'Bloodletting under the ankle, post-mortem caesarean section, and the role of female expertise in medieval medicine'

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Maaike van der Lugt (Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin - Paris Saclay)

Building on the heritage of Greek and Arabic medical traditions, the development of learned medicine in the medieval West began in the late 11th century and was linked to the development of all-male urban schools and universities. By the mid-13th century, however, scholastic knowledge had begun to reach a wider audience, particularly through translations and compilations in the vernacular. In turn, learned medicine sometimes incorporated local knowledge and practices, including those of women, tacitly or explicitly, critically or favourably.

This talk will draw on two case studies to illustrate the coexistence and multidirectional transfer of medieval medical cultures and the complicated and shifting relationship between learned male medicine and practical female expertise. Both cases involve the cutting of the female body. Both are related to the female reproductive function. The first is the practice of bloodletting, particularly under the ankles, to induce menstruation. Accounts of this practice can be traced back to Galen, but medieval texts also describe it as a nefarious "women's secret". The second is the post-mortem extraction of the foetus through an incision in the woman's abdomen. "Caesarean” section was not part of the Greek and Arabic medical tradition. Its partial incorporation into learned medicine dates from the late 13th century, with texts and images acknowledging the expertise of skilled matrons and midwives. In both cases, the meaning and purpose of the act was contested or ambiguous and varied according to the different actors involved. Both cases also shed light on the role of visual representation in shaping medieval medical cultures.

The seminar in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology is convened by Alex Aylward (University of Oxford), Hohee Cho (Wolfson College), Mark Harrison (Green Templeton College), Catherine Jackson (Harris Manchester College), and Sloan Mahone (University of Oxford)