Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

Image of the Month

February 2024

  • Title: Two women discuss gynecological problems
  • 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.

The Feminae database presents images of medieval art with descriptions, data, and subject indexing. Each thumbnail picture has a link to a higher quality image often with a zoom view and added content from a museum. Images included represent women and gender 450 to 1500 C.E. in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Beginning in June 2012 we have highlighted each month a newly added image that is rich in documentary evidence or iconographic significance.

As images build up in the database, users can browse for aggregated evidence. The Donor field groups people together in the categories layman/men, laywoman/women, female religious and male religious. The Current Location field allows users to see artwork that is all housed in the same museum. Image records are integrated with all the other Feminae content, so that a search on Mary Magdalen will include results for essays, journal articles, translations, book reviews, and images (which come at the end of the list which is sorted by date). Feminae Research Assistants

Feminae Research Assistants:

Collin Kawan-Hemler worked on Feminae during the summer of 2021. He is majoring in History at Haverford College with a minor in Health Studies.

Caroline Ford was the Feminae intern during the 2020-21 academic year. She majored in English at Haverford College with a minor in psychology.

Joe Ding worked on Feminae during the summer of 2020. She is majoring in Mathematics and Philosophy at Haverford College.

Rebecca Chen was the Feminae intern during the summer of 2020. She is an English major at Haverford College with interests in pursuing medicine.

Jonathan Sudo worked on Feminae in summer 2019. He majored in History and East Asian Studies at Haverford College.

Drew Forte worked on images from Spring 2018 through Spring 2020 . He had a particular interest in the occult and magic as represented in medieval art.

Jessica Urban researched and wrote about images from fall 2016 through fall 2017. She concentrated on archaeology and material culture. She majored in Archaeology at Bryn Mawr College.

Bill Ristow worked on manuscript images during the 2015-16 academic year. He majored in history and wrote his senior thesis on medieval kingship with reference to Wace's Roman de Rou and Henry II.

Rachel Davies worked on the brass rubbings during the 2013 summer session for the exhibit Lasting Impressions. During 2015-16 she researched and wrote entries concerning Spanish art.

Leigh Peterson worked on images during the Fall 2012 through Spring 2015 academic years. She was an undergraduate student who majored in art history at Bryn Mawr College. She was an intern at the Cloisters Museum during summer 2013.

Shannon Steiner added images during the summer and fall of 2013. Shannon was a doctoral student in History of Art at Bryn Mawr College. She holds a B.A. from Temple University (2009) and M.A.s from The University of Texas at Austin (2011) and
Bryn Mawr College (2013). Her research focused on the visual culture of saints' cults and the role of art in forming community and gender identities in Byzantium.

Sarah Celentano worked on the initial 300 image records. She was a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focused on the visual culture of female monastic communities with a specialization in twelfth-century German-speaking areas. Her dissertation, "Embodied Reading as Political Action in the Hortus deliciarum," explored the textual and visual responses in the twelfth-century Hortus deliciarum to papal schism and imperial challenges to Church authority. Additional areas of examination were the use of medieval mnemonic techniques, and conduits of artistic exchange between northern and southern Europe.

Independent College Programs 142 Women and Gender in the Middle Ages: Representations in Art Margaret Schaus Haverford College, Spring 2021
Students in the class researched and wrote about medieval art in groups and as individual projects. They contributed their work to Feminae as image records.

Elinor Berger is a Literatures in English and Medieval Studies double major at Bryn Mawr College.

Jia Jing Ding is a History of Art and Economics double major at Bryn Mawr College.

Helena Frisbie-Firsching is a Physics major and Health Studies minor at Haverford College.

Bella Gerstmann is a prospective Linguistics or Anthropology major at Bryn Mawr College.

Leela Krishnan is a Math major and a Chemistry minor at Haverford College.

Faith Meacham is a Computer Science major and Math and Visual Studies minor at Bryn Mawr College.

Lipi Paladugu is a Computer Science major with minors in Visual Studies and Math at Bryn Mawr College.

Sadie Pileggi-Proud is a Political Science major with a concentration in Peace, Justice, and Human Rights at Haverford College.

Caroline Quillen is an English major at Haverford College.

Esmé Read is a History of Art major, with a prospective minor in French and Francophone studies at Bryn Mawr College.

Annabelle Renshaw is a History of Art major and a Classical and Near-Eastern Archaeology minor at Bryn Mawr College.

Aviva Soll is a prospective Biology or Chemistry major and Environmental Studies minor with a Biochemistry concentration at Haverford College.

Lauryn White is at Haverford College, and their major is Religion.