Structures and Subjectivities in 16th-Century Gynecology,
or How the Father of Medicine Reclaimed His Paternity


In 1992, the historian Judith Bennett called for greater attention to the importance of bridging the divide between “medieval” and “early modern” in European women’s history. That divide—created in the Renaissance and perpetuated up through the present day—had, Bennett argued, obscured historians’ abilities to perceive continuities in the situation of women vis-à-vis men throughout the period from the 13th through the 17th centuries. In intellectual and cultural history (which includes medical history), a similar divide—that between the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages and the print culture of the Renaissance—has set up a similar barrier, both obscuring continuities and distorting the novel effects of humanistic scholarship. The present workshop will pair a historian of medieval women’s medicine with a historian of Renaissance medicine in order to examine several key features in the written gynecological traditions between the 15th and late 16th centuries: the role of authority (especially classical authority), the role of vernacular languages in relation to the learned languages of Latin and Greek, the significance of the transition from manuscript to print (and sometimes back again), and finally, the impact of these shifts on the audiences of gynecological literature.

The history of women’s healthcare in the early modern period has thus far been dominated almost entirely by narratives about the status and struggles of female midwives, especially the challenges they faced from male accoucheurs from the 16th century on. But midwives were by no means the only providers of healthcare to women during this period. Throughout the late medieval and early modern periods, male practitioners had been intimately involved in the administration of basic gynecological and also some limited (esp. emergency) obstetrical care to women. The 14th and 15th centuries witnessed a marked increase in the amount of new gynecological texts being written, most of which focused on questions of fertility. The pace of new compositions rose dramatically in the era of print following the publication of the rediscovered Hippocratic gynecological texts in 1525, leading to (among other publications) the three increasingly massive editions of the compendium, Gynaeciorum libri, “The Books of Gynecology,” between 1566 and 1597. Yet despite this explosion, one of the ironic results of the “print revolution” is that it narrowed the amount of gynecological information available.

This narrowing occurred in two respects: the amount of vernacular material available vis-à-vis the learned languages, and the representation of medieval vs. ancient or “modern” texts. According to our assessments, there were nearly 100 different gynecological texts in active circulation in western Europe in the 15th century. About half of this total was in Latin, the remainder in various local vernacular languages. In England, for example, there were ten different English gynecological texts in circulation in the 15th and early 16th century. Yet none ever made the transition into print. Instead, well into the 17th century, the only printed English text on women’s medicine was a translation of the Rosengarten, a brief German obstetrical text for midwives and the women who supervised them. A similar phenomenon of narrowing occurred in other vernacular traditions.

For the learned languages, the situation was different. The only gynecological texts to appear in print prior to 1525 were either the sections on diseases of the reproductive organs in several large summae of Italian physicians (whose works had already been popular in the 15th century) or seven specialized treatises on women’s medicine: the Latin De passionibus mulierum attributed in 1490 to Galen (but by 1541 recognized to be pseudepigraphic), the obstetrically-focused German Frauenbüchlein of 1495 and Rosengarten of 1513 (both of which derived from earlier manuscript texts), a Dutch translation of the latter in 1516, Luigi Bonaccioli’s Latin Enneas muliebris in ca. 1502, and the brief Latin Tractatus de sterilitate tam ex parte viri quam ex parte mulieris and Compilatio de conceptione included within the opera of Arnau de Vilanova in 1504 and 1505. It was with the publication of the Greek Hippocratic gynecological texts that the pace of publication—and of new composition—suddenly increased. Composed originally in Greek between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE, this substantial corpus of texts had been largely inaccessible to the Latin-speaking world throughout the Middle Ages. The Greek originals were recovered and, for the first time, translated in their entirety into Latin in 1525, with an edition of the Greek texts themselves soon after.

Although the authenticity of their attribution to Hippocrates is, according to modern scholarly opinion, quite dubious (indeed, it is clear the texts have multiple authors), in the 16th century this corpus of texts on women’s medicine was accepted without question as the work of his hand. The recovery of the Hippocratic gynecological corpus had a special relevance because it demonstrated the ancient validity of gynecology as a specialized field of medical learning. As asserted in the first book of the Hippocratic Diseases of Women (1.62), “the healing of the diseases of women differs greatly from the healing of the diseases of men.” Thus, the recognition that Galen had never produced a specialized gynecological text beyond a tract on uterine anatomy could be accepted since the greater authority of Hippocrates made up for this lack. The reclamation of gynecology as an ancient field of specialization also explains why we find, in 1544, the humanist physician Georg Kraut editing the medieval composition, the Trotula, as if it were an ancient text. It was soon reprinted by the Venetian printer, Aldus Manutius, in a collection entitled Medici antiqui omnes, and from then on seems to have been accepted as an ancient authority. Conversely, beyond the late antique texts attributed to Cleopatra, Theodorus Priscianus, and Metrodora, no other medieval gynecological text, Latin or vernacular, with the exception of the Arabic surgical writer Abulcasis, would be “reclaimed” by printers in the 16th century.

In the act of creating or re-creating these ancient “roots” of gynecology as a distinct subdiscipline within medicine (a task only reinforced by the new anatomical researches of the period), 16th-century physicians were able to secure their authority in this field. Moreover, with the pre-eminent authorities in gynecology now firmly masculine (the female “Trotula” having been turned into a male “Eros” by 1566), male domination of the field was now uncontested. The simultaneous loss of vernacular gynecological texts, some of which had explicitly been directed to female audiences, only reinforced this gendered shift. To be sure, manuscript copies of these works continued to circulate and even be produced in the 16th century, but in every case where we can document ownership, they are all owned by men, usually practicing physicians. Attempts to claim gynecological literature (or, more precisely, obstetrical literature) as a feminine field only began in the 17th century, first with the publication of Louise Bourgeois’s works (1609-1626), then with the work of Elizabeth Cellier, Jane Sharp, and Justine Siegemund, the first female-authored texts on women’s medicine produced since the 12th century.

The workshop will be organized as follows: it will be expected that all participants prepare in advance the Readings listed below, which will be circulated by the organizers. After introductions of the participants, the seminar will begin by examining a new gynecological composition based on the Hippocratic texts, Lange’s “Letter on the Disease of Virgins” (published in 1554 but probably composed in the 1530s), which shows how 16th-century medical practitioners coopted the Hippocratic legacy to meet their own strategies for professional advancement.

Discussion will then be opened up to address several themes:

  1. Of what relevance is the study of high learned traditions to our knowledge of the day-to-day practices of women’s healthcare?
  2. In what ways can we see the increasing interest in gynecology, embryology, and even obstetrics among learned male practitioners and teachers in the 16th century as a prelude to the (partial) take-over of midwifery functions in the 17th and 18th centuries?
  3. Where and how (in what sources? through what discursive analyses?) should we look for women’s reactions to this new science of gynecology?
Participants are asked to bring one brief excerpt of a text from their own field of research (be it literature, law, art, whatever—the “text” need not be written) that may help shed light on these questions.

Preliminary Readings (all Latin or Greek texts will be provided in English translation):

Suggested readings: