The advancements of the medical field we know today seem a bit futuristic when we put ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors. From the creation of vaccines to the wonders of bioimaging and the overall expansion of scientific research, society has made great strides by building on some of the groundwork of our medieval forebears. Today, women play a significant role in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, especially in healthcare but this was not always the case. In the medieval era (c. 500 – 1500 AD), women could only dream of finding formal employment in the medical field, much less having access to education outside of the home, but as the saying goes, nothing lasts forever. The works of The Trotula are a testimony to this.
Based in the vibrant port city of Salerno, Italy, the original Latin text, Trotula, served as a medical holy grail for women’s health, especially in relation to childbirth and cosmetics, from the 12th century onwards. Each text that forms part of the three-part compilation is unique in their own respect and written under different titles: (1) Book on the Conditions of Women, (2) On Treatments for Women and (3) On Women’s Cosmetics. Of course, if you are in the modd for a little Latin, the titles are: (1) Liber de sinthomatibus mulierum, (2) De curis mulierum and (3) De ornatu mulierum.
The Trotula was a significant step forward in a time where women’s health was wildly misunderstood and heavily influenced by Greek philosophical theories. In this day and age, if a female visited the doctor for irregular menstruation and was told that it was okay to have this blood run from the nostrils, I am positive she would run in the other direction and perceive the doctor as mad! But this advice was common in pre-Salernitan medicine and it made sense in light of medieval world views, that is, until manuscripts like The Trotula came about.
The Trotula offered a new perspective in gynecological medicine influenced by Arabic works and local traditions originating from Southern Italy. A distinctive aspect was the practical, authentic theories and remedies that were designed not only for treatment purposes but introduced novel preventative care. Keeping in mind that in the Middle Ages there was no access to, or even the mere existence of advanced technology, one would wonder how they did it. Much of the medicinal treatments were not the synthetic, over-the-counter pharmaceuticals of the 21st century, but were closer to home and herb based.
Salerno was a fitting origin for the beginning of this medical transition as it was seen as the epicenter of medical literature in Europe. The wealthy city was known for its luxurious greenery, agricultural production and had a far reach in international trade in the Middle Ages. It made sense then that medical practitioners would have access to the spices, resins and herbs needed to create treatments. And if Salernitan practitioners ever ran out, Sicily was an arm’s length away via a short boat ride or a day’s walk. Not to mention, the city was home to the first, and arguably the most important, medical school in medieval Europe, the Schola Medica Salernitana. Although the institution closed its doors in the early 19th century, its reputation lives on as ‘the forerunner of the modern university medical schools’.
To put the cherry on top of this feat, Trotula is believed to be authored by a Salerno woman, Trota. To this day, the evidence holds that she was the first gynecologist in medicinal history. In an age where men dominated the workplace, particularly in the fields of medicine and manufacturing, while women remained as midwives, this is quite the achievement. There is an ongoing historical debate that questions whether the author was a woman or even existed at all. The controversy as later understood came from the use of the names Trota and Trotula. Scholar Monica Green suggested that the title ‘Trotula’, meaning ‘little Trota’, was misinterpreted as an author’s name as scholars attempted to understand southern Italian documents. In fact, Trotula was never recorded to be a Salernitan woman’s name at all. On to another historical debate: authorship. Much, or rather all, credit has been given to Trota for the production of The Trotula literature. However, according Monica Green, each text probably had its own author, but Trota was the only individual with known biographical information, so she received a large sum of the credit.
Needless to say, the works of Trota and The Trotula became a pioneering force in gynaecology and medical academia on the whole. To this day, Trota’s ‘brilliant medical career’ is still being appreciated that contributed to ‘the milestones of modern medicine’.
Tecoya Warner is a first year Science student at Bader College, Queen’s University (Canada).
 E. de Divitiis, P. Cappabianca and O. de Divitiis, (2004). ‘The “schola medica salernitana”: the forerunner of the modern university medical schools’, PMID Neurosurgery,(2004), 55: 4, 722-44.
 Trotula of Salerno (12th century?) (2015). Prof. Pavlac’s Women History Site. https://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/trotula.html last accessed 29/03/23.
 Monica H. Green, The Trotula A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (Philadelphia: University Of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).
 M. Bifulco, E. Ciaglia, M. Marasco and G. Gangemi, ‘A focus on Trotula de’ Ruggiero: a pioneer in women’s and children’s health in history of medicine’, The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine, (2014), 27: 2, 204–205.