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Women

During the early Middle Ages, women practices medicine almost as much as the men. "Women's practice was limited neither to obstetrical cases nor to female patients." Unfortunately, "once university faculties of medicine were established in the course of the 13th century, women were excluded from advanced medical education and, as a consequence, form the most prestigious and potentially lucrative variety of practice" (Siraisi 27).

It is important to point out that the actual number of female medical practitioner is probably much larger than the recorded. It is probable that many more women engaged in healing arts or midwifery.

The Middle Ages offered women three choices in the medical profession - practitioner, midwife, or nurse.

A female medical practitioner has often become a controversial person, but this depended on geographical location within Europe. For example, in Germany there were no general regulations for the practice of medicine. On the other hand, English women practitioners were not admitted to universities and, therefore, their knowledge was limited to what they could learn from their male colleagues.

Many female doctors have contributed to the development of medicine, including the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (b. 1098), whose writings provide advice on both physical and psychological health advice. Hildegard was a powerful noble-born woman who has spent most of her life in Benedictine houses. She was educated. Her active and independent mind, efficient intellect, and literary power allowed her to write a variety of works. "The writings of Hildegarde demonstrate the knowledge of herbs and medicine, which an abbess might acquire, and they explain the reason why a nun occasionally plays the role of healer in the romances" (Hughes 4). She is most famous for her works about her visions as well as her compilation of medical advice - Causae et Curae (1150). Her medical philosophy was heavily based on that of the classical world, including the Greek philosophy of four elements. This ties in with the theory of humors, of which Hildegarde is a firm believer.

Female midwives were a much requested doctors specializing in female health. One of the more famous midwives was Trotula who has enjoyed great fame in Salerno due to her accomplishments in the medical community. She has written De Passionibus mulierum, which proves her knowledge of the subject as well as some experience in surgery. But perhaps what describes the profession of a midwife best, is Trotula's own introduction to her work:

Since then women are by nature weaker than men, it is reasonable that sicknesses more often abound in them especially around the organs involved in the work of nature. Since these organs happen to be in a retired location, women on account of their modesty and the fragility and delicacy of the state of these parts dare not reveal the difficulties of their sicknesses to a male doctor. Wherefore I, pitying their misfortunes and at the instigation of a certain matron, began to study carefully the sicknesses which most frequently trouble the female sex.

The work of Trotula is oftentimes praised by modern obstetricians due to its thoroughness and knowledge of the subject.

Medieval midwives introduced, utilized, and/or preferred the simple and more natural procedures. For example, one of the most common methods for inducing birth was using pepper to provoke sneezing, which would in turn cause birth. Various soothing herbal remedies were used, herbal baths and fumigations, and even tampons were introduced by the midwives.

In order to become a midwife, one was taught her duties by other midwives or was introduced into the craft by fathers or husbands who were medical men. "A candidate for midwifery usually apprenticed herself to an older, experienced midwife, and from her she gained the necessary information and guidance for her professional duties. The only requisite for such candidacy was a statement from parish priest declaring the applicant to be of good character" (Hughes 109).

Medieval nurses were basically women who cared for the sick attending to the more basic needs of those in hospitals. Many of these women joined monastic orders, but secular nursing orders were prominent as well, especially during the Plague, when the need for nurses was greatest. "As endemic diseases spread, the great demand for the service of nurses led to large numbers of women from all ranks of society coming forward to care for the sick" (Hughes 117). Noble-born women who "sacrificed" themselves as nurses to take care of the poor or the sick, were considered "nursing saints."