Changes in Myths of Gender over Time: Medieval Era

Caroline L Herzenberg. Women, Science, and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present. Editor: Sue V Rosser, ABC-CLIO, 2008.


Until about a generation ago, women’s achievements in science were, with few exceptions, largely ignored in the historical record, and both scholarly and popular writings left the impression that women did not participate in science before relatively modern times. In fact, women have been practicing science and the precursors of science throughout the entire history of science and technology.

The last great scientist of antiquity was Hypatia of Alexandria; her birth in the year 370 was roughly contemporary with the burning of much of the great library of Alexandria, which resulted in great loss of the knowledge of antiquity. From the perspective of science, these events together may be regarded as marking the concluding era of late antiquity, which was followed by the Early Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages, or medieval era, is the period in European history between classical antiquity and the Renaissance, usually considered as running from the late fifth century to about 1350, with some authors extending this period to as late as 1500—a time span of about 1,000 years. Most of the records that we have of women’s participation in the practice of science during the Middle Ages refer to science in Western Europe, although there is also evidence of women engaged in theoretical and applied science in Asia, principally in Islamic, Indian, and Chinese cultures, and possibly even in the Western Hemisphere.

The medieval period was an age of faith and feudalism; European society as a whole was organized around feudal economic structures and the structure of the Christian Church. Throughout the medieval period, life was bitterly hard for most people and especially hard for women. Only members of the upper economic classes, primarily members of the feudal nobility and the hierarchy of the Church, had significant access to education or the leisure time to engage in scholarly activities. In the patriarchal society of the Middle Ages, gender-based discrimination, coupled with the social, cultural, and economic barriers, especially limited access and participation of women in higher education and scholarly activities.

During the Middle Ages, the whole body of scientific and technical knowledge was much smaller that it is today so that educated individuals could be conversant with many fields of knowledge. Thus, most of the individuals whom we recognize and classify as scientists were members of the upper classes who engaged in many activities and interests, of which science was only one. Science was not a profession then in the sense that it can be at present, and much of the practice of science was in the hands of individuals whom we might regard as amateurs, albeit very talented and well-informed amateurs. Furthermore, science was in an earlier stage, with the practice of chemistry conflated with alchemy and the knowledge and practice of astronomy included within astrology.

Throughout the entire Middle Ages only limited progress took place in science and mathematics, but investigations in the sciences and particularly medicine continued, and some technological progress occurred.

Early Middle Ages

The Early Middle Ages began with the final disintegration of the Roman Empire in Europe during the 400s. The decline of the Roman civilization with the accompanying loss of the imperial social order left a breakdown of society and limitation of intellectual life through much of Western Europe. Throughout the Early Middle Ages, the knowledge of science was preserved and flourished mainly in Arabic culture; knowledge of the science of antiquity survived only precariously during these centuries in Western Europe.

After the disintegration of the Roman Empire, medicine in Western Europe was mostly folk medicine, although some knowledge of Greek medicine and even the gynecological tradition of the second century survived. During the Early Middle Ages, many of the women who have been identified as participating in science and science-related activities were working in medicine. Many were herbalists and passed the traditions of herbal medicine within their families. Throughout the Middle Ages, medicine remained one of the very few channels for the scientific interests of medieval women.

During the Early Middle Ages, notable individual women included the Empress Theodora (500-548), who rose from plebian origins to become Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople and the most powerful woman in Byzantine history. She appears to have had serious interests in philosophy, mathematics, and science as well as poetry. She is credited as one of the earliest rulers who recognized the rights of women; she passed laws to prohibit prostitution of young girls and altered the divorce laws and property ownership laws to benefit women.

Other aristocratic women of this period included the Empress Eudocia (396-460), a classical scholar who had skill in medicine and founded a great hospital in Jerusalem; her interests also included astronomy and mathematics. The Empress Julia Anicia (472-512) was deeply interested in medicine; her illustrated codex of Disocorides’ herbal has survived; it is the earliest known complete medical manuscript. Although there are few records of individual women, illustrations have survived that show medieval Arabic women dealing with obstetrics and gynecology as well as Arabic women and men engaged in alchemy.

