Among the rather startling surprises that have developed, as the growth of our knowledge of medieval history, through consultation of the documents in recent years, is constantly contradicting traditions founded on lack of information, perhaps the greatest has been to learn that women were given opportunities for the higher education at practically all of the Italian universities, and that they became not only students, but professors, at many of these institutions. No century from the twelfth down to the nineteenth was without some distinguished women professors at Italian universities, and in the later Middle Ages there was a particularly active period of feminine education.
The most interesting feature of this development for us is that the application of women to medical studies from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries was not only not discouraged, but was distinctly encouraged, and we find evidence that a number of women studied and taught medicine, wrote books on medical subjects, were consulted with regard to medico-legal questions, and in general were looked upon as medical colleagues in practically every sense of the word. The very first medical school that developed in modern times, that of Salerno^ which came into European prominence in the eleventh century, was quite early in its history opened to women students, and a number of women professors were on its faculty.
Considering the modern idea that ours is the first time when women have ever had any real opportunity for the higher education, and above all professional education, it is a source of no little astonishment to find that at Salerno not only an opportunity was afforded to women to study medicine, but the department of women's diseases was handed over entirely to them, and as a consequence we have a Salernitan School of Women Physicians, some of whom wrote textbooks on the subject relating to this speciality. De Renzi, in his " Storia della Scuola di Salerno," has brought to light many details of the history of this phase of medical education for women at the first important medical school that developed in modern Europe. The best known of these medieval women physicians was Trotula, to whom is attributed a series of books on medical subjects—though doubtless some of these were due rather to disciples, but became identified with the more famous master, as so often happened with medieval books. Trotula's most important book bears two sub-titles : " Trotula's Unique Book for the Curing of Diseases of Women, Before, During, and After Labour," and the other sub-title, " Trotula's Wonderful Book of Experiences (eooperimentalis) in the Diseases of Women, Before, During, and After Labour, with Other Details Likewise Relating to Labour".
Probably the most interesting passage in her book for the modern time is that with regard to a torn perineum and its repair, even when prolapse of the uterus is a complication. The passage, which may be found readily in De Renzi or in Gurlt, runs :
" Certain patients, from the severity of the labour, run into a rupture of the genitalia. In some even the vulva and anus become one foramen, having the same course. As a consequence, prolapse of the uterus occurs, and it becomes indurated. In order to relieve this condition, we apply to the uterus warm wine in which butter has been boiled, and these fomentations are continued until the uterus becomes soft, and then it is gently replaced. After this we sew the tear between the anus and vulva in three or four places with silk thread. The woman should then be placed in bed, with the feet elevated, and must retain that position, even for eating and drinking, and all the necessities of life, for eight or nine days. During this time, also, there must be no bathing, and care must be taken to avoid everything that might cause coughing, and all indigestible materials".
There is a passage almost more interesting with regard to prophylaxis of rupture of the perineum. Trotula says : "In order to avoid the aforesaid danger, careful provision should be made, and precautions should be taken during labour after the following fashion: A cloth folded in somewhat oblong shape should be placed on the anus, and during every effort for the expulsion of the child, that should be pressed firmly, in order that there may not be any solution of the continuity of tissue".
There are records of other women professors of Salerno, though none of them as famous as Trotula. A lady of the name of Mercuriade is said to have written " On Crises in Pestilent Fever," and as she occupied herself with surgery as well as medicine, there is also a work on " The Cure of Wounds." Rebecca Guarna, who belonged to the old Salernitan family of that name, a member of which in the twelfth century was Romuald, priest, physician, and historian, wrote " On Fevers," " On the Urine," and " On the Embryo." Abella acquired a great reputation with her work " On Black Bile," and curiously enough on " The Nature of Seminal Fluid." From these books it is clear that, while as professors they had charge of the department of women's diseases, they studied all branches of medicine. There are a number of licences preserved in the Archives of Naples in which women are accorded the privilege of practising medicine, and apparently these licences were without limitation as to the scope of practice. The preamble of the licence, however, suggests the eminent suitability of women treating women's diseases. It ran as follows :
Since, then, the law permits women to exercise the profession of physicians, and since, besides, due regard being had to purity of morals, women are better suited for the treatment of women's diseases, after having received the oath of fidelity, we permit," etc.
The story of medical education for women with the free opportunity for practice, and above all the recognition accorded by making them professors at the University of Salerno, will seem all the more surprising to those who recall that the Benedictines largely influenced the foundation at Salerno, and were important factors in its subsequent growth and management. Ordinarily it would be presumed that monastic influence would be distinctly against permitting women to secure such opportunities for education, and, above all, encouraging their occupation with medical practice. As a matter of fact, it seems indeed to have been monastic influence which secured this special development. The Benedictines were already habituated to the idea that women were quite capable, if given the opportunity, of taking advantage of the highest education; and besides, they were accustomed to see them occupied, and successfully, with the care of the ailing. When St. Benedict established the monks of the West in retreats, where the men of the earlier Middle Ages could secure, in the midst of troubled times and with men in the cities utterly neglectful of intellectual interests, a refuge from the disturbed life around them, and an opportunity for intellectual development, his sister Scholastica afforded similar opportunities for such women as felt that they were called rather to the intellectual and spiritual life than to the taking up of the burden of domestic duties and a wife's labours.