Ms. Codex 1136: Medicine & Magic of Women

On May 18, Curator Dot Porter brought out Ms. Codex 1136, 15th c. German copy of De secretis mulierum (also known as Secreta mulierum), a work erroneously attributed to Albertus Magnus, including an unidentified commentary. Our catalog record describes the text as “concerning various issues of women’s health,” but it’s so much more than that!

The manuscript itself isn’t particularly impressive. It’s written on paper, heavily abbreviated, in a rather messy German gothic script written in two distinctive types: a larger script with thicker lines for the main text, and a smaller script with thinner lines for the commentary section. This textual organization, with commentary and main text distinguished by script size, mirrors the tradition of glossed manuscripts, but without the usual separation of texts with main text in the center and commentary (aka glosses) around the margins.

Leaf from a glossed psalter, with the main text in a larger script and clustered towards the center of the page, with commentary glosses in a smaller script around the edges.

The binding is modern, paper over paper board, and it has a parchment spine with a delightful hand-written label.

The text is written in a black ink, with some larger red initials, rubrication on smaller capitals and paragraph marks, and a few diagrams.

So the manuscript itself isn’t particularly impressive. What about the text?

De secretis mulierum was written in the 13th century, the same century in which philosopher Albertus Magnus was active, and from the very beginning this text was attributed to him. It wasn’t written by him, however, and now we attribute it to “Pseudo-Albertus.” The preface is a letter from the author to his audience, and it seems to be a monk writing for other monks – men writing about women to other men, in order to explain them; an intellectual exercise, not a practical document. The author himself says the text isn’t intended to be medical, instead defining it as belonging to the genre of natural philosophy.

The text consists of several short chapters and are focused on describing aspects of women’s health, particularly around conception, pregnancy, and childbirth. For example, it describes the development of the fetus during pregnancy with reference to both the movement of the celestial spheres, and to how the signs of the zodiac influence different parts of the body – aka the Zodiac Man. The astrological content of the text is impressive.

The text also makes reference to other philosophers, notably Aristotle and Boethius, and also cites Avicenna, a 10th-11th century Persian philosopher who wrote a medical encyclopedia that was hugely influential in the west throughout the middle ages. The text also makes occasional reference to women as “harlots” and discusses ways that women can hurt men during sex, which is perhaps to be expected in a book about women written for monks. Even when the text isn’t about explicit sex it is still misogynistic, such as in this section where it is stated that people born with the genitals of both sexes should be treated as male, because “the male is the worthier.”

De secretis mulierum, translation by Helen Rodnite Lemay, full citation at the end of the post

If you’d like to find out more about De secretis mulierum you can watch a recording of Coffee With A Codex here.

There is a 2012 edition, and a 1992 translation:

José Pablo Barragán Nieto, El De secretis mulierum atribuido a Alberto Magno. Estudio, edición crítica y traducción, Oporto, 2012.

Women’s Secrets, translation of the text by Helen Rodnite Lemay (SUNY Press, 1992)

Find out more about the context for the text: Monica Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine (OUP, 2008)

For more about Ms. Codex 1136, visit the Franklin record which includes links to digitized copies:

Ms. Codex 1136:

Supplemental texts:

Example glossed Psalter leaf is Ms. Coll. 591 Folder 31

Image of Zodiac Man from LJS 463, astrological and medical miscellany

Diagram of the celestial spheres is from LJS 226, Certain astrological and astronomical figures

We host Coffee With A Codex every Wednesday at 12pm ET / 5pm GMT on Zoom. For a schedule three weeks ahead, visit our main page here.

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