Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Two women discuss gynecological problems
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This image, from folio 38v from the Wellcome Apocalypse manuscript depicts two married women in conversation, as indicated by their raised hand gestures and remarks about their husbands. One woman is seated and naked, with loose hair, while her interlocutor is standing and dressed in the clothing of a wealthier and older woman. The banderoles they hold highlight the conversation: " I have often been distressed, sister" (seated woman)
    " I too have often been distressed" (standing woman) – Evans, p. 161
    The manuscript text accompanying the illustration provides more detail about the women's problems with miscarriages: "I have often been distressed, sister, by the size and length
    of my husband’s male member when, banging against the
    smallness and narrowness of my vulva, the cervix, tired out,
    forced the foetus to slip out before time."
    "I too have often been distressed because I am unable to
    carry a conceived child; I said that the blame for this is my
    husband’s, as if he has not provided the proper seed. Yet the
    problem is rather that of my moist womb and of its coldness
    destroying the semen." – Evans, p. 175

    While the seated woman calls the standing woman sister (soror) their relationship is not clear. The seated woman bears a mark in front of or on top of her stomach that could be understood to be a depiction of a vulva. In recent analyses, the mark has been variously recognized as a conversation between two women on gynecological topics, with the mark described as an incision, a marker of pregnancy, a womb, or a cesarean section, or not mentioned at all. Identification of the mark as a vulva comes partially from the mark’s resemblance to another vulva depicted on the manuscript’s Disease Woman illustration (folio 38r) . Comparisons to a womb and cesarean section also refer to depictions of these subjects found on other folios of the manuscript.

    The image is found on folio 38v of the Wellcome Apocalypse (MS.49). Produced in Germany circa 1420, the manuscript is written in Latin and German. Multiple sections comprise the manuscript, which opens with the Apocalypse of St. John, followed by a medical text, and a miscellaneous section. Although the sections of the manuscript were intended to be bound in the same manuscript, images in the medical section and a following segment on Ars moriendi appear to have been produced by a different artist than the illustrations found in the Apocalypse of St. John. Within the medical section, four distinct sections divide the text. The first two sections contain illustrations of the body, and describe medical treatment. The fourth section contains a diagram of the Moon, followed by depictions of the four Regions of the World and the Four Elements. The illustration taken from folio 38v, in the medical section of the manuscript, is classified as part of the third group that depicts gynecological imagery, women, fetuses, and the Signs of Death. This illustration directly follows a portrayal of a cesarean section; the mark posited to be a vulva significantly does not have the same shape or bloody color as the cesarean section depicted above it on the page. It is likely that the medical instruction and images contained within the manuscript were prepared for a cleric, who may have shared the manuscript and the information and images it contains with women providing medical care, particularly midwives.

    In medieval Europe, men were generally prohibited from viewing women’s genitalia, a restriction that extended to texts that visually and textually addressed women’s bodies. Throughout the Middle Ages, those present at births typically included only women, permitted to view naked women. From the thirteenth century, following antique Roman practices, female practitioners gained specific duties, including a responsibility to examine women suspected of being pregnant and verifying other women’s virginity, to maintain male distance from women’s genitalia. This group of medical women included midwives and women referred to as matrons, whom legal authorities and civic officials sometimes held as more trustworthy than midwives. After 1400, although some elite women were cared for by newly professionalized male doctors, the majority of births continued to be facilitated and attended by women. The representation of what may be a vulva in the Wellcome Apocalypse may be seen as representative of the trend of obscuring women’s bodies to the male gaze. At the same time, representing a vulva indicates some willingness to expose men, who would have encountered the text, to women’s genitalia in a gynecological context.

    Midwives, or female medical practitioners more broadly, did not have unrestricted access to texts or the information contained within manuscripts like MS.49. Midwives traditionally circulated information through informal networks of practitioners; texts were most often owned and used by male practitioners. Women working to provide care could generally access the material contained in manuscripts, only with the mediation of men who owned and read these texts. Despite increasing texts regarding childbirth and women’s medicine by the end of the Middle Ages, little is known about literacy rates and reading practices among women involved in medicine. Further, as medicine became professionalized in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, women lost expertise as knowledge became formalized, with medical texts and university training providing an avenue to enshrine medical knowledge as a masculine domain.

  • Source: Wellcome Collection
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Genitals Gynecology Medicine Midwives Miscarriages Nude in Art Sexuality
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 15
  • Date: ca. 1420
  • Related Work: Digitized copy of Wellcome Collection, MS 49
    Full page view of Wellcome Collection, MS 49, fol. 38v.
    Detail of Caesarean section, Wellcome Collection, MS 49, fol. 38v. Source: Wikimedia Commons
    Disease woman, Wellcome Collection, MS 49, fol.38r. This anatomical drawing represents the woman as pregnant and nude except for a headdress. Latin labels identify various diseases in terms of the parts of the body they afflict. The page also includes illustrations of four fetal positions before birth.
  • Current Location: London, Wellcome Collection, MS 49, fol. 38v. Manuscript known as the Wellcome Apocalypse
  • Original Location: Germany, Thuringia, probably in Erfurt in a house of Augustinian canons
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paints; Colored ink
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 40/30/
  • Inscription: "Sepius enim contristata sum soror" (I have often been distressed, sister)-Banderole held by the nude woman. "Similiter et ego sepius contristata" (I too have often been distressed)-Banderole held by the clothed woman. Latin texts and English translations from Ruth Evans, Manuscripta 62, 2 (2018): 161.
  • Related Resources:

    Evans, Ruth. "An Unusual Depiction of a Vulva in a Medical Illustration in London, Wellcome Library, Western MS 49." Manuscripta 62, 2 (2018): 157-176.

    Green, Monica Helen. Making Women’s Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-Modern Gynaecology. Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Kümper, Hiram. "Learned Men and Skilful Matrons: Medical Expertise and the Forensics of Rape in the Middle Ages." Medicine and the Law in the Middle Ages. Edited by Wendy Turner and Sara Butler. Brill, 2014. Pages 88-108.

    Marchetti, Francesca. "Educating the Midwife: The Role of Illustrations in Late Antique and Medieval Obstetrical Texts." Pregnancy and Childbirth in the Premodern World: European and Middle Eastern Cultures, from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. Edited by Costanza Gislon Dopfel, Alessandra Foscati and Charles Burnett. Brepols, 2019. Pages 3-28.

    McCall, Taylor. The Art of Anatomy in Medieval Europe. Reaktion Books, 2023.

    McCall, Taylor. "Disembodied: Additional MS. 8785 and the Tradition of Human Organ Depictions in Medieval Art and Medicine." Electronic British Library Journal 2018. Available open access.

    Murray, Jacqueline. "On the Origins and Roles of 'Wise Women' in Causes for Annulment on the Grounds of Male Impotence." Journal of Medieval History 16, 3 (1990): 235-249.

    Smoak, Ginger L. "Imagining Pregnancy: The Fünfbilderserie and Images of "Pregnant Disease Woman" in Medieval Medical Manuscripts." Quidditas: Online Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association 34 (2013): 164-181. Available open access.