During the Early Middle Ages in Western Europe, the Christian Church had a central role in both education and scholarly activities. Religious institutions such as monasteries and nunneries provided the milieu for most science and science-related activities. Such religious institutions were located throughout Western Europe, and many of the women involved with science during the Early Middle Ages were associated with these religious institutions. Included among these women were Saint Briget of Ireland (453-525), who was a physician; the Abbess Hilda of Whitby (614-680), who was an English physician and surgeon and educator; Abbess Berthildis of Chelles (652-702), who was a French scholar and physician; and German Abbess Mathilda of Quedlinburg (895-968), who also practiced medicine.

Other notable women active in Western Europe included Radegonde (513-587), who practiced medicine in France. Hroswitha of Gandersheim (935-1000) was a German nun who by the standards of her time was learned in mathematics and medicine as well as being a playwright and poet and one of the first outstanding female literary figures in Europe. In addition to these and other women whose names have come down to us from the Early Middle Ages, there were also less well-known women who worked in medicine and related fields such as pharmacy, as indicated in sculpture and other visual records as well as written references.

High Middle Ages

The historical period known as the High Middle Ages began around 1000 and lasted to roughly 1300. At that time, Europe still remained a backwater compared to other civilizations such as those of Islam or China. In the early 11th century in Europe, knowledge of science was largely limited to fragments of the science of antiquity, but progress soon became more rapid. Cultural changes came partly as a result of the Crusades, which started in the 11th century and continued through the 15th century. Contact with the Arabic culture allowed Europeans to access preserved Greek and Roman texts as well as Arabic commentaries and texts, and large numbers of Greek and Arabic works on medicine and the sciences were translated and widely distributed throughout Europe. Alchemy was introduced into Europe at the time of the Crusades. Also, because the Crusades contributed to spreading diseases through Europe and the Middle East, the need for hospitals and physicians increased; hospitals were built along the Crusaders’ routes, some staffed largely by women, and many women practiced medicine.

Around AD 1000, the number of women scientists for whom we find records begins to increase, concurrent with the rise of European science. This increase in the population of women scientists started in Italy and gradually spread to Northern Europe, as did science in general. During the High Middle Ages, more women seemed to have been practicing science than at any previous period of history.

Role of the Religious Communities

During medieval times, convents and monasteries played a very important role in preserving and disseminating knowledge, and a significant number of scientists, both men and women, belonged to religious communities. Medieval convents provided women with opportunities for education and scholarly research. Throughout most of the medieval period in most of Europe, women scientists were frequently members of religious orders, and they studied and practiced science within convents.

The most outstanding woman scientist of this period was the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Her prolific writings included treatments of various scientific subjects, including medicine, botany, and natural history, and she authored what have been called the greatest scientific works of the Middle Ages. Historian of science George Sarton has referred to Hildegard as the most distinguished naturalist of this period and also as the most original 12th-century philosopher in Western Europe. Hildegard was a visionary but also a politically powerful person. Her interests included cosmology, and she put forward the idea of a heliocentric solar system as well as other revolutionary scientific ideas in her writings. Her major work was the Scivias, completed in 1151. Her ideas continued to affect the direction of scientific thought throughout the Late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

Another outstanding woman of this period was Herrade of Landsberg, a contemporary and possibly also a friend of Hildegard. Herrade, the abbess of Hohenburg in Alsace and a prominent scholar, author, and educator, was born early in the 12th century and died in 1195. During the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe there was a marked increase in the rate of new inventions, innovations in the ways of managing traditional means of production, technological advances, and a surge in economic growth. Herrade had a very extensive knowledge of the technology in use during the Middle Ages, and she recorded this for posterity. Herrade’s encyclopedic works covered not only history, religion, and philosophy but also geography, astronomy, natural history, medical botany, and the technology of the Middle Ages, with descriptions and depictions of many inventions, such as mills powered by wind and water. For centuries, Herrade of Landsberg’s encyclopedic works were a major source of information, and it is from them that we have derived most of our present knowledge of the technology of the Middle Ages.

Another exceptional woman of the medieval period was Héloïse (1101-1164). She was a scholar of languages as well as a philosopher and logician with a reputation for outstanding intelligence and insight. Her relationship with her mentor, the scholar Pierre Abelard (a principal figure in early scholasticism), provided one of the earliest and best-known records of romantic love. Later in life Héloïse became an abbess. She was one of the foremost intellectuals of medieval times and has been described as an outstanding mathematician and the most learned woman physician of France of the 12th century.

Hildegard, Herrade, and Héloïse were among the last of the scholarly abbesses. As time went on, the prestige and power of abbesses were reduced; in some cases these women became subordinated to abbots. More nuns became cloistered, and many convents that had previously shared facilities with monasteries were subsequently separated from them.

