study of De secretis mulierum enlightens mystified men

De Secretis Mulierum - anatomy of a woman

Written in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth centuries, On the Secrets of Women {De secretis mulierum} became a highly popular text.[1] Given the great power that women wield, men are naturally keen to understand the secrets of women. De secretis mulierum focuses on women’s sexually distinctive reproductive organs and bodily processes. While these are amazing and intriguing to men, they are not women’s most important secrets. Study of De secretis mulierum reveals that women’s distinctive social powers, which mystify men, are women’s most important secrets.

De secretis mulierum is primarily a work of popularized natural philosophy. The text itself describes sexual intercourse and conception as natural philosophy of a woman’s body:

When a woman is having sexual intercourse with a man she releases her menses at the same time that the man releases sperm, and both seeds enter the vulva simultaneously and are mixed together, and then the woman conceives. Conception is said to take place, therefore, when the two seeds are received in the womb in a place that nature has chosen. And after these seeds are received, the womb closes up like a purse on every side, so that nothing can fall out of it. After this happens, the woman no longer menstruates. [2]

Problemata Aristotelis and Secretum Secretorum, highly popular works in the European Middle Ages, included similar passages of natural philosophy. What makes De secretis mulierum distinctive relative to popular natural philosophy is its focus on women.[3]

The author of De secretis mulierum was amazingly ignorant of female biology. He believed that women urinate through their vaginas. For example, in discussing impediments to conception, he declared:

Sometimes it is caused by excessive fatness of the body because fat surrounding the opening of the womb constricts it and does not allow the male semen to enter. This can be seen in a woman whose kidneys are hidden and buried in fat on every side. If a woman of this sort receives semen during coitus, it cannot enter the womb, and so she ejects it with her urine. Thus if you examine her urine after coitus, you will be able to tell whether or not the semen is collected in the womb. [4]

No woman reader of this text could take its knowledge authority seriously after meeting such ignorance. Moreover, how women actually urinate probably wasn’t a secret to many medieval men.

De secretis mulierum stimulated sensational claims. A medieval commentary on it added discussion of miraculous conception:

it often happens that a woman conceives if she is in a bath where a man ejaculated because the vulva strongly attracts the sperm, and the sperm at this point is vigorous and has not evaporated, so that it can produce a fetus. This has been attested to by experience. [5]

Bath-water conception is a generating event in the deeply transgressive Pseudo-Sirach, written in Hebrew probably in the early Islamic world. The medieval commentary on De secretis mulierum also added discussion of hermaphroditic generation from cat semen:

If a cat ejaculated on some sage, and a man ate some of this sage, then cats would be generated in his stomach and would have to be expelled by vomiting.

The author of De secretis mulierum probably didn’t anticipate that his work would give rise to claims about bath-water conception and hermaphroditic generation from cat semen. But his misleading conception of women’s secrets encouraged elaborating upon female bodily functions and the biology of sexual reproduction.

De secretis mulierum provided sensational entertainment under the cover of informing. For good evolutionary-biological reasons, men are particularly concerned to ascertain the sexual fidelity of women with whom they seek a long-term intimate relationship. De secretis mulierum includes chapters entitled “On the signs of corruption of virginity” and “On the signs of chastity.” The chapter on corruption of virginity declares:

Sometimes virgins are gravely corrupted so that their vagina is greatly enlarged because the male member is exceedingly large and inept. When this happens the woman’s vagina becomes so widened that the man can enter there without any pain to his member, and this is a sign that the woman was first corrupted.

This is the reason why when young women first lose their virginity they have pain in the vagina for a time, because it is being enlarged and disposed for coitus. Another reason for this pain is that there is a certain skin in the vagina and the bladder which is broken. But the more they have sex, the more they become accustomed to it. [6]

The chapter on the exit of the fetus from the uterus discusses how women attempt to induce abortion and the grief that some women experience from having an abortion. The chapter includes sensational questions for discussion:

