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Trotula of Salerno, medieval physician and trailblazer

fascinating facts about this forgotten woman's life and work

Trotula of Salerno

I’m working on a companion novella to the Sea and Stone Chronicles that features the character Signorina Guiliana, a practicing physician trained at the medical school of Salerno.

Guiliana is my tribute to a trail-blazing real-life physician, Trotula de Ruggiero (also known as Trota of Salerno and Dame Trot, among other monikers). The Schola Medica of Salerno was believed to be founded sometime in the tenth century and welcomed women during the medieval era. Trotula was perhaps its most famous and respected graduate.

Trotula of Salerno’s extraordinary life

Born into a wealthy eleventh-century family, Trotula received a high level of education. In addition to practicing medicine, she wrote two treatises on women’s health. One of the works pertained to gynecology, the other to cosmetology (providing extensive advice about beauty and health treatments), and both were highly valued as medical treatises by physicians all over Europe.

Trotula married a fellow physician and both her sons went on to practice medicine. She was respected by her medical peers in Salerno and frequently sought after for advice.

A thirteenth-century document called De mulierum passionibus describes an ill woman calling upon Trotula “as if she were a master of this craft”. It goes on to recount Trotula taking the woman into her home for an examination and refuting the previous diagnosis of hernia. She then cures the woman of her actual illness with baths and other treatments.

This is just one of many accounts of Trotula’s expertise. She was so well-known that stories about her circulated widely in Europe (for example, she’s the Dame Trot mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). The French poet Rutebeuf described her as the most intelligent woman in the world.

Trotula of Salerno’s groundbreaking work

As has been the case for too many women, Trotula vanished from the pages of history over the centuries and doubt was cast upon her very existence. Some scholars maintain that she was a man, skeptical that a woman could have penned texts as important as hers.

The fact remains that Trotula’s works informed medicine in medieval Europe for hundreds of years after her death. Among her groundbreaking assertions was the idea that infertility results from both female and male reproductive problems (in opposition to the common belief that women were to blame for inability to conceive). She also advocated using opiates to ease the pain of childbirth, contradicting conventional Christian wisdom.

Digging around for Trotula lore, I found some wonderful snippets of her writings. The three works that make up the “Trotula ensemble” are The Book on the Conditions of Women, Treatments for Women, and Women’s Cosmetics.

Here is an example of a treatment Dame Trot used to help ensure women were ready for conception: “Take clove, spikenard, calamite storax, and nutmeg, and let them be placed in an eggshell upon a few hot coals. And let there be prepared a perforated chair so that all the fumes go toward the [woman’s] inside.”

From The Book on the Conditions of Women: “Women, from the condition of their fragility, out of shame and embarrassment do not dare reveal their anguish over their diseases (which happen in such a private place) to a physician. Therefore, their misfortune, which ought to be pitied, and especially the influence of a certain woman stirring my heart, have impelled me to give a clear explanation regarding their diseases in caring for their health.”

Trotula of Salerno’s beauty and health tips

This quote from instructions for using depilatories in Women’s Cosmetics defies the common belief that medieval people didn’t bathe nor adhere to our beauty standards:

“In order that a woman might become very soft and smooth and without hairs from her head down, first of all let her go to the baths, and if she is not accustomed to do so, let there be made for her a steambath in this manner. Take burning hot tiles and stones and with these placed in the steambath, let the woman sit in it….And when she has well sweated, let her enter hot water and wash herself very well, and thus let her exit from the bath and wipe herself off with a linen cloth. Afterward let her also anoint herself all over with this depilatory, which is made from well-sifted quicklime.”

Here’s an example of a compound medicine described in the Trotula Ensemble:

“Benedicta is so called because from all things from which it is comprised it is blessed…It is good for arthritic gout and podagric conditions arising from coldness. It purges the kidneys and the bladder…Take ten drams each of vegetable turpeth, spurge, and sugar; five drams each of scammony, ramsons, and roses; one dram each of cloves, spikenard, ginger, saffron, saxifrage, longpepper, poppy, watercress, parsley, gromwell, rock salt, galangal, mace, caraway, fennel, dove’s foot cranesbill, butcher’s broom, and honey as needed. This is given in the evening in the amount of a chestnut with warm wine.”

Trotula of Salerno’s paper trail

I found these excerpts of the Trotula Ensemble in The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine, edited and translated by Monica H. Green (2013), University of Pennsylvania Press.

Some of the biographical details I’ve included come from Academia.edu, where I struck gold with scholar Anna Glusiuk’s paper about Trotula’s beauty treatments, “Treatments to Refine One’s Bodily Beauty According to the Teachings of Trota of Salerno.”

Finally, I have author Diana Norman (pen name Ariana Franklin) to thank for this marvelous research rabbit hole. Her fabulous physician character Adelia (in the Mistress of the Art of Death series) introduced me to Salerno’s medieval medical school and inspired me to create Signorina Guiliana in the first place.

 

 

6 Comments

  1. Elizabeth St.John says:

    What an extraordinary woman. I can’t wait to read your new novella! I know it will be absolutely captivating.

    1. Amy Maroney says:

      Thank you, Liz — I hope it will be! Revisions first…lots of revisions!

  2. Julie Cassin says:

    So excited to read this! You are forever shining a light on forgotten women… brava!

    1. Amy Maroney says:

      Thank you, Julie — looking forward to sharing the story with you!

  3. Jules Larimore says:

    I’m looking forward to this! Since I write about healers, I love all the research you are doing and it will be fascinating to see how you weave it into your novel. The Mandrake Broom by Jess Wells is another book that touches on the women of Salerno school of medicine.

    1. Amy Maroney says:

      Thanks so much, Jules. I will check out The Mandrake Bloom — thanks for the recommendation!

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