Cathedral schools had been introduced near the beginning of the High Middle Ages to improve the education of the clergy. These new schools were open only to males training for the clergy and did not admit women. The effect was to exclude women from the mainstream of education and learning through much of the rest of the Middle Ages. While some women continued to have access to education in nunneries, the educational divide between men and women increased to the disadvantage of medieval women. As time went on, abbey schools were closed, and by the 13th century, educational opportunities in the convents had been seriously reduced.

Role of the Universities

An important development in the revival of learning during the Middle Ages was the rise of the first universities in Europe, which started with the medical schools of Italy. These universities aided in the translation, preservation, and propagation of earlier learning and started a new infrastructure that could support scientific communities. During the Middle Ages in Italy, a number of women scientists were associated with the universities.

During the 11th century in Italy, a major revival of Western medicine began at the medical school at Salerno. Salerno seems to have been the first medieval medical center independent of the Church; it also seems to have become the first European university. In view of the limited access to education generally afforded to medieval women, the early tradition of female medical students and faculty members at Salerno was significant. One of the earliest and most famous of these medieval women was Trotula of Salerno (d. ca. 1097) who was a widely acclaimed professor of medicine at the medical school in Salerno during the 11th century. With the field of medicine dominated by men, Trotula recognized the need for medical knowledge and medical care specific to women’s needs and became a leading specialist in obstetrics and gynecology. She also was known for her practice in dermatology and epilepsy, and she was recognized for her departure from tradition in methods of diagnosis, which included both questioning the patient and discussing the patient’s condition with the patient. Trotula was the author of medical treatises that were widely used throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Her most famous work was Passionibus mulierum curandorum (The Diseases of Women), which dealt with menstruation and pregnancy from conception to childbirth, as well as general diseases and treatments. Among her innovations was her suggestion that opiates be provided for women during childbirth in direct defiance of the Church’s teachings. She also seems to have pointed out that physiological defects of men as well as women could affect conception; this was a dangerous claim to make during the Middle Ages in Europe since it implied that men could be responsible for infertility, an idea not easily accepted in a patriarchal culture. She taught many Italian women of the nobility, a group sometimes referred to as the “Ladies of Salerno,” who became widely known as physicians and medical scholars.

The 12th century saw the beginnings of a renaissance in learning. This came about in part as a result of the growth of towns with literate upper classes. In part it came from contacts with more advanced Islamic culture. The influence of Arab science first became evident in Italy and Spain, the areas of Europe that had the most contact with the Moslem civilization. This interaction led to the introduction of Arabic science and the rediscovery of the works of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen in Western Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries. Greek scientific treatises were translated from Arabic into Latin, and Europeans began rediscovering the science of antiquity as it had been preserved and extended by the Arabs. Arabic numerals were introduced into Europe around 1200.

The period 1100-1400, and particularly the 13th century, was known as the age of scholasticism, the system of thought that integrated philosophy and theology during the Middle Ages. This approach sought to combine the secular understanding of the ancient world, particularly as exemplified by Aristotle, the authority in philosophy, with the doctrines of the Church.

The most striking intellectual development of the 13th century was the rise of the universities, with several (including Bologna, Paris, and Oxford) founded around 1200. These new institutions of higher education were in many cases outgrowths of the cathedral schools, and women, as a result, were most often excluded.

In France early in the 12th century, women studied privately and taught medicine at Montpellier, but subsequently women were excluded from French universities. With the exception of institutions in Italy, universities seem to have been closed to women throughout Europe during much of this period, an exclusion that became a significant drawback to women with scientific interests. Because women were largely prohibited from universities, they were effectively barred from participating in the revival of philosophy and mathematics that took place during the High Middle Ages. This situation was also disadvantageous to women in medicine, since medicine was becoming a profession requiring a university education. As a result, the hierarchy of medicine became more and more dominated by male physicians. Laws against women healers were introduced and enforced, and women who would have qualified as physicians in the 13th century would be treated as charlatans and witches in the 14th and 15th centuries.

An example was Jacobina Félicie (fl. 1300s), who was born in Florence about 1280 and who, after private study, had practiced medicine very successfully in Paris. However, in 1322, the dean of the medical faculty at the University of Paris brought charges against her for practicing medicine without a license, citing an edict dating back to 1220 that prohibited anyone not a member of a faculty of medicine from practicing medicine. Eventually the charges were withdrawn and the prosecution was dropped, but this set a precedent against women practicing medicine in France until the 19th century.