  • if, when a man and woman are having sexual intercourse, a thunderbolt strikes, can the seed receive a new impression at the moment of ejaculation which would dispose it to be something other than its particular nature intends?
  • if the lightning strikes at the moment of ejaculation, can the influences of the planets be prevented, and are the male and female seeds equally affected?
  • if the lightning should strike both male and female matter alike, can it influence the power within the seed that causes a masculine form in what was first destined to be a female form and disposition, and vice versa? [7]

Albertus Magnus, the purported author of De secretis mulierum, was an authority that Victor Frankenstein assiduously studied. The questions about lightening striking at the moment of conception generically relate to a sensational novel like Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The most important secrets of women are clarified in modern scholarly study of De secretis mulierum. Trumping medieval commentators claims about bath-water conceptions, a modern scholar declared:

I will now argue that pseudo-Albert’s accomplishment of exaggerating and popularizing the ideas about women developed by Albertus Magnus and other thirteenth-century natural philosophers directly influenced the fifteenth-century inquisitorial treatise on witches, Malleus Maleficarum, and that the authors of the Malleus used the Secrets and the tradition they represent as an ideological basis for concluding that women are prone to witchcraft, for which crime they deserve death. …

Both pseudo-Albert and the inquisitors build upon the misogyny, inherent in thirteenth-century scholasticism, that we saw already in Albertus Magnus. We can regard each of their treatises as moving progressively toward the ultimate consequences of such a mode of thinking — extermination of those who most embody the evil carnality that is so feared. Woman, the temptress, the follower of Eve, the “devil’s gateway” had long been suspect to the theologians. Now, with medieval schoolmen’s interpretation of Aristotelian natural philosophy, ecclesiastical statements on the evil nature of the lesser sex become buttressed by the weight of scientific authority. Pseudo-Albert fuses theological and scientific tenets and lays the groundwork for a new kind of misogynistic document. The Dominican authors then incorporate both the spirit and the letter of the Secrets into their virulent verbal attacks on the female gender, which forms the basis for a much more serious assault on women by the inquisitorial procedure itself. [8]

De secretis mulierum itself offered men little insight into the most important secrets of women. But modern study of De secretis mulierum clearly reveals them.[9] No claim about women’s victimization is too outrageous to be taken deadly seriously by many scholars, both women and men.

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[1] In the Middle Ages, De secretis mulierum was commonly attributed to the Dominican friar, bishop, and wide-ranging scholar Albertus Magnus. Scholars now generally regard the text as having been written by one of Albertus Magnus’s students. De secretis mulierum survives in 105 known Latin manuscript copies. Three-fourths of those manuscripts were produced in the fifteenth century. Green (2008) p. 212, n. 31. Fifty editions of the work were printed in the fifteenth century and seventy editions in the sixteenth century. Lemay (1992) p. 1. Among the editions available online are one from 1501 and one from 1669.

[2] De secretis mulierum, Ch. 1, “On the generation of the embryo,” from Latin trans. Lemay (1992) p. 65. Lemay’s text is based on the clearly printed, influential Lyons 1580 edition. That edition “from spot checking, correlates well with other witnesses to this redaction.” Id. p. 2. Barragán Nieto (2012) provides the first critical edition of De secretis mulierum. I unfortunately wasn’t able to conveniently consult Barragán Nieto’s critical edition.

[3] Other Latin medical texts focusing on diseases of women existed in the twelfth century. The most widely known are commonly called the Trotula. De secretis mulierum was more sensational and hence better positioned than the Trotula to be a popular text. Not surprisingly, surviving diseases of women literature is closely associated with De secretis mulierum. Green (2000).

[4] De secretis mulierum, Ch. 12, “Concerning Impediments to Conception,” trans. Lemay (1992) pp. 135-6.

[5] De secretis mulierum, Commentary A, from Latin trans. Lemay (1992) p. 66. The subsequent quote is from id. The commentaries, by unknown authors, “were frequently printed with the text and exist in many of the manuscripts.” The text of Commentary A is taken from the Lyons 1580 edition of De secretis mulierum. Id. p. 2.

[6] De secretis mulierum, Ch. 6, trans. Lemay (1992) pp. 126-7. Calabre of Paris, a fourteenth-century woman physician, reportedly could make a vagina small again. By 1499, Celestina, the heroine of Fernando de Rojas’s pioneering Spanish fiction, was depicted as claiming to be able to repair women’s lost maidenheads.

