heloise of Argenteuil (d. 1164), most famous in cultural history for her affair with her tutor, Peter Abelard, but known now for her writings and administrative work as abbess of the Paraclete; and finally Trota of Salerno (first half of the 12th century), a medical writer and physician, whose work lies at the core of the famous Trotula ensemble on women’s medicine.
Surprisingly, although the percentages shifted somewhat over the course of polling, the relative positions of the “candidates” never changed. Hildegard had an early lead, which she kept throughout the 48 hours of polling. And Christine de Pizan held on to second place throughout. Heloise, who surely would have been the most famous of the four when I was doing my training in medieval history in the 1970s and ’80s, never budged from last place. Indeed, her initial showing of 13% dropped halfway through to 9% and never rose above it. Could there be some way in which, in this #MeToo era, her story of seduction by her tutor made her seem more a victim than a heroine of her own story?
I was rooting for the other underdog, Trota. Some people think that “Trota” is simply an orthographical variant of “Trotula,” the form most commonly encountered on the Internet. It is not. The very reason we can now use her correct historical name – Trota – is the result of laborious scholarly work of sifting apart a complex textual tradition to uncover the historical woman at its core. It’s a complicated story, best summarized by the diagram I included in my 2001 edition and translation of the Trotula, a compendium of three writings on women’s medicine and cosmetics.1
Modern understandings of “Trotula” (as her name was understood then) were based on the Renaissance printed text (the 1544 editio princeps at the bottom of the diagram). There, the editor had taken a rather chaotically organized later medieval text (the Latin “standardized ensemble”) and rearranged it, grouping topical headings together and making the text run smoothly. So, for example, he grouped together the discussions of menstrual stoppage originally found in the first and second texts, and the cosmetic interventions addressed in the second and third texts. His intent was to make his newly structured text more coherent. He had already assumed it was the work of one author, whose work had simply become poorly arranged after generations of copying.
That was the fatal flaw in understanding that all subsequent generations of scholars would bring to the Trotula text for the next 400 years: the assumption that they had before them the work of one author instead of, as we know now, at least three. The revelation of scholarship in the 1980s was that this was, in fact, the work of three different authors, writing three different texts. This was immediately obvious once a scholar, John Benton, began to closely examine the earliest Latin manuscripts of the Trotula, from the 12th and 13th century. Benton’s manuscript research also produced evidence of a separate text, the Practica secundum Trotam (Practical Medicine According to Trota), which he identified as the authentic work of a female practitioner, Trota of Salerno.
The revelation of scholarship in the 1990s – and the focus of my own work on the Trotula for over a decade – was that, of those three different texts that made up the Trotula ensemble, one of them (contrary to Benton’s earlier opinion) was indeed the work of, or derived from the teachings of, Trota. As I indicated in my earliest article on this discovery, we were “digging Trota out of the Trotula.” A real historical woman, a medical practitioner of wide-ranging skill but with a special expertise in women’s medicine, could, for the first time since the twelfth century, finally be fully revealed. “Trotula,” I was able to document, had originally been the title of the three texts, when fused together as an ensemble. The first and third texts were almost certainly male-authored, but those men’s names were never attached to the texts. Because Trota’s name was clearly associated with the middle text, On Treatments for Women, the collection became known as The Book Which is Called ‘The Trotula’. In other words, this was a rare case where a woman’s authority occluded the contributions of men. Gradually, as generations passed, title and author became confused, and the independent genesis of the three parts of the ensemble was forgotten.
What does this have to do with the Twitter poll? Unlike Heloise and Hildegard and Christine de Pizan, all of whom have been known to scholars for centuries, Trota is a newcomer to our pantheon of learned medieval women. Yes, there is some older recognition of “Trotula” (the assumed author of the Trotula ensemble), some of it in Italian historiography (where “she” was lauded in nationalist narratives in the 19th century, with claims that she was “the first woman university professor”) and some of it, starting in the late 19th century, in feminist literature, where there were attempts to reconstruct histories of women’s achievements in medicine. It was because of this older work that “Trotula” got invited to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in the 1970s (which still conveys the fabricated biography of “Trotula” from these earlier traditions).
But as we’ve seen, that “tradition” was based on a series of misunderstandings. Trota should have been the hero of this story, not “Trotula.” And that is why Trota’s third place finish in the Twitter poll is, despite appearances, a “win.” The recovery of Trota’s story – the real work she did in distilling the essence of a tradition of women’s medicine, unique for its hands-on approaches to dealing with pelvic floor prolapse and other gynecological conditions – is one of the biggest success stories of modern women’s history. It is that hard work of modern feminist scholarship that made it possible to document that, through a coincidence that is not really that extraordinary, Trinity College Library actually has three copies of the Trota’s work in its holdings. Two of them are copies of the Latin Trotula ensemble, similar to copies found throughout all of western Europe. The third is a 15th-century manuscript of a late medieval Irish translation of the Trotula,2 which includes excerpts from Trota’s text, On Treatments for Women that are clearly attributed to domina Trotula: Lady Trotula.3
In other words, Trota of Salerno, an Italian medical practitioner, was already a scholarly celebrity in Ireland in the Middle Ages, as she was throughout most of Europe.4 And having that story of her medieval influence retrieved is a bigger “win” than any poll.
- Monica H. Green, The “Trotula”: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001). Return to text.
- Dublin, Trinity College, MS 1436 (E.4.1), pp. 101–107 and 359b–360b (s. xv): Irish Script on Screen, search under the Library and then the individual shelfmark. Return to text.
- The title Trotula was misunderstood as an authorial name as early as the 13th century. So the Irish scribe’s usage is, in fact, normative for the period. Whether s/he knew it or not, however, this particular passage comes from the De curis mulierum (On Treatments for Women), which is the authentic work of Trota. Return to text.
- In Making Women’s Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-Modern Gynaecology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. ix, I document that the works of Trota/“Trotula” were more widely circulated, and more commonly attributed to their female author, than any other medieval woman author, most of whom are now better known than her. Return to text.
Monica H. Green is a historian of medicine, the author of three books and the editor of two essay collections. She is currently working on The Black Death: A Global History. She can be found on Twitter at @monicaMedHist.