A number of other women were involved in scientific activities during the High Middle Ages including Anna Comnena (AD 1083-1148), daughter of the emperor of Constantinople, a scholar who was a well-known historian. She seems to have been the first woman historian whose writings have survived, and she also engaged in mathematics, astrology, and the practice of medicine.

During the 1200s in Italy, Maria di Novella was a prominent educator and mathematician and a professor of mathematics. At the age of 25 she became head of the department of mathematics at the University of Bologna.

Persian Princess Gevher Nesibe (ca. 1200) had an interest in medicine and was responsible for the founding of the historic Gevhar Nesibe Hospital, the oldest hospital in Anatolia.

Well-known medieval physicians of this period included Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1230); Elizabeth of Aragon (1271-1336), who practiced medicine in Spain and Portugal; Agnes of Bohemia (d. 1282), who practiced medicine in what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia; Saint Clara of Assisi (1194-1253), a physician in Italy during the 1200s; and Mechthild of Hackecdorn (1212-1282), who was a German physician.

Late Middle Ages

The age of scholasticism in the 1200s was followed by the historical period known as the Late Middle Ages (1300-1500). During this period, power was shifting from the religious establishment to the towns and the middle classes, and some limited educational opportunities for women opened in the towns. The first half of the 14th century was initially promising for science, with a decline in scholastic debates and further attention devoted to searching for natural explanations of phenomena that directed the way toward experimental science.

But this was a time of rapid change and turmoil. Some centuries of relative prosperity in Western Europe were brought to an end by a series of events referred to collectively as the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages. A factor contributing to the crisis was the onset of a period of cooler climate known as the Little Ice Age, which set in around 1350 and lasted for some 500 years; this was a time of hard winters, violent storms, and droughts. There were also plagues and severe famines. The Black Death, a form of bubonic plague, arrived in Europe around 1350, spread over Europe, and killed an estimated one quarter to one third of the population during the 1300s. The impact of the plague was especially severe in the crowded towns, where much of the intellectual activity took place. Recurrences of the plague and other disasters caused a continuing decline of population and difficult times for about a century. These circumstances in turn led to severe economic problems, associated financial collapse, social unrest, and endemic warfare. The Hundred Years’ War, actually a series of wars between England and France, extended from 1337 to 1453. Other societal events contributing to the societal crises toward the end of the Middle Ages included the Spanish inquisition, started around 1478 during the transition to the Renaissance. All of these circumstances may have contributed to a reduction in the level of scholarly and scientific activities.

One additional societal crisis that started during the Late Middle Ages and was probably uniquely important to the participation of women in science was the horrific persecution of women as witches that occurred throughout Europe starting around 1300; it began turning into a frenzy during the late 1400s and extended into the 1600s. Accusations of witchcraft were notably directed against women herbalists, natural healers, and midwives. Probably the worst peril that women in medicine were exposed to from the 1300s onward was the accusation of witchcraft. The pursuit of witches reached such intensity in the 1600s that by some estimates at least 40,000 women accused of witchcraft were executed and many more were tortured. Women in other sciences and even engineering also suffered in the witchcraft frenzy.

But a countervailing effect to the disastrous events in Late medieval and early Renaissance Europe were provided by the invention of printing: during the middle years of the 1400s, the then-recent invention of printing with movable type contributed to the democratization of learning, allowed a faster propagation of new ideas, and made it possible for scientific publications to become much more widely available than ever before.

During the Late Middle Ages, there was some early feminist activity with women challenging the male hegemony over education and scholarly activities. In Western Europe at this time, a number of literate upper-class women were writing on behalf of women and promoting women’s education. One of the most prominent of these was Christine de Pisan (1363-1431), an early and active feminist who challenged academic misogyny; she became Europe’s first woman who earned a living as a professional writer. She was an important French scholar, philosopher, poet, historian, and author. Born in Venice, the daughter of a professor of medicine and alchemy and astrology, she apparently had an interest in medicine and the sciences although she does not seem to have worked actively in these fields. She wrote several books dealing with the importance of women and equal rights, including Le Livre de la cite des dames.

