Tro(c)ta of Salerno

Today I’m tipping my hat to Trota (alternate spelling: Trocta) of Salerno. And boy, do I wish I had more to write about her.

Here’s what historians (notably Monica H. Green) have been able to piece together: she was a woman; she was a medica (she practiced medicine); she was an author; and she probably lived in the first half of the 12th Century.[1] No real biographical information survives about her that we know of, and there are correspondingly no modern biographies on her, so I can’t comment on her life.

What we know about, instead, is her work. Two medical manuscripts are associated with Trota as author: Practica secundum Trotam (Practical Medicine According to Trota) and De curis mulierum (On Treatments for Women). Her sole authorship of the latter is contested due to a third-person reference to Trota in the text, but this, of course, does not preclude her involvement in its creation.[2]

In these texts, Trota provided remedies for a range of medical issues affecting feminised bodies, as well as information on cosmetics. As Margaret Schaus points out in Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopadia, these two matters are by no means unrelated, nor are cosmetic matters frivolous.[3] Along with remedies for matters such as menstrual complications and uterine prolapses, Trota offered women tips for negotiating the socialisation of their bodies. Information on repressing one’s libido or forging the blood flow expected during first a woman’s first act of penetrative intercourse responded to the social conditions of the time, during which many women might take vows of chastity, while others concerned themselves with their marriageability.[4] In this vein, the cosmetic topics fall under the umbrella of maintaining women’s bodies, both physically and also in terms of social standards.[5]

Beyond just acknowledging that women as experts did in fact exist before “modern” times, the case of Trota and her medical books demonstrates how women’s expertise in enterprises often assumed to have been historically gendered male can be obscured by certain historical approaches to and understandings of texts, reading, and authorship. Trota’s books were not “found” until the 20th Century, but, of course, this has no affect on the reality of her historical practice. For me, this is worth keeping in mind, as it reminds me that textual absence (or loss, or concealment) does not equal historical absence.



[1] Monica H. Green, “Reconstructing the Oeuvre of Trota of Salerno,” in La Scuola medica Salernitana: Gli autori e i testi, ed. Danielle Jacquart and Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, Edizione Nazionale ‘La Scuola medica Salernitana’, 1 (Florence: SISMEL/Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2007), 200-207.

[2] Ibid., 187-190; Edward F. Tuttle, “The “Trotula” and Old Same Trot: A Note on the Lady of Salerno,” Bulletin on the History of Medicine 50, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 61-72.

[3] Margaret Schaus, Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2006), 341.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.


Green, Monica H. “Reconstructing the Oeuvre of Trota of Salerno,” in La Scuola medica Salernitana: Gli autori e i testi, ed. Danielle Jacquart and Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, Edizione Nazionale ‘La Scuola medica Salernitana’, 1. Florence: SISMEL/Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2007.

Schaus, Margaret. Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2006.

Tuttle, Edward F. “The “Trotula” and Old Same Trot: A Note on the Lady of Salerno.” Bulletin on the History of Medicine 50, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 61-72.

Tro(c)ta of Salerno

Shirley Chisholm


[An absolutely fantastic photo of the brilliant (and one of my personal fashion inspirations, I mean the severity of a tightly buttoned, bright collared shirt with a big necklace?! Hello!) Shirley Chisholm, announcing her candidacy for Presidential nomination on January 25th, 1972 in Brooklyn, NYC. “Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm announcing her candidacy for presidential nomination,” Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, ]

We here at the Blog pride ourselves on taking the time and care to curate accessible snapshots of lives lived in search of justice, with a strident political commitment to paying tribute to the voices of rabble rousers, radicals, and all around historical badasses who challenged injustice, marginalization, and oppression in a myriad of ways while celebrating the beauty (sans fetishization) of historically subjugated and denigrated communities. The last several weeks have quieted us, however, at least in our writing at the Blog as we have taken time to reflect, discuss, and heal in light of the outcome of the recent American Presidential election. In tribute to the countless communities across the United States who are continuing the multilayered fights for justice amidst emboldened white supremacy, patriarchy, settler colonialism, and capitalism, today’s HHBlog post is dedicated to none other than Shirley Chisholm, the first Black congresswoman elected in the United States.

Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, NYC in 1924 to a Barbadian mother and a Guyanese father, and was raised between Barbados by her maternal grandparents and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn by her parents. After graduating high school in the 1940s, she went on to attend Brooklyn College and earned a degree in sociology. Following her graduation, she worked in childcare and, after marrying Conrad Q. Chisholm, returned to post-secondary education, this time for a Master of Arts in early childhood education from Columbia University.

In 1964, she was elected to the New York state legislature, only the second Black woman at that point to have done so. According to the U.S. House of Representatives biography of Chisholm, it was a “court–ordered redistricting that carved a new Brooklyn congressional district out of Chisholm’s Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood [that] convinced her to run for Congress.” After defeating several other Black candidates in the Democratic primary election of 1968, she went on to face off against Civil Rights activist and Republican-Liberal James Farmer, utilizing the argument (in her words) that “women [had] been in the driver’s seat” for too long in Black communities. Chisholm handily won her Congressional seat, gaining 67% of the vote in her district.

Chisholm served in Congress from 1969 until 1983 (91st to 97th Congresses), sitting on several important committees throughout her time as a congresswoman. While a congresswoman, Chisholm championed the causes she had fought for in her own community, including the right of domestic workers to receive benefits, federal funding for education, and immigrant rights. In 1972 she announced her candidacy for the Democratic Presidential ticket, the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s President nomination and the first Black person to run for President in the history of the United States. At the Democratic National Convention (DNC), she received roughly 10% of the delegate votes, which was rather sizeable considering the lack of access to large funding sources she had. Unfortunately, she was unsuccessful in her bid, due to a combination of factors including a division in the Congressional Black Caucus (which she helped found, no less).

Chisholm was a luminary in American politics and embodied many “firsts” in the political history of the United States. While she was a champion of Black rights, she never once flinched at criticizing Black patriarchal practices and norms alongside white patriarchy – something that garnered her both respect and incredible amounts of criticism. Chisholm, who once said that “[i]f they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” continues to be an inspiration to communities of colour, especially Black communities, across the United States despite often being ignored in white American mainstream history.

Although it is difficult to see how a political system built on stolen land and the labour of enslaved Africans and their descendants can ever deliver true justice to the most marginalized people in this society, Shirley Chisholm continues to be a shining ray of  inspiration. Thank you Shirley Chisholm, and all the other Black women and non-Black women of colour who continue to fight oppression and injustice. Today, we pay tribute to Shirley Chisholm, who remained “unbought and unbothered” (her campaign slogan) until her passing in 2005.

~ M


“CHISHOLM, Shirley Anita.” History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives. Accessed November 18, 2016.

Vaidyanathan, Rajini. “Before Hillary Clinton, there was Shirley Chisholm.” BBC News, January 26, 2016. Accessed November 18, 2016.

Shirley Chisholm

Sarah Paine, Dorothy Palmer and the Child

This week I am featuring three young women/girls who all lived at the end of the 17th century, but who probably never knew each other, Sarah Paine, Dorothy Palmer and “the Child.” Sarah, Dorothy and the Child all charged men with rape, and all three of their accused assailants were found not guilty of the charge.

In 17th- and 18th-century English society, one’s credibility was determined by one’s reputation—or character—and this was especially true in the courtroom. In the case of women, character was inextricably linked to their sexual reputation.[1] Rape trials from this era (during which it was a capital offence, and therefore one that courts were hesitant to convict) demonstrate the importance of chastity in the courtroom, as the female victims/prosecutors in such cases found themselves in a double bind, wherein they had to convince the court with their testimonies that ejaculation had occurred during penetration, but speaking about sex, even in euphemistic language, caused the jury to believe that they were sexually knowledgeable, unchaste, and therefore not credible.[2] Heartbreakingly, in describing the act, female defendants implicitly displayed sexual knowledge, which had the undesirable effect of making them appear unchaste.[3] Since their chastity, and thus their credibility, was tarnished in the eyes of jurors, and since juries were hesitant to convict in cases of apparently questionable evidence, the vast majority of rape cases ended in acquittal.[4] Rape had one of the highest acquittal rates in this period.[5]

Sarah Paine’s attacker, William Woodbridge, was found not guilty on the grounds that the witnesses he produced convinced the jury that Sarah’s charge was “a Design to get Mony.”[6] Dorothea Palmer’s attacker, Samuel Smith, actually confessed, but the court found him not guilty anyway because they apparently remained uncertain about “whether the Girl did consent or not.”[7] The Child, whose name was kept out of the record, had an aunt to testify as a witness to the aftermath of the attack. Despite her aunt’s evidence, Edward Coker was acquitted on the grounds that the “Circumstances thereto [were] not being so direct as to prove a Rape, according as the law directs on those case.”[8] Coker was subsequently charged with and found guilty of assault and “fined 25 Markes” because the court believed the crime had taken place but had not adequately been proven. [9]

