03.02.19, Barratt, Knowing of Woman's Kind in Childing

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Deanna Evans

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.019


Barratt, Alexandra, ed.. The Knowing of Woman's Kind in Childing: A Middle English Version of Material Derived from the Trotula and Other Sources. Series: Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001. Pp. xii, 169. ISBN: 2-503-51073-6.

Reviewed by:
Deanna Evans
Bemidji State University

The Knowing of Woman's Kind in Childing: A Middle English Version of Material Derived from the Trotula and Other Sources is a new volume in the series Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts, published by the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Hull. Alexandra Barratt, editor of the volume, in previous editions and translations has added much to our knowledge of writings by medieval women, especially mystics. While her subject is again medieval women and her intention, to make available a Middle English text, the context is quite different. The Knowing of Woman's Kind in Childing is an edition of two versions of a Middle English gynecological text extant in five manuscripts. Moreover, the Middle English text is a translation from Latin and French manuscripts and, as Barratt points out, almost certainly was intended for a female audience, including pregnant women and young mothers. In addition to presenting two versions of the Middle English Knowing of Woman's Kind, Barratt's edition contains a valuable introduction, a discussion of the five extant Middle English manuscript versions, a discussion of sources for those manuscripts, a commentary, and a glossary.

It is serendipitous that this edition of Knowing of Woman's Kind has been published in the same year as Monica Green's English translation and edition of The "Trotula" (Philadelphia, 2001). Clearly the two books could be used in conjunction with each other. Barratt points out that the name Trotula or Trota (the more likely name of the presumed woman medical practitioner from Salerno) is never mentioned in Knowing of Woman's Kind, yet Barratt believes that much of the material in the five Middle English manuscripts derives ultimately from Latin versions of texts identified with those comprising "Trotula."

In the first chapter Barratt provides a valuable general introduction. She lists the manuscript sources and provides a general description of their contents. She also explains why she believes the Knowing of Woman's Kind was intended for a female audience and comments on the rarity of a finding a medieval "book" designed for secular women. She supports her claim with selected quotations from the Middle English texts. One such passage, written in the second person, provides instructions for selecting a wet nurse: "Yiff ye take a norys to your child, se that she be yonge and in good state" (C 477-78). She also notes passages addressed to a new mother, such as how to wean a child. Other passages, she contends, were most probably written for a midwife. In one passage devoted to the topic of a difficult delivery, in which the head shows but "the remanent of the body cleue to the side," the practitioner is advised to "puttith to youre hand and dresse hym that both his handis ly joyntly to his sides, so that he may come right foorth..." (C377).

In the same chapter Barrett discusses what she believes were the primary sources for the Middle English manuscripts: these include the Latin Trotula and what she calls a Latin epitome or adaptation of a much earlier Latin text by the North African Muscio; this epitome was completed in or before the twelfth century and is identified by its opening words, Non omnes quidem. Barratt warns readers of the Middle English text to be cautious in making assumptions about material derived from this latter source, to avoid using it "as unproblematized evidence for actual gynaecological practice in England in the fifteenth century" because some of its material "goes straight back to Soranus, to the quite different world of second-century Imperial Rome" (8). On the other hand, Barratt points out that no sources have been found for certain sections of the Middle English texts, such as, "the discussion on nutrition and digestion," and these, she suggests, are the translator's own contributions, indicating his or her "remarkable amount of discrimination" (9).

In the second chapter Barratt devotes provides a close description of each of the five manuscripts from which she has taken her Middle English texts. These include the Oxford Bodley MS Douce 37, Oxford MS Bodley 483, Cambridge University Library MS Ii. 6.33, British Library MS Sloane 421A, and British Library MS Additional 12195. Afterwards she describes manuscripts of French and Latin sources for most of the material included in the Middle English manuscripts. Barratt's attention to such accuracy persuades me that readers should be able to trust this edition for any kind of scholarly research, but I must admit that I have not had the opportunity to compare Barratt's edited Middle English texts with the manuscripts.

Barratt introduces the Middle English text, in two versions, in chapter three. She admits that there are variations in the five extant manuscripts but argues "that all the Middle English versions descend from a single Middle English copy," and substantiates the claim by noting that all five "share certain 'common errors', readings that can be shown to be indisputably erroneous by reference to the known Latin or French sources" (p. 24). She explains that she has chosen to publish two variant versions of the same text, observing that "in a manuscript culture every copy of a text could be...literally handcrafted for a particular audience" (23). Barratt notes the merits of the five Middle English manuscripts and has selected the most complete -- the Oxford Bodley MS Douce 37 and the Cambridge CUL MS li.3.33. Yet there are differences between the two: the Douce is far more detailed in anatomical terminology, especially for the female genitals. She contends that each of the two manuscripts has "its own virtues and characteristics" (24), and so she has chosen to present both texts on facing pages so as not to destroy significant differences. She adds that she will make mention of substantive variations found in the other three manuscripts, which she does at the foot of each page of the Middle English texts.

The actual Middle English texts follow Chapter Three, beginning at page 40 and ending at page 114. Reading these texts requires only a limited knowledge of Middle English; in my opinion they are less difficult to read than Chaucer, and Barratt has provided an excellent glossary. The Middle English texts are followed by a valuable twenty-five-page commentary in which Barratt includes several Latin citations from some of the sources along with other helpful comments.

There is much to interest modern readers in the Middle English texts including the descriptions of how to distinguish a male from a female. They also recommend that girls not be married before the age of fifteen, the age for the onset of the menstrual cycle. Readers may find themselves amused as they read the "helpful" advice addressed to a prospective mother, telling her on which side she should lie during intercourse in order to conceive a son. There is also advice for the woman who does not wish to conceive. Related topics include discussion of miscarriage and abortion. In addition to providing information related to pregnancy and childbirth, the text addresses other gynecological concerns, including menstruation and illnesses associated with the uterus. Various treatments, including recipes for herbal medicines and charms, are included. As the above description indicates, Knowing of Woman's Kind in Childing is a valuable resource book for study of the Middle Ages. In addition, it should prove interesting to scholars in other areas, such as Women's Studies, Middle English medical literature, and histories of Western science and medicine. That such a "book" was created for medieval women is in itself valuable information for anyone interested in the literacy of medieval women. Since Barratt has so carefully described her sources and has made every effort to present an accurate text, this edition should be useful to more advanced scholars. On the other hand, its excellent glossary and carefully written introduction should enable undergraduates in upper division courses to make use of the book. Surely it belongs in university libraries everywhere.

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Deanna Evans

Bemidji State University