An atomistic view of individuals greatly affects modern scholarship and healthcare. A leading historian of women’s medicine peevishly noted:

Ensuring women’s fertility and making women sexually attractive to men: these are the main features of the Buch Trotula in Hartlieb’s eyes, not the care of women’s diseases because they are distressing or dangerous to women.

Green (2000) p. 28. Many women care greatly about being fertile and being sexually attractive to men. Moreover, gynocentric society has enacted legal structures that make being attractive to men and bearing children potentially highly profitable for women.

[7] De secretis mulierum, Ch. 5, “On the exit of the fetus from the uterus,” trans. Lemay (1992) p. 105. The labeling of the text and Commentary B with respect to the first question is clearly mistaken.

[8] Lemay (1992) pp. 50-1, footnotes omitted. Id. notes “De Secretis Mulierum and the Malleus Maleficarum certainly belong to two different genres.”

Green, today’s leading historian of women’s medicine, less sensationally claims that De secretis mulierum and associated medieval gynecological literature have “one profoundly distinctive feature: a tendency toward misogyny.” Moreover, “what pushes the Secrets of Women into the territory of misogyny is the attitude of suspicion {emphasis in original} it projects toward women.” Id. pp. 216, 218. The diction of projected suspicion suggests lack of self-consciousness. On the other hand, men have sexually and legally distinctive biological reasons for being suspicion of women’s sexual fidelity. Green presents a medieval illumination that she interprets as a man sticking his tongue out a woman and observes that it is “suggestive of the text’s attitude toward women.” Id. p. 217, Fig. 5.1.

Men’s freedom to read, learn, and write cannot be taken for granted. Like nineteenth-century social-scientific concerns about reading Latin literature, Green declares, “the effect of medieval habits of reading about women’s secrets was permanent: the misogynous potential of male-controlled intellectual traditions on the female body had been realized.” For a related lament about inability to control men’s reading, Green (2000) p. 29. Caballero-Navas (2006) accepts the authoritative declarations that De secretis mulierum is misogynistic, but reports lack of misogyny in the Hebrew medical tradition. Permitting men intellectual and expressive freedom as long as authorities don’t deem such freedom to have “misogynous potential” is a tenuous structure of liberty.

[9] Green (2009), a massive, erudite work on the “rise of male authority in pre-modern gynaecology,” contrasts men’s knowledge and women’s knowledge. It pays scant attention to actual health outcomes. Among fourteenth and fifteenth century British ducal nobles, women’s and men’s life expectancies at birth were 33 years and 24 years respectively. By the mid-nineteenth century, those figures had risen to 62 years and 50 years, respectively. The alleged rise of male authority in pre-modern gynaecology coincided with a near doubling in women’s lifespans and a gender protrusion favoring women with 12 extra years of life on average relative to men. Here’s the analysis and data on long-run gender differences in lifespan.

Leading international organizations today measure gender differences in life expectancy with indices that feature built-in anti-men gender inequality. Green (2009) concludes with a triumphant reference to an elite woman who “erected a statue … to herself.” Id. p. 324. Rather than erecting statues to themselves, women who care about men might work to reduce gender bias against men and to improve men’s health.

[image] Anatomy of a woman’s body. Based on illustration from Isagogae breves by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi, first published in 1522, digitized by the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The version shown apparently is from a Bologna, 1535 edition. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Barragán Nieto, José Pablo. 2012. El de secretis mulierum atribuido a Alberto Magno: estudio, edición crítica y traducción. Turnhout: Porto.

Caballero-Navas, Carmen. 2006. “Secrets of Women: Naming Female Sexual Difference in Medieval Hebrew Medical Literature.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues. 12 (1): 39-56.

Green, Monica H. 2001. “From ‘Diseases of women’ to ‘Secrets of women’: the gynecological literature in the Later Middle Ages.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. 30 (1): 5-39.

Green, Monica H. 2008. Making women’s medicine masculine: the rise of male authority in pre-modern gynaecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lemay, Helen Rodnite. 1992. Women’s secrets: a translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s De secretis mulierum with commentaries. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

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