restricted access Secrets of Women: Naming Female Sexual Difference in Medieval Hebrew Medical Literature

Monica Green has recently demonstrated that the thirteenth century, in the textual tradition of the Secreta mulierum, witnessed a transformation in the notions of secrecy associated with women, as well as in attitudes towards obtaining knowledge about women's bodies. Texts belonging to this tradition defined female bodies and their functioning from a male-centered point of view and focused on generation. However, although this shift undoubtedly influenced the perception of womanhood among some members of Jewish intellectual circles, it seems not to have left many traces in the Hebrew treatises on women's health care known to us. This article explores the meanings and evolution of the term "secret" in relation to women in Hebrew literature, and analyzes how the concept "secrets of women" was understood in medieval Hebrew medical texts devoted to women's health care.

The association of "secret" with "women's genitalia" has an ancient and long history within Jewish literature. However, the phrase sitrei nashim (secrets of women) also appears profusely in Sefer hayosher, a medical encyclopedia of unknown authorship written in the thirteenth century, not as a reference to a part of women's bodies but as a generic label for works or parts of works devoted to women's health care. Not only the contents but also the aim of all the Hebrew texts from this period that referred to their subject as "women's matters" or "secrets of women" are similar: They dealt with the specific ailments of women, offering a variety of therapeutic measures embedded in contemporary Graeco-Arabic medical knowledge, with the obvious purpose of alleviating women's suffering and securing their wellbeing. Apparently "secret" had acquired a meaning linked to health care in some therapeutic contexts. This new meaning retained the association with female sexual difference manifestedin the older Hebrew references to women's private parts as the "house of secrets," but it did not share the strong misogynistic connotations that this term later acquired in the Secreta mulierum tradition.