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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 45.3 (2002) 463-465
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Women's Healthcare in the Medieval West
Women's Healthcare in the Medieval West. By Monica H. Green. Burlington, VT: Ashgate/Variorum, 2000. Pp. xx + 350. $111.95.
Sitting before a fire with a book propped open in front of her, a woman stirs a boiling pot; behind her is a man lying on a couch. Labeled Tobit and Anna, or the Lady as Physician, in Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead's 1938 History of Women in Medicine, from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century, this often-reproduced scene is paradigmatic for the medieval woman healer, who is here presumed to be formulating a herbal potion based on written recipes for the patient lying behind her. What we learn from Professor Monica H. Green, however, is that this was not the meaning of this scene at all. Rather, it portrayed a Biblical moment in which the prophet Tobit is blinded by swallow's dung—for her book, Hurd-Mead had cropped the swallow from the picture (pp. 18-19). In Women's Healthcare in the Medieval West, a collection of reprinted articles, Green demonstrates just how many of our notions about women's healthcare in the Middle Ages have been similarly fashioned.
In the introduction, Green explains that her long-term research focus has been to "clear the land," by pointing out the "gaps in information. . . and the misdirections we have been led into by inadequate scholarship" (p. ix), and she has certainly succeeded. In the first article, she grapples with two assumptions about women and medicine in the Middle Ages: first, that women patients [End Page 463] were only taken care of by other women; and second, that women practitioners were never professionals but always empirics whose practice was exclusively women. The evidence, she shows, supports neither—women were taken care of by men as well as women, and women medical practitioners, who were sometimes professionals, also took care of men.
In the second article, "Documenting Medieval Women's Medical Practice," Green explores objective, as opposed to narrative, sources—wills, court records, and urban or guild documents—for evidence of women's medical practice. Remarkably few women practitioners were unmasked by this work, less than 2 percent of the total number of practitioners. Why? Green argues that even such objective sources are inherently biased, because medieval women were rarely members of guilds, never in court, and seldom had the need to write a will; they are, therefore, disproportionately excluded from such evidence. Further, the search itself is selective, because to the extent that it is limited to the term doctor (medicus), it excludes midwives, herbalists, and other empirics who were predominately (probably) women. Data about women's practice can be gleaned from public texts, Green suggests, but only by an astute use of sources, and a widened search that includes nonacademic practitioners. In this way, "far more information about women's medical practice can be squeezed out of the extant documents than might at first seem possible" (p. 350).
The next three articles are research papers with embedded historiographic lessons. In "The De genecia Attributed to Constantine the African," Green proves that the printed version that is labeled De genecia cannot, in fact, be Constantine's famous text—rather, Constantine's text is probably what has been called the De genitalibus membris, and Green provides an edited version. The lesson here is that even the very basics of medieval medical research—the identification of manuscripts and texts—must be questioned and often reestablished. In the next article, "Obstetrical and Gynecological Texts in Middle English," Green shares her extensive knowledge of Middle English obstetric and gynecological texts, along with an edition of "The Nature of Wommen" [sic], and a valuable handlist of manuscripts. She proves that "The Nature of Wommen" was an abbreviated fragment of a Latin adaptation of an ancient Greek gynecological text, demonstrating that vernacular texts do not necessarily provide us with access to oral tradition. Finally, in "The Development of the...