I don’t know anything about Sarah, Dorothy or the Child outside of the records of these rape trials, which, it should be noted, are very brief summaries rather than detailed transcripts. What I do know is that they (almost certainly with the aid of their families) prosecuted their attackers even though the odds of securing a conviction were low and the very pursuit of legal action would damage their reputation in the eyes of their contemporaries. This definitely qualifies as the action of a historical hottie.


[1] Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 2.

[2] Anna Clark, Women’s Silence, Men’s Violence: Sexual Assault in England, 1770-1845 (London: Pandora, 1987), 55-58; Garthine Walker, “Rape, Acquittal and Culpability in Popular Crime Reports in England, c. 1670-c. 1750,” Past and Present 220 (August 2013): 115-116.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (OBO) (, version 7.2, 13 May 2016), December 1681, trial of William Woodbridge (t16811207-1).

[7] OBO (, version 7.2, 13 May 2016), February 1681, trial of Samuel Smith (t16810228-10).

[8] OBO (, version 7.2, 13 May 2016), January 1675, trial of Edward Coker (t16750115-3).

[9] Ibid.

Sarah Paine, Dorothy Palmer and the Child

James Barry


[James Barry, c. 1813-1816. This image is in the pubic domain.]

It’s often said that historians make meaning or sense of the past. It’s been my experience as a student of history that, when I come across certain historical figures, I wish to make sense of them. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to let people be who they are. Thus, this week I am featuring James Barry, an Irish-born medical reformer from the British Army.

James Barry was born in 1799 in a body that was considered after death to be female. From early childhood, Barry’s mother and her friends identified Barry as a wunderkind. In 1809, Barry began studying university medicine and literature as a male student. Three years later, Barry successfully graduated with an MD, despite the university’s attempts to stopper someone so youthful from presenting a thesis. Later in the same year, Barry moved to London and apprenticed with a surgeon at St. Thomas’s Hospital. A year later Barry joined the army as a junior-most medical officer, a career that took Barry to several colonies.

As an army surgeon, Barry displayed professional prowess and enacted medical reforms. Sydney Brandon, one of Barry’s biographers, has noted that Barry had an egalitarian attitude toward medicine—“She invariably championed the neglected and oppressed of any race or station in life. Prisons, leper colonies, and indigent patients always received her attention, and she never accepted fees for her private practice.”[1] And this led to conflicts with authority figures. Nonetheless, Barry had a long career as a medical inspector in the army. When Barry died in 1865, the death certificate was signed without a corresponding medical examination; the signatory of Barry’s death certificate had long known Barry, and found it unnecessary to examine, and especially to sex the corpse. The death certificate listed Barry’s sex as male, and Barry was buried in the masculinised garb in which the surgeon had dressed in life. However, the woman who laid out Barry’s body considered it to be female (and to have once been pregnant), and the story was picked up by the press in cities across Britain.

As a historical figure, Barry is problematical (not least because of his military and colonial associations). Some might consider Barry an example of an empowered, rebellious woman who presented herself as a man—hoodwinking contemporary intellectuals and military officials—in order to pursue a successful, masculinised career. Indeed, Barry has been retroactively credited with being the first woman MD. Some authors refer to Barry as “she,” and others as “he.” I confess, the question of which pronoun I ought to use plagued me as I wrote this. Would it be truest to the surgeon to present Barry as a woman, a man, or as genderqueer? The singular they would anachronistically place Barry into a category that wasn’t contemporaneously defined. Would that be more or less “truthful” than labelling Barry as “she” or “he?” (In the end I chose to use alternate sentence construction in order avoid pronouns altogether). Predominant present day perspectives compel one to understand Barry as either a woman living secretly as a man, or else as a transgendered man. Either or these may be the case. Or they may not be. Not everyone is male, female, trans or intersexed. Assumptions about gender limit how we understand one another in the present day, and this is equally the case when we try to discern the “truth” of those in bygone times.


[1] “Barry, James (c.1799–1865),” Sydney Brandon in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, January 2008, (accessed April 15, 2016).

James Barry