This image comes from a set of three texts called La Trotula, and it depicts the texts' original author, Trota di Salerno. La Trotula began circulating in Salerno, Italy in the 12th century. The fact that this manuscript comes from the 14th century is significant; the text was clearly important enough to be read and reproduced two centuries after its creation. La Trotula is a book of medicine for females, marking it as quite the unique text. It was a sort of instruction manual for midwives and other women pursuing a medical career in the field of women's medicine. Not only does it prove the existence of female literacy in the Middle Ages, but female literacy for the purposes of education and not of religious devotion. Another significant characteristic of La Trotula was that it was written in the vernacular of Southern Italy, not Latin. Consequently, not only did the text provide women access to secular, medical discourse, but it also provided women who were not educated in Latin with this information. La Trotula, therefore, proves itself to be a fascinating specimen in the study of medieval literacy.
More Information: La Trotula and Female Literacy in the Middle Ages
To understand La Trotula's impact on medieval literacy, it is first important to understand its author and its origin. Although the above manuscript was circulating in France during the 14th century, the original book was written much early (around 1100.) La Trotula was originally written as three different medicinal textbooks: De Passionibus Mulierum Curandarum (About Women's Diseases,) De Ornatu Mulierum (About Women's Cosmetics,) and Liber de Sinthomatibus Mulerium (Book on the Conditions of Women.) The cycle of texts became known as La Trotula; the books were revised, combined, and edited into different versions of the cycle for centuries after their completion. As aforementioned, the original author (pictured in the artifact above) of these works was Trota de Salerno, the first female medical professor. She was a professor at La Schola Medica Salernitana in Salerno, Italy. This medieval medical university was unique in the fact that it allowed females to be both teachers and students of midwifery. The texts were used by medical professionals for hundreds of years, only being replaced in the 1600s when conceptions of modern medicine and science changed. Trota di Salerno changed the face of medieval female medicine and became a huge icon for literate, learned, and professional women during the High and Late Middle Ages.
In the Early Middle Ages, the only access women had to literacy and education was through the convent. Women could become nuns, who could consequently become religious scribes at convent scriptoriums. At this time, therefore, female literacy was tied with Christianity and religious piety. During the High Middle Ages, however, females began gaining access to secular literacy by means of midwifery education. La Trotula comes out of this tradition. Unlike other medicine books of its time, the texts that make up La Trotula focus more on anatomy and surgery than they do on religion. However, as progressive as the texts are, they still operate within the confines of the rigid gender norms of the time. In a passage of the Book on the Conditions of Women about women who cannot give birth, these women are labeled "unnatural women." Their husbands, on the other hand, are described as "husbands that are stronger and more valuable" than their infertile wives (Green, The Trotula.) These assertions are not surprising, as they fit into the conceptions of the roles of men and women in medieval society.
Although La Trotula provides insight into huge steps for women and secular education in the Middle Ages, it also represents the obstacles that women faced. Female literacy, at this time, was still gendered (and would be for centuries thereafter.) Although women were no longer confined to the convent to become literate members of society, they were still limited to literacy through the midwife profession-- an all-female profession at the time. Female access to literacy, therefore, was much more constricting than male literacy. It is important to keep in mind, however, that both male and female literacy were confined to the upperclass, nobility, and clergy. Peasantry, at this time, were still left illiterate with little to no access to education.
Cavallo, P., M. C. Proto, C. Patruno, A. Del Sorbo, and M. Bifulco. "The First Cosmetic Treatise of History. A Female Point of View." International Journal of Cosmetic Science30, no. 2 (2008): 79-86. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2494.2007.00414.x.
Green, Monica H., ed. The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine. Translated by Monica H. Green. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 2010. Accessed June 6, 2018. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/24644
Hellwarth, Jennifer Wynne. "I Wyl Wright of Women Prevy Sekenes: Imagining Female Literacy and Textual Communities in Medieval and Early Modern Midwifery Manuals." Critical Survey14, no. 1 (2002): 44-63. doi:10.3167/001115702782352187.
McKitterick, Rosamond. Books, Scribes and Learning in the Frankish Kingdoms, 6th-9th Centuries. Aldershot: Variorum, 1994.