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Gender, Health, and Healing, 1250–1550. Sara Ritchey and Sharon Strocchia, eds. Premodern Health, Disease, and Disability 3. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020. 330 pp. €109.

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Gender, Health, and Healing, 1250–1550. Sara Ritchey and Sharon Strocchia, eds. Premodern Health, Disease, and Disability 3. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020. 330 pp. €109.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 March 2022

Melissa Reynolds*
Princeton University
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Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by the Renaissance Society of America

The eleven essays in Sara Ritchey and Sharon Strocchia's superb collection deftly interweave two defining questions for historians of premodern gender and medicine: how did gender define women's roles as healers in society? And, how did gender influence healers’ understanding of and care for women's bodies? The essays in the volume answer these questions and break new ground in three ways: “by unearthing completely new material or making it available in English translation for the first time”; “by mining sources whose medical value has been overlooked”; and finally, “by rereading more familiar canonical sources from a gendered perspective” (16).

Essays by Belle S. Tuten, Ayman Yasin Atat, and Sheila Barker and Strocchia shed light on little-studied or previously unknown medical texts. Tuten provides an English translation of a fifteenth-century Italian treatise on breast care and breastfeeding excerpted from Bernard of Gordon's Lilium Medicine and contextualizes the treatise within the informal arena of household medicine. Likewise, Atat provides English translations of fifteenth-century Ottoman recipes for preparing healing baths, positing that baths became popular medical treatments because they could be prepared within the privacy of the home. Finally, analyzing a newly discovered index to the recipe collections of the fifteenth-century Italian countess Caterina Sforza, Barker and Strocchia demonstrate that Sforza's recipe collection was far larger than previously imagined. In addition to medical recipes, it included recipes for cosmetics, veterinary medicine, alchemy, and magic—each of which, Strocchia and Barker argue, were categories of knowledge desirable for a woman at the head of a noble household.

Through close analysis of religious and legal sources, essays by Ritchey, Iliana Kandzha, Eva-Marie Cersovsky, and Sara Verskin expand our understanding of the relationship between gender and healing. Ritchey analyzes a thirteenth-century psalter owned by the beguines of St. Christopher in Liège to argue for an expansive definition of healthcare that includes the performance of prayers by women religious. Kandzha shows that the cult of the female virgin saint Cunigunde evolved over time to meet the needs of parturient and infertile women in later medieval German lands, despite her early reputation as a universal healer unaffiliated with women's ailments. In her study of medieval commentaries on the biblical verse Sirach 36:27 (“Where there is no woman, the needy groan”), Cersovsky demonstrates how the verse was used as evidence for “women's innate affectivity” (200). In an exceptionally learned study, Verskin argues against the received wisdom that male Muslim physicians were prohibited from examining women's bodies. Mining a staggering array of legal sources, she demonstrates that gender was just one factor in determining the appropriateness of a medical provider and that women practitioners often assisted male physicians when modesty necessitated.

Finally, essays by Montserrat Cabré and Fernando Salmón, Julia Gruman Martins, Cordula Nolte, and Catherine Rider bring a gendered analysis to well-known medical texts. Cabré and Salmón review medieval debates over the transformation of menstrual blood into breastmilk, presenting evidence that conflicting beliefs about the nature of menstrual blood—as both generative and poisonous—expose the importance of humoral theory to premodern notions of sex difference. Turning to early modern print, Gruman Martins shows how regional differences may have inspired French translators to transform a popular Italian book of secrets into a “resource for female readers” through the addition of gynecological and obstetrical recipes (182). In a sensitive reading of an illustrated sixteenth-century German surgical manual, Nolte situates healing within the home and uncovers the myriad caretaking activities expected of wives, daughters, and women domestics. Finally, Rider's comparison of numerous university medical treatises reveals that medieval thinkers viewed infertility not primarily as a deficiency of women, but rather as a condition of old age affecting both men and women.

In addition to the quality of individual essays, Gender, Health, and Healing, 1250–1550 deserves special recognition for the diversity of its contributors and for its cohesiveness. Perhaps thanks to the volume's origins at a workshop at the University of Cologne, the collection features European, Middle Eastern, and American scholars of all ranks. Every essay references others within the collection, effectively bridging the volume's vast chronological and geographic scope to present an integrated picture of women's healthcare and healing across the premodern world, from the hospitals of thirteenth-century Northern Europe to the baths of sixteenth-century Ottoman Turkey and the myriad domestic healing spaces in between.