Thursday, December 3, 2009



Recently I read a historical fiction titled “Mistress of the Art of Death” by Ariana Franklin. It is a medieval mystery featuring Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar or as one of the characters in the book says “Dr. Trotula, if you prefer, which is a title conferred on women professors in the school”. The school that conferred Adelia the title of Dr. Trotula is the Scuola Medica Salernitana.

Intrigued by the idea of a woman doctor practicing medicine in the 11th century, I decided to do a little research. I am going to share the information gleaned from my research, hopefully you will find it interesting.

Salerno, a city in the region of Campania in Southern Italy has its origins in the IV century B.C., when it was an Etruscan center. Later it became a Samnite territory, where in 197 B.C. the Romans founded the Colony of Salemum (later called Salerno). After the Roman period Salerno passed from one ruling entity to another acquiring a multicultural identity.

Sometime in the IX Century the Scuola Medica Salernitana was founded in Salerno. According to traditional lore the Scuola was founded by four teachers, an Arab, a Jew, a Latino, and a Greek. They taught in their respective languages. The School was the first University of Medicine in the Western World, and throughout the Middle Ages the University and the many local hospitals enjoyed an enormously prestigious reputation. It was at this center of learning where future doctors studied and where renowned doctors treated their patients. The city of Salerno earned the title of Hippocratica Civitas, a title still used today as part of the city’s Coat of Arms.

In 1076 Salerno became the Norman Capital (think Crusades) but in 1127 the Norman Capital was moved to Palermo. Salerno however remained one of the more important cities in the Kingdom of Sicily. The Kingdom of Sicily was founded by Roger II in 1130 and lasted until 1861. The Kingdom consisted of the Island of Sicily and all of the southern part of the mainland up to the Vatican States, south of Rome. Salerno began to lose its importance under the French and Spanish rulers.

In 1231 Frederick II (“stupor mundi”) as king of Sicily, officially recognized the University of Salerno and forbade the practice of medicine and the teaching of medicine within his dominion without a Royal License. The License was conferred after exams administered by the King’s Court and by the Masters of the University of Salerno. Later The Edict of Salerno, instituted by Frederick II, legally mandated separation of the profession of physician and that of apothecary.

Granted that the Scuola Medica Salernitana holds the distinction of being the first Medical School in the Western world, and that it certainly was the most prestigious center of education during the 10th through the 13th century, but for me the most interesting fact about the Scuola is that in the Middle Ages WOMEN were trained as PHYSICIANS and were also PROFESSORS of medicine at this renown university.These women doctors are historically known as “mulieres Salernitanae”. Of these ‘mulieres’ Trotula was the first woman doctor, considered the world’s first gynecologist, and the most famous.

It is believed that Trotula De Ruggiero was born in the 11th Century in Salerno where she lived, became a doctor, practiced medicine, and trained other doctors. Her husband was the doctor Giovanni Plateario, they had two sons whose names were Giovanni and Matteo, also doctors. Trotula, known in her own day as ‘magistra mulier sapiens’, was not only a smart and strong woman but, reportedly, she was also a beautiful and fascinating woman of her times! Supposedly when she died in 1097, there was a funeral procession three kilometers long. Trotula was such a legendary and idealized figure of the Middle Ages that in later centuries men refused to believe that she actually existed.

Trotula was the author of many medical works, one of which was “Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum (The Diseases of Women), also known as Trotula Major. The book, consisting of 63 chapters, deals with women health issues and diseases, and their treatments. Another of her works was “De Aegritudinum Curatione” or “De Ornatu Mulierum”, also known as Trotula Minor. Trotula’s literary work was used to train physicians for many centuries.

One of Trotula’s opinions was that both men and women could be responsible for infertility, a courageous stance for her times! She also believed that women should not suffer unrelenting pain during childbirth and advocated the use of opiates to dull the labor pains. Of course this also contradicted the opinion of those times that women should suffer pain of childbirth to atone for the sins of Eve. Trotula was an early advocate of balanced diet, regular exercise, cleanliness, and a low stress lifestyle.

Trotula’s fame went beyond Salerno and Italy, as seen in the accounts of well known personages including Geoffrey Chaucer. In the famous “Canterbury Tales” Chaucer refers to Trotula as “DAME TROT”! (According to the sources read by me, Dame Trot is found in the “Wife of Bath Tale”. It has been many years since I read the Tales, as soon as possible I will be re-reading the Bath Tale and hopefully I will find Trot).

The following quote is from tan article written by Jackie Rosenhek on the website

“But nearly a millennia before these fine society ladies were trading med-school war stories over tea and crumpets, one amazing woman was blazing a trail toward equality. A woman who -- if not for the sharp mind and winsome ways which earned her the respect of her patients and male colleagues alike -- would almost certainly have been condemned as a witch. Trotula was her name and illuminating the Dark Ages was her game.”

Around 1840 in honor of Trotula a bronze medal was coined in Naples. It can be found in the Museo Provinciale di Salerno.


  1. Technically this story is not about Librizzi nor Librizzi Ancestors, but it is about Italian-Sicilian culture and of general interest.

  2. Maria, I enjoyed the info regarding Trotula. I am sure there are many examples of good, strong and wonderful women in the annals of history yet to be discovered. You have a wonderful talent for research...and patience too.

    Also you are a great historian of the Muscara family and Librizzi. I understand some things now that I did not before.

    I read the story about Antonino Muscara and WWII several weeks ago. Sadly the wages of war are far reaching and reverberate for generations.

    "He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." Isaah 2:4 ...and yet we are still waiting for peace.

  3. rbutterfly, thank you so much for the kind and cogent comments.
    The Bible quote is one that the world should heed, and yet as you say, 'we are still waiting for peace'. And while we are waiting lives are lost, families are destroyed, cultures are obliterated,.....


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