Books as a Source of Medical Education for Women in the Middle Ages

Books as a Source of Medical Education for Women in the Middle Ages

By Monica Green

Dynamis : Acta Hispanica ad Medicinae Scientiarumque, vol. 20 (2000)

Abstract: The development of philosophical medicine in the high and late Middle Ages brought with it a powerful association of medical knowledge with the written word. To possess books, or at least to have access to books, was both a prerequisite for and a symbol of the kind of theoretical learning that distinguished the learned practitioner from the empiric. This study examines evidence for women’s access to medical books, raising the question of what difference gender made. I argue that, for the most part, women did not own medical books, whether they were laywomen or religious. I suggest that this was largely due to the limits on advanced education for women, a factor that would have effected both laywomen and nuns.

Introduction: A few legendary accounts notwithstanding, it is well known that women were excluded from the newly-founded universities of high and later medieval Europe. Had medical education been provided exclusively within the bounds of university culture, then we could readily assume women’s complete exclusion from the scientific (philosophical) medicine being developed and taught by university masters. But as historians of medicine (especially those who study medieval vernacular traditions) are increasingly showing, formal medical knowledge was by no means strictly bound within the confines of the universities even if it was, of necessity, very intimately linked with the written word. In this essay, I would like to explore the degree to which medical books may have functioned as an alternate source of medical education to women who, because of their sex, could not move within the same social and intellectual circles as men.

I have examined the role of books in the education of laywomen in another context. Here I wish to gather together evidence for the possession or use of written medical texts by professional female practitioners, on the one hand, and cloistered communities of women on the other. The inclusion of female practitioners needs no explanation, though perhaps the inclusion of nuns does. The very fact of enclosure created communities that were almost entirely female and that were expected to strive for some level of self-sufficiency. Since, moreover, these communities generally had higher levels of female literacy than the rest of the populace, they might be a prime locus for engagement with medical literature. The evidence I have gathered relates primarily to the High and later Middle Ages (twelfth through early sixteenth centuries), which is precisely the same period, as more and more scholars are documenting, that saw a striking upsurge in the levels of female literacy. Nevertheless, women seem to have stayed largely on the margins of literate medical culture. This essay is an initial attempt to explain why.

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