Wednesday 8 May 2013

Sword and Scalpel by Karen Maitland

A woman fighting alongside men
In the past century we’ve seen women take up many professional roles formerly barred to them and you often hear it said that women are doing these jobs for the first time in history, but in fact women in the Middle Ages frequently work in professions which were subsequently forbidden to women – heading guilds, running businesses, working in crafts such as silversmiths, and fighting as archers and even on horseback in armour during the crusades and in battles on in Europe.

In Lincoln, Lucy de Taillebois held the office of Sheriff of Lincoln in her own right up to her death in 1136 and a sheriff in those days was far from a mere ceremonial role, for she was sworn to uphold the king’s law, deliver criminals and the king’s enemies to justice, supervise the royal lands in her area, requisition supplies for the king and preside over the shire courts.

Man and woman fencing, 1300's
 But it is in the field of medicine, a profession later closed to women, that we find many medieval women not only working but also writing, such as Abbess Hildegard of Bingen who recorded her medical advice in Causae et Curea in 1150.

We know the nunneries held a great store of medical knowledge, but perhaps more surprising is the large number of women who attended medical schools alongside male students in the early Middle Ages especially the school of Salerno where one woman or perhaps a group of women known as Trotula, became famous for writing a treatise on obstetrics which included breach births, prolapses and polyps of the womb. Her book De mulierum passionibusante, in post partum was still in use as the standard textbook by doctors centuries after women had been barred from practising medicine. It’s thought Trotula may be immortalised in the nursery rhyme which was well known by 1706, about Old Dame Trot and her cat.

Right across Europe beguines, who lived in the cities of women, set up hospitals for the local people in which the beguines worked as physicians and surgeons. Many of these hospitals are still in use today, though now in private or state hands.

Woman blood-letting by by placing heated vessels
over cuts to create a vacuum to draw off
a measured amount of blood. 1400's
 We often think of medieval medicine as being as mixture of superstition and herbal remedies practised by some old village women, and but men and women who were trained in medical schools had the skills to perform operations under anaesthetics, to undertake delicate operations such as repairing depressed skull fractures and inserting drains to help the recovery of an abdominal wound. They could drill and fill teeth with an amalgam made of ground bone.

 They were much better at preventing infection than was the case in latter centuries, using antiseptics and even rudimentary antibiotics although obviously they didn’t have the modern understanding of viruses and bacteria. And it was medieval female physician who pioneered an early form of plastic surgery, binding a patient’s forearm to his face until the skin of the arm attached itself to the wound and then cutting it away. It is reported the patient survived and both wounds healed.

Not only were many of the medical skills and knowledge lost in later centuries and had to be rediscovered, but women also lost their right to work in many professions and had to regain them. Will it happen again? Sadly in some countries it already is.

Medieval surgical instrements from 'Mirror of Phlebotomy & Practise of surgery' by John of Arderne, written in the 1400's.


maryom said...

Thanks for an absolutely fascinating post. It's surprising how knowledge is discovered then lost over the years as well as seeing how women's roles have changed.

Mary Hoffman said...

Great post! I knew about Hildegarde only as a musician.

Karen Maitland said...

Caroline Lawrence raised an interesting point over the method of bleeding shown in the illustration. There were two kinds of bleeding in the Middle Ages. The general bleed, for the good of one’s heath was done by making a cut in the crook of the arm and letting the blood flow into a basin. The second type used on specific areas of inflamed flesh or a painful region of the body was to make a series of small incisions and using heated cups draw off small amounts of ‘bad blood’ or blood and pus, as an alternative to using leeches. Caroline reminded me that they also used dry cupping where heated cups are used to draw off ‘bad humours’ by raising blisters without breaking the skin. She points out dry-cupping is having something of a revival among celebs. Anyone tried it? Does it work?

Jean Gill said...

Thank you for a fascinating and thought-provoking post, both an inspiration and a warning. It is so positive to read of the rich lives women had in this period and so depressing to think of what came later, and how history was rewritten - and is being rewritten - to bury their roles.

Theresa Breslin said...

Utterly absorbing post Karen, thanks. The bit about plastic surgery was especially illuminating.

Penny Dolan said...

An excellent and positive post. Karen.

Excuse me asking, but why, where and how - having had such skills and positions - were women removed from these roles, in your opinion? Is there a specific shift in attitude etc that you have identified?

Karen Maitland said...

That’s a really interesting question. I think you can see a shift appearing after the Black Death, when feudalism was loosening its gripe and the merchant classes and professions gained power. Noble women had often protected their sisters in movements such as the beguinage and no longer had the power to do that. It is at the end of the 14th century you see laws coming in forbidding women to be heads of guilds etc.

Later, I think the reformation was a big force in redefining the role of women theologically as evil Eve and subservient to men. Interestingly, at the other extreme, the Inquisition in Europe also pushed women back into the home, but for the opposite theological reason. As Mary was elevated in the Catholic church, so women were expected to fit the idealised role of wife and mother. Of course, the closing of nunneries meant many opportunities for the education of women was lost, as well as their knowledge and sadly much of what they had written. This happened in beguinages too when whole libraries of their writings destroyed, as in the case of the beguinage in Antwerp. When that was attacked by the guild’s men, it was said you could walk dry shod across the main canal in Antwerp on the books which had been dumped in there.

But this is only my theory. I’d love to know what others think.

adele said...

Coming to this late but it's brilliant! Thanks!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

You've just helped me along with a part I was developing in a novel that still has a long way to go. Thank you Karen. fascinating!

MedievalMayhem said...

Very interesting blog post. Especially the parts about the woman sheriff and the women fighting.
In my book club we are reading the Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch, and discussing how easy it was for women to be falsely accused of witchcraft. In times of witch hunts and burnings etc women took a big gamble in learning medicine or putting themselves in a situation where their activities might seem 'ungodly' to other women. And therefore those women could more easily get you accused of being a witch.
So I regard women who learned medicine and stood out from the crowd in the middle ages as brave and courageous women indeed.

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for this - I learned a lot!

Unknown said...

Fantastic blog!

Anonymous said...

Marvellous post and I had no idea that women had been so formative in medicine. Thank you...

Penny Dolan said...

Karen, really interesting to read your comment above. Odd - or is it? - that the movements you describe, which in the big history picture are viewed as reformative or liberating and offering a "lesser" social group a stronger position so often also restrict the role of women. The description of the Antwerp beguinage library is a sad and bitter image.