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How Trota of Salerno, 12th-Century Female Gynecologist, Disappeared from History

The historical reputation of Trota through the years shows how the mores of a current society can restrict contemporary understanding of a figure from the past.

female doctors, including trota of salerno
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A woman lies in agony, the pain in her womb twisting and contorting her entire body. Muttered voices around her discuss which doctor to call: who would know best in a case like this, who is sufficiently qualified, who is available? Eventually, somebody comes up with the idea of summoning a female physician. 

So begins an anecdote in the medieval text De Curis Mulierum, recounting how a woman with "wind in her uterus" was cured in 12th-century Italy. The female doctor, known as Trota, was called to the scene when the patient was going to be “cut” to ease the pain. 

Instead of going along with this plan, she “took the girl into her home” and completely cured her, with the help of “a bath in which mallows and pellitory had been cooked” and “a plaster made of radish juice and milled barley.” Perhaps most extraordinary is the uncommon term used for this medical practitioner. The mysterious woman is referred to as magistra operis, granted the status of a “master” in a way usually reserved for male doctors.

For centuries, doubt has been cast on the existence of that miraculous gynecologist, Trota of Salerno. One of the contributors to the Trotula texts (which led to the physician herself being known as “Trotula” for centuries), Trota taught at the School of Salerno in 12th-century Southern Italy. Her writing defied the church’s teachings by recommending the use of opiates during childbirth, and explained how to best ease women's pain and suffering—as well as covering topics that haven't stood the test of time, like how the uterus reacts to bad smells. Besides her expertise in female bodies, Trota also wrote a book of practical medicine which demonstrated her familiarity with a wide range of health problems.

As historian John F. Benton described, the Trotula texts became the most widely circulated literature on women’s medicine in Europe throughout the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. “Dame Trote” is referenced as an authority multiple times during a 13th-century Anglo-Norman treaty about how women should adorn themselves and use cosmetics. Geoffrey Chaucer even references the figure of “Trotula” in The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's husband has been reading her works, presumably to learn about female anatomy.

trota of salerno
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  • A copy of the Trotula, believed to date back to the mid-13th century.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1560s, however, male academics began to suggest that an actual woman named “Trotula” did not exist. Alternative theories emerged, crediting a hypothetical man named “Trottus” or proposing that the name came from the French verb 'trotter', to run about. Casper Wolf, who edited the Trotula texts in the sixteenth century, erased the name Trotula and credited them to "Eros" instead, inventing a male persona. He also edited the grammar  from feminine to masculine to agree with the name change. The original Trota became a ghost story, erased from canonical history by her translators.

Then, in 1985, Benton seemingly confirmed her existence by discovering the Practica secundum Trotam, the physician’s book of practical medicine. He also argued that the confusion over the Trotula texts stemmed from the fact that multiple authors had contributed to them. Academics like Monica H. Green have since reasoned that not only do we have proof a woman named Trota existed in Salerno, there is also written evidence that Trota had a significant international reputation, and that she was as close to a female 'master' as Salerno at the time could have produced. 

She wasn’t, however, the only female doctor. According to Green, there are more than five dozen references to the women of Salerno being physicians in 12th and 13th century sources. The city was a flourishing and respected hub of medical knowledge, thanks to its proximity to both classical Greek knowledge and emerging Arabic practices—and the women of Salerno played an important part in that reputation. It was even the home of Schola Medica Salernitana, the first medieval medical school of its kind.

Historians always bring their own biases with them when examining the past, and in Trotula's case many male academics couldn't reconcile the image of a 12th century female doctor. But history has not been a linear process from ignorance about women's bodies to enlightenment. Salerno’s rich history of women doctors proves that there have always been individuals like Trota, whether they remain buried in the margins or not.

place setting for trotula at judy chicago's the dinner party
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  • Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party.

    Photo Credit: Jook Leung Photography via Brooklyn Museum

In the 1970s, the artist Judy Chicago gave Trota a place at The Dinner Party, a massive feminist art installation that honored 39 significant women from mythology and history around a table. The plate designed for “Trotula'' features a beautiful snake design, as a reference to her medical profession and the traditional motif of snakes around a staff. Although Chicago confused the name of the actual magistra operis Trota with the text she helped write, the piece is a testament to how much we need our history—even if female doctors have evolved beyond using radish juice and milled barley to cure reproductive organs.