Thursday, March 20, 2008


In my previous post I'd been busy reading The Trotula and giving examples of the cosmetic recipes available within its pages. However, there is more to the The Trotula than cosmetic recipes: The Trotula is composed of three independent works by three different authors, although all probably writing in the area of Salerno in the twelfth century. On the Conditions of Women and On Women's Cosmetics are penned by anonymous authors. Treatments for Women, however, can be ascribed to one Salernitan woman healer called Trota about whom nothing is known. The modern translator, Monica H. Green has written a thoroughly erudite and informative introduction concerning the medical traditions on which the treatments are based, with recourse to Galen, Soranus and Hippocratic teachings. I'm not going to go into all that here, but the book's out there if you want to read up for yourself! I am certainly going to find it useful in further understanding the mindsets of the Middle Ages. Beyond cosmetics and beautification treatments, The Trotula provides a handy reference work for the 12thC healer and physician on how to cope with various medical situations mostly applicable to women. I say mostly, as there are one or two pieces of advice that do refer to men.
Since the previous post details contraceptive advice, here's one for those who have done away with the weasel's testicles and desire to conceive. Again, testicles are required but they should be those of an uncastrated male pig or a wild boar (a bit difficult getting them from a castrated one I should imagine!) 'and dry them and let a powder be made, and let her drink this with wine after the purgation of the menses. Then let her cohabit with her husband and she will conceive.' Assuming the above ploy is successful and the woman conceives, there are certain signs to be watched for. In order to know whether a woman is carrying a male or female, take water from a spring and let the woman extract two or three drops of blood or milk from her right side and let those be dropped in water. And if they fall to the bottom, she is carrying a male; if they float on top, a female. There are comments on the development of the embryo. In the first month there is purgation of the blood, in the second there is expression of the blood and the body. In the third month, the fetus produces nails and hair. In the fourth month it begin to move and for that reason women are nauseated. In the fifth month the fetus takes on the likeness of its father or its mother. In the sixth month the nerves are constituted. In the seventh month the fetus solidifies its bones and nerves. in the eighth month, Nature moves and the infant is made complete in the blessing of all its parts. In the ninth month it proceeds from the darkness into the light.' However, proceeding into that light can be a tricky business and if everything doesn't go to plan remedies suggested include having the expectant mother hold a magnet in her right hand. She should try drinking ivory shavings. 'Likewise the white stuff which is found in the excrement of the hawk, given in a potion is good.' I am not convinced!
The Trotula understands the seriousness of a retained afterbirth and says 'haste must be made to eject it. Therefore let sneezing be provoked, and let this be done with the mouth and nose closed.' Alternatively the woman should be made to vomit, as again, this would aid in bearing down. An emetic was to be made from the cinders of an ash tree mixed with one dram of powder of the seed of marsh mallow.
The Trotula has some interesting things to say about the care of the newborn. It says its ears should be pressed immediately over and over again, so that milk does not enter them, or its nose when the child is nursing. The umbilical cord should be tied 'three fingers from the belly, because according to the retention of the umbilical cord the male member will be greater or smaller.' To aid the child to talk more quickly, its palate should be anointed with honey and its gums with warm water. The baby should be kept clean and all mucus secretions wiped away. It should be massaged all over and then bound in swaddling. If its belly and loins become too humid and oily, they should be left free to dry out. After breastfeeding, a baby should be massaged. The next passage might almost come from a modern childcare manual. 'There should be different kinds of pictures, cloths of diverse colours, and pearls placed in front of the child, and one should use nursery songs and simple words, neither rough nor harsh words (such as those of the Lombards) should be used in singing in front of the child.' One wonders if Lombard songs were the equivalent of today's rugby chants!
Other headings in The Trotula's medical section deal with a cure for 'Sterility on the Part of the Man', a cure for 'Worms of the Ears', what to do about 'pain of the intestine' and 'itching and excoration of the pudenda.'
While many of the remedies make one thank heaven to be living in the 21st century, this book is a fascinating window on the world of medieval medicine and definitely one of my desert Island keepers.


Anne Gilbert said...

I wonder how they figured out the stages of fetal development?
Anne G

Carla said...

Fascinating stuff!

Anne - could it have been from observing miscarriages?

Jan Jones said...

Oh dear. All these facts, and what I really want to know about is those Lombard songs...

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thank you for the various comments Anne, Carla and Jan. I would think the various stages of foetal development must have been from else would one determine such a thing?
Jan, I don't know any Lombard songs offhand, but I know a woman who might. I'll ask her next time I talk to her!

Unknown said...

Trotula quotes Galen a lot who encouraged dissections of animals to better understand anatomy.