In these Benedictine convents for women, as they spread throughout Italy—and afterwards throughout Germany, and France, and England, though the fact is often ignored—the intellectual life was pursued as faithfully as the spiritual. Besides, there gathered around the convent gates as around the monasteries the farmers who worked their estates, and who found it so good " to live under the crozier," as the rule of the Abbot or Abbess was called, and who always suffered severely whenever, by confiscation or war or like disturbances, the monastic lands passed into the hands of laymen. For their own large numbers as well as for their peasantry, and for the travellers who stayed in their guest-houses, the nuns had to provide medical attendance; and the infirmarians of the convents, situated as they were so often far from cities or towns, acquired considerable medical knowledge and came to apply it with excellent success. The traditions were gathered from many quarters, and passed on for centuries from one house to another; and they gathered simples and treated the ordinary ailments, and nursed the ailing into moods of greater courage and states of mind that predisposed to recovery.
Probably the most important book on medicine that we have from the twelfth century is written by a Benedictine Abbess, since known as St. Hildegarde. She was born of noble parents at Boeckelheim in the county of Sponheim, about the end of the eleventh century. She was educated at the Benedictine cloister of Disi-bodenberg, and when her education was finished she entered the house as a religious, and at the age of about fifty she became abbess. Her writings, reputation for sanctity, and her wise rule, eminently sympathetic as she was, attracted so many new members to the community that the convent became overcrowded. Accordingly, with eighteen of her nuns, Hildegarde withdrew to a new convent at Rupertsburg, which English and American travellers will doubtless recall because it is not far from Bingen on the Rhine, made famous in the later time by Mrs. Hemans's poem. Here she came to be a sort of centre for the intellectual life of her period. According to traditions, some of which are dubious, she was in active correspondence with nearly every important personage of her generation. She was an intimate friend of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who was himself perhaps the most influential man of Europe in this century. Her correspondence was enormous, and she was consulted from all sides because her advice on difficult problems of any and every kind was considered so valuable.
In spite of all this time-taking correspondence she found leisure to write a series of books, most of them on mystical subjects, but two of them, strange as it may seem, on medicine. The first is called " Liber Simplicis Medicinal," and the second " Liber Composite Medicinse." These books were written as a contribution of her views with regard to the medical knowledge of her time, but were evidently due, partly at least, to the Benedictine traditions of interest in medicine.
Dr. Melanie Lipinska in her " Histoire des Femmes Medicins," a thesis presented for the doctorate in medicine at the University of Paris in 1900, which was subsequently awarded a special prize by the French Academy, reviews Hildegarde's work critically from the medical standpoint. She does not hesitate to declare the Abbess Hildegarde the most important medical writer of her time. Reuss, the editor of the works of Hildegarde as they are published in Migne's " Patrologia," the immense French edition of all the important works of the Fathers, Doctors, and Saints of the Church, says :
" Among all the saintly religious who have practised medicine or written about it in the Middle Ages, the most important is without any doubt St. Hildegarde. . . ." With regard to her book he says : " All those who wish to write the history of the medical and natural sciences must read this work, in which this religious woman, evidently well grounded in all that was known at that time in the i secrets of nature, discusses and examines carefully all the knowledge of the time." He adds : "It is certain that St. Hildegarde knew many things that were unknown to the physicians of her time".
Some of Hildegarde's expressions are startling enough because they indicate discussion of, and attempts to elucidate, problems which many people of the modern time are likely to think occurred only to the last few generations. For instance, in talking about the stars and describing their course through the firmament, she makes use of a comparison that seems strangely ahead of her time. She says : " Just as the blood moves in the veins, causing them to vibrate and pulsate, so the stars move in the firmament, and send out sparks as it were of light, like the vibrations of the veins." This is, of course, not an anticipation of the discovery of the circulation of the blood, but it shows how close were men's ideas to some such thought five centuries before Harvey's discovery. For Hildegarde the brain was the regulator of all the vital qualities, the centre of life. She connects the nerves in their passage from the brain and the spinal cord through the body with manifestations of life. She has a series of chapters with regard to psychology, normal and morbid. She talks about frenzy, insanity, despair, dread, obsession, anger, idiocy, and innocency. She says very strongly in one place that " when headache and migraine and vertigo attack a patient simultaneously, they render a man foolish and upset his reason. This makes many people think that he is possessed of a demon, but that is not true." These are the exact words of the saint as quoted in Mile. Lipinska's thesis.
With this story of St. Hildegarde in mind, and the recall of other educational developments among the Benedictine nuns, it is easy to understand the developments that took place at Salerno, where monastic influence was so prominent. Just as the medical, and above all the surgical, traditions of Salerno found their way to Bologna at the beginning of the thirteenth century, so also did the regulations regarding standards in medical education, and with them medical education for women. There are definite historical documents which show that women not only studied but taught in the medical department of Bologna. The name of one of them at least is very well known. She was Alessandra Giliani, and, strange as it might appear, was one of the prosectors in anatomy of Mondino, the founder of teaching by human dissection. According to the " Cronaca Persicetana," quoted by Medici in his " History of the Anatomical School at Bologna " :