The Ancient Medical Sources in the Chapters about Sterility of Rodrigo de Castro’s De universa mulierum medicina

Cristina Santos Pinheiro


In past societies, bodies, sex, and gender were experienced in very different ways. Ancient medical texts allow us to access a whole set of issues relating to family and sexuality in the past that would otherwise be difficult or even impossible to appreciate. For centuries, Greek and Roman authorities were cited, commented upon, and revised. New approaches to Greek and Roman medicine have allowed scholars to break new ground on the cultural and intellectual frameworks characterized by different perceptions of body and health.1 In spite of these differences, or perhaps because of them, ancient texts can be a useful background against which later texts can be read and understood.

Rodrigo de Castro (1546-1627/9), also known as Rodericus a Castro Lusitanus, was a Portuguese physician of Jewish birth. After pursuing his studies in medicine at the University of Salamanca, he seems to have achieved some notoriety in Lisbon. He was invited to travel to India to study medicinal plants, but declined King Philip Il’s invitation;2 he also worked as physician to the soldiers of the Spanish Armada before they set sail from Lisbon.3 Around 1590, he fled the persecution of the Jews, establishing himself in Hamburg, where he edited his most important book, De universa mulierum medicina. This was the first treatise about women’s diseases written by a Portuguese author, and remained extremely influential in Europe many years after the author’s death.

C.S. Pinheiro (*)

University of Madeira, Funchal, Portugal

Centre for Classical Studies, University of Lisbon, Lisboa, Portugal e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

G. Davis, T. Loughran (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52080-7_16

Edited for the first time in Hamburg in 1603, De universa underwent numerous successive editions and revisions (Hamburg, 1617, 1628, 1662; Venice, 1644; Cologne, 1689), which attest to its popularity.4 The full title of the first edition was De universa mulierum medicina, Novo et antehac a nemine tentato ordine absolutissimum opus; studiosis omnibus et utile, vero medicispernecessarium ('A complete book about the comprehensive medicine of women, with a new organization by no one else attempted before; useful to all scholars, but extremely necessary to physicians’). Written in Latin, as was the practice at that time, the book was edited in two separate volumes. Part I, about theory, was entitled De natura mulierum ('On female nature’) and was divided into four books: (1) Anatomy of the uterus and breasts;

  • (2) Seed and menstruation; (3) Intercourse, conception, and pregnancy; (4) Childbirth and breastfeeding. Part II, De morbis mulierum ('On female diseases’) was more practical in nature, but was also divided into four books: (1) Diseases common to all women; (2) Diseases of widows and virgins;
  • (3) Diseases related to generation and pregnancy; (4) Puerperal and wet- nurses’ diseases.

As was usual in this kind of medical text, authors often turned to the authorities of the past in order to consolidate and justify their own opinions, yet frequently they failed to identify the sources which they drew upon. Castro’s massive gynaecological treatise is a good example of the confluence of the ancient and scholastic traditions with early modern trends in science, medicine, and gynaecology. Evaluating the classical and Arabic heritage - Hippocrates, Aristotle, Pliny, Galen, Averroes, Avicenna - Castro established a complex dialogue between the traditional ideas of the past and the authors of his own time, all important names in the history of European medicine, such as Amato Lusitano (1511-68), Luis de Mercado (1525-1611), Martin Akakia (1539-88), Ambroise Pare (1510-90), Francois Rousset (1530-1603), and Girolamo Mercuriale (1530-1606), whom he cited and commented upon. However, above all, the influence of Galen (129-216/217) is omnipresent. For centuries, Galenic theories had moulded European medicine, especially through Arabic and Syriac translations, and were the basis of learned medicine in Europe. Consolidated and developed by the Arabs, Galen’s ideas were taught at the universities and maintained his status as an undisputed authority well into the seventeenth century.

For the purposes of this chapter, I will focus upon the section of De universa which examines sterility. We can thereby understand how Castro accounted for the inability to conceive, and how he respectively established female and male responsibility for failure in conception. More broadly, I will investigate how ancient Greek and Roman texts about women’s diseases and specifically about sterility were used by Castro, who relied upon ancient medical, biological, and philosophical texts to structure his own views. Finally, analysis of the scholium, a commentary appended to this sterility section entitled 'On sterile women’, will highlight some of the cultural and moral issues in Castro’s thought.

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