Trota, the wise woman of medicine
Imagine living in southern Italy around the year 1115 AD, walking through a beautiful garden with an interesting woman who talks and cuts plants as you go. The Mediterranean sun pours down on your head, filling you with vitality and well-being. An ideal climate for cultivating the multitude of medicinal plants available to you.
You embrace the delicious aromas, and this woman Trota describes to one of her patients what they need. They return to the sun to pick some roses for the incredibly fragrant bouquet of plants she will use in her work as a healer and teacher…
By Horacio Meson
“In the 11th and 12th centuries, ideas, research and medical observations were centered in the flourishing city of Salerno, Italy. Doctors from all over Europe and the Mediterranean world have traveled there to learn. The city, located south of Rome, was a luxury as a commercial and agricultural center.
The people of Salerno had an abundant supply of medicinal plants from their local crops. Other herbs from foreign trade, as well as resins, spices and minerals were an integral part of their medical system.
The medical school of Salerno in the twelfth century was an informal community of teachers and students who developed formal methods of teaching and research. Founded around the year 1000, it was the first non-religious medical school.
Greek, Arabic and Jewish texts were freely studied. These texts reflected the diversity of the population of Salerno. Lombards, Greeks, Romans, Jews and Muslims of North Africa, a fusion of cultures. The learned physicians of Salerno maintained high standards in surgery, in the teaching of anatomical techniques and animal dissection. They unified surgery and medicine. The school was closed by decree of Napoleon in 1811.
From the 11th to 13th centuries, women in Salerno were allowed to learn and practice medicine alongside men. Licenses to practice medicine were granted by the state. For most female healers who practiced medicine and midwifery in the Middle Ages, no written record has survived. In Europe, women were excluded from formal medical education. One of the few exceptions was an Italian woman who was to be recognized as a healer, teacher and writer, not only during her lifetime, but also for centuries afterwards.
This woman was Trota, known as “the wise teacher”. We are not aware of any personal details about him such as his birth, family and death. His practice is included in the classic texts of Salvatore de Renzi published in 1582 and 1589. Some of his manuscripts are in museums across Europe. The book, Practica Secundu Trotam, is known to include seventy-one cures for all manner of ailments, from gynecological and obstetric ailments to eye, foot and spleen problems. She gives advice on how to cure a fever, a toothache or hemorrhoids and, of course, cosmetic recipes.
“It is amazing that Trota learned to read and write Latin when most women in Salerno were married, had children and received very little education. She knew a lot about botany and it showed in her remedies. She was a skilled diagnostician who used all of her senses. She took care of the analysis of pulse and urine, as well as observation of the patient’s face and words. She also had the courage to study and write her results. An important book on the treatment of diseases, written in the second half of the twelfth century, by the seven leading physicians of Salerno, includes Trota, also verifying his knowledge”.
This quote attributed to him explains the real motivation of his work: “Women, because of their modesty, dare not reveal the difficulties of their illnesses to a male doctor. That is why, taking pity on their misfortunes, I began to study attentively the diseases which most frequently afflict the female sex. That’s why she chose to focus on gynecology, obstetrics, cosmetics and skin diseases.
She used herbs and flowers and imported spices from India. She should certainly be classified as an aromatherapist, as almost all of her remedies involved aromatic substances. Trota’s remedies were much simpler than the recipes of Galen, who taught his students to be proud practitioners who treated their patients with superiority. Trota taught a gentle and sincere sympathy for sick patients, his medicine was very direct and more touch-oriented.
Her three books have been merged into one very popular work among European doctors, midwives and women in general. In the 1400s it was translated into Dutch, French, English and German. In 1500 there were six different versions of Trota’s collection. This book became one of the pillars on which medieval culture was built, being present in the libraries of doctors, surgeons, monks, philosophers, theologians and princes from Italy to Spain and from Ireland to Poland.
Slowly, the opportunities opening up to Trota and his northern sister in health, Hildegar of Bingen, were not to last. The door allowing women to heal in public closed at the end of the 12th century. The church has emerged as the new authority in the world of medicine. Women were no longer qualified to study medicine and become teachers, although Salerno was one of the last cities to oppose female education.
Trota represented the female healer of the distant future. She showed confidence in her intuition, her knowledge of science, her awareness of suffering, her sense of service, her love of phytomedicine and her capacity for compassion. Centuries later, magnificent examples of female healers will emerge: nurses, doctors, alternative health practitioners and midwives. Trota’s example and writings have been a source of inspiration for all.
The essential content of this article is taken from the book “Aromatherapy, awakening to healing scents” by Elizabeth Anne Jones, 2012, Editorial Antroposofica, Bs.