Female Bodies and Female Practitioners, Medical Traditions of the Late Antique Mediterranean World

Female Bodies and Female Practitioners in the Medical Traditions of the Late Antique Mediterranean World, Berlin, October 27–29, 2014

Gynaecology and obstetrics form an important part of human medical knowledge. As early as Graeco-Roman antiquity, gynaecology emerged as a distinct discipline within medical theory. This subfield of medical inquiry comprised a large store of ideas about anatomy (‘seeds’, embryo, sexual organs, etc.), bodily functions and physiological processes (conception, pregnancy, menstruation, etc.). Furthermore, several diseases or dysfunctions were specifically described and examples of diagnosis, prognosis and therapy were discussed and collected (e.g. by Soranus of Ephesus).

Although Galen did not write a treatise specifically about gynaecology, his immense oeuvre contains many remarks about women’s illnesses or obstetrics. These and material from Soranus and other sources, some of them now lost, were collected and used selectively by the compilers of the late antique/early Byzantine medical encyclopaedias, who also discuss the criteria for choosing the right midwife or wet-nurse. Oribasius, Aetius of Amida and Paul of Aegina all transmit earlier knowledge, some of it filtered through their own experience, and in the case of Paul it was his gynaecology in particular that made him famous in the Arab world, where he was known as ‘the Obstetrician’.

Questions about gynaecological issues in the broadest sense play an important role in the rabbinic, Talmudic tradition. This is due to the detailed commandments regarding ritual purity and other religious (halakhic) prescriptions that touch upon sexuality, pregnancy and childbirth. Since no particular work can be found which is exclusively related to gynaecology, the literary or discursive embeddedness of Talmudic passages on this topic in their differing contexts are of crucial importance.

The conference aims at discussing the emergence and transmission of gynaecological knowledge from different angles in ancient medical theory and practice. Beside the medical approach, we will consider cultural practices and socio-religious norms that enable and constrain the production and application of gynaecological know-how (e.g. certain taboos on examining or touching the female body, etc.). The role and function of female specialists (e.g. healers, midwives or wet-nurses) as objects and subjects within ancient medical discourses will also be elaborated in further detail.

The combination of topics from various disciplines will provide ample possibilities for a comparative exploration of this field. The multi-perspective approach will help to sharpen our understanding of similarities and differences between Talmudic knowledge on this topic and the medical traditions in Ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, Persian, Byzantine, and Syriac cultures.


Posted on Oct 17, 2014 in Conferences & Symposia



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