The University of Bologna had allowed women to attend lectures from its inception in 1088 and subsequently had women on the faculty. The study of anatomy had been in stasis for over 1,000 years since the time of Galen, but it was revived at the University of Bologna. Alessandra Giliani, an anatomist who lived in Italy during the early 1300s, was the dissector and assistant to the anatomist Mondino de Luzzi at the anatomy school at the University of Bologna. She is credited with devising the technique of injecting dye into the blood vessels of cadavers so that the locations of the blood vessels could be traced in dissection studies.

Women professors who taught at the famous medical school at Salerno during the 1300s included the notable medieval Italian physician and educator Abella of Salerno, the author of two lost medical treatises, De atrabile and De natura seminis humani; Rebecca Guarna, also a medical author whose writings on topics including urine and embryos have been lost; and Mercuriade, whose writings on topics including crises in fevers and the cure of wounds also did not survive. Another woman involved in science during the 1300s was Perenelle Flamel (d. 1413), a French alchemist who worked with her more famous husband, the alchemist Nicholas Flamel.

An interesting feature of the practice of medicine in medieval Europe was the significant number of Jewish women physicians. The educated Jewish population was able to contribute to bridging the gap between European and Arabic culture, helping to provide continuity in the knowledge of Galen and other Roman and Greek physicians. Medieval Jewish women physicians included the previously mentioned Jacobina Félicie. Others were Virdimura, a physician in Sicily who was licensed to practice medicine in 1376; Salome of Cracow, who was a physician in Poland during the 1200s; Sarah de Saint Gilles, who was a physician and educator in Montpellier in France around 1300; Sarah la Mirgesse, who taught and practiced medicine in Paris in 1292; and Sarah of Wurzburg, who practiced medicine successfully in Germany in the 15th century.

Among the women engaged in scientific work during the 1400s was Dorotea Bocchi (1360-1436). She succeeded her father as professor of medicine and moral philosophy at the University of Bologna and remained in that position for 40 years. While she held the chair of medicine at Bologna, she had students from all over Europe. Constanza Calenda, daughter of an Italian professor of the 14th century, studied medicine at the University of Salerno and lectured at the University of Naples.

In Italy, Cassandra Fidelis (1465-1558) was the most renowned woman scholar in Italy and was a physician; also, the scholar Laura Ceretta (1469-1499) studied mathematics and astronomy and lectured on philosophy.

The Middle Ages gradually came to an end, as the 15th century saw the rise of the cultural movement of the Renaissance. Women active in science during this period included the Spanish nun Beatrix Galindo (1473-1535), who was a physician as well as a philosopher and scholar; Countess Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509), an English scholar and medical practitioner; and Isabella Losa (1473-1546), a Spanish physician.

In spite of the impediments during these difficult times, a number of women continued to work in science during the Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) became one of the leading women of the Italian renaissance and was involved in archaeological investigations. Many women became interested in and practiced alchemy, a precursor of chemistry. We know from visual and written records that women worked in the medieval equivalent of industrial laboratories and also in private laboratories. Somewhat later, during the 1500s, Anna Electress of Saxony (1532-1587), a member of the Danish royal family, built her own private laboratory, which was the largest laboratory in Europe at that time.


With the increased revival of Greek science, early Renaissance scholars to some extent repudiated medieval science. However, the medieval sciences provided transitional knowledge during the millennium between antiquity and the Renaissance.

During all of the Middle Ages, only about 200 women have been specifically identified as participating actively in scientific work. (We may presume that many additional, less prominent women must have been present but their names have not come down to us.) Since the Middle Ages represents a period of about 1,000 years, this corresponds on average to some 20 prominent women per century (scattered over all of Europe, with a few in the Middle East). Lifetimes were typically shorter during the medieval period and travel extremely difficult; accordingly, few of these women would ever have had the opportunity of meeting each other, let alone mentoring or collaborating with one another.

We can also examine the number of identified women scientists as a function of time during the Middle Ages, bearing in mind that the numbers are so small that such assessments are at best semiquantitative and subject in interpretation to many biasing effects. From the end of antiquity, the number of women in scientific pursuits dropped from about 10 per century to none at all identified during the 800s, then rose rapidly through the 1100s and 1200s, peaked during the 1300s, and dropped off appreciably during the 1400s, at least partly in response to the trends and causative factors already discussed.

Thus, after a decline in numbers after late antiquity, followed by a promising rise in the participation of women in science during the High Middle Ages, the Middle Ages ended in a period of increased exclusion of women from education and from participation in the sciences. However, some brilliant women would continue to practice science during the Renaissance. (See also Early Modern Health; Medicine; Universities)