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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30.1 (2000) 5-39

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From "Diseases of Women" to "Secrets of Women":
The Transformation of Gynecological Literature in the Later Middle Ages

Monica H. Green

Writing about the diseases and conditions peculiar to the female body is as old as medical writing itself. Nearly a fifth of the oldest corpus of western medical writings, that attributed to Hippocrates and written in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., is devoted to the female body. Although not all information on women's diseases in the medieval period was to be found in separate, specialized tracts on gynecology and obstetrics, 1 the hundred-some different texts composed between the fourth and the fifteenth centuries constitute a sizable corpus. 2 This essay will examine one subtle but highly illuminating transformation that specialized gynecological literature underwent in the later Middle Ages: a change in title.

Latin gynecological literature from the early Middle Ages appeared under a variety of titles: Curae ad causa[s] mulierum ("Treatments for the conditions of women"), De passionibus mulierum ("On the sufferings [or diseases] of women"), Liber de muliebria causa ("Book on the female condition"), or, most commonly, Genecia, a corruption of the Greek gynaikeia meaning simply "women's matters" or "women's affairs." The new and extremely influential texts redacted in southern Italy in the twelfth century (later to be known as the Trotula texts) were likewise initially headed by such titles as Liber de sinthomatibus mulierum ("Book on the conditions of women") and De curis mulierum ("On treatments for women"). These titles may have been inelegant but they were accurately descriptive: the texts did indeed recount the causes and the cures of the many diseases, the many physical sufferings and dysfunctions unique to women. Beginning in the thirteenth century, however, and gathering momentum in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a new usage emerged. Some gynecological literature began to be called "Secrets of Women," an epithet which hitherto had never been used for these texts. 3 [End Page 5]

From a modern perspective, this usage might seem obvious: women's diseases have to do with the reproductive organs, reproduction has to do with sex, sex is always surrounded by taboos and secrecy, ergo. . . . I should like to argue that the association between gynecology and "secrets" is neither so simple nor so obvious. Secernere is, after all, a classical Latin word and its derivatives could have easily been used to form a title for gynecological texts long before the thirteenth century. Yet far from being an ancient construct, the enveloping of women's diseases in a shroud of secrecy began only in the twelfth century with the introduction of references to the "secret places" of the female body and then to their "secret diseases." While this vocabulary never became normative in academic Latin, in certain vernacular traditions these adjectival uses provided the standard terminology for referring to the genitals and their diseases up through the end of the medieval period. The use of the substantive form secrets as a title followed about a century later, though not as a simple linear development out of its adjectival uses. Rather, use of the substantive was caused by and reflects a shift in attitudes about generation that began in the thirteenth century. Whereas previously gynecological literature was read in order to learn about the causes and cures of women's diseases, new readers brought new habits of reading to these texts in the later Middle Ages. Concerned less with alleviating women's suffering than with learning how the female body works as a site of reproduction--and learning how to ensure that it did indeed work properly--these new readers came with interests at once more expansive and more limited than those that had guided the texts' original authors or their earlier generations of readers.

The dissemination of the vocabulary of secrets in gynecological texts throughout Europe suggests that medical discourses were by no means isolated from the larger intellectual culture...


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