De middeleeuws Ierse woordenschat over geslacht en voortplanting is vandaag de dag niet makkelijk toegankelijk: veel van het relevante materiaal blijft in manuscriptvorm bewaard en vroege twintigste-eeuwse uitgevers van gepubliceerde teksten schrapten vaak passages die tegen de moraal van die tijd zouden kunnen indruisen. De inspanningen om dit lexicon bloot te leggen worden echter niet alleen beloond met nieuwe voorbeelden van taalkundige continuïteit en vernieuwing, maar ook met inzichten in het raakvlak tussen literatuur en geneeskunde en de vroegste uitdrukkingen van de Europese medische leer in Ierland. Dit artikel richt zich vooral op de vrouwengeneeskunde zoals die bewaard is gebleven in teksten die in de veertiende tot zestiende eeuw uit het Latijn in het Iers zijn vertaald, en onderzoekt termen voor de eierstokken en de vagina, voor menstruatie en de nageboorte, en voor erotische dromen om kwesties te onderzoeken zoals het beoogde publiek voor de Ierse versie van de Trotula-teksten en raakpunten te vinden tussen de middeleeuwse geneeskunde en werken in andere genres, zoals Aislinge meic Con Glinne en de collectie van het klooster van Tallaght.
Editions of a number of Irish medical texts, most fourteenth- to sixteenth-century translations from Latin, were published in the first half of the twentieth century. That burst of activity broadly coincided with a renewed focus on the Irish language which had been gaining momentum since the late nineteenth century and was closely bound up with a rise in nationalist sentiment and drive for independence. There is, however, another backdrop against which those early editions of medical texts need to be considered. The decades leading up to and following the formation of the new Free State of Ireland, in 1922, were marked by conservatism, cultural protectionism and a concern for safeguarding public morality. Eventually, a number of Censorship of Publications Acts were passed. It is generally accepted that publications in Irish came under less scrutiny from the Censorship Board than those in English, but writers and editors of Irish-language materials were nevertheless working in an era of acute sensitivity regarding matters of sex, conception and birth and they were certainly capable of self-censorship.
Cautious editors of medieval texts sometimes opted to exclude entirely matter which might cause offence. In a footnote to his edition of the narrative tale Cath Maige Tuired, published in 1891, Whitley Stokes stated that he had ‘omitted an account of the meeting of the Dagdae and the daughter of Indech’, partly on the grounds that much of it was ‘too indecent to be published’.Others elected to print Irish texts in full but abruptly switched from English to Latin in their translations when the content turned to bodily functions. Edward Gwynn adopted this course of action when confronted with a detailed account of sexual transgressions in his 1914 publication of an Old Irish Penitential text, and editors of several late medieval Irish medical texts followed suit. The fifteenth-century Irish version of John of Gaddeson’s Rosa Anglica was published by Winifred Wulff in 1929; in the translation, English gives way to Latin in a passage discussing testicular imposthumes and their possible causes, which include frustrated sexual encounters. A few years previously, Standish O’Grady had accompanied a transcription of a medical excerpt from British Library MS Add. 15,582 with a Latin translation, presumably on account of repeated allusions to the penis and the anus. In light of such precedents, it comes as no surprise to find that the Irish version of the Trotula texts on women’s medicine was published in 1934 alongside a corresponding Latin text and a glossary which lists an impressive range of plant- and herb-names but contains very little from which it could be guessed that the bulk of the text itself has to do with fertility, conception and childbirth.
Our access to the medieval Irish vocabulary of sex and reproduction has been somewhat hampered, then, by the obfuscating tactics of early twentieth-century scholars. Other evidence in medical material remains relatively unknown owing to the fact that relevant texts have never been edited or transcribed. For those prepared to dig into the published and unpublished medical materials, though, there is a good deal of novel terminology to be unearthed. As I want to focus here mainly on aspects of women’s medicine, it may be useful to begin by mentioning some terms pertaining to the female reproductive system.
Medieval medical theory tended to conceive of the female body as a counterpart of the male; this idea was articulated by Galen in the second century AD, but the model of the unisex body has been traced back to Alexandrian physician and anatomist Herophilus († c. 260 BC).So, we find that the Irish word uirghe serves in medical contexts to denote not only a testicle but also the organ recognised in modern medicine as an ovary:
labram don macclog … atā a fhoirm cruinn maille dā adhairc nā re dā beangān clūdaithi ┐ atā ina ceandaibh sin uirgi beaga arna plandugadh isin rann uachtrach dībh
‘let us speak of the womb … its form is round, along with two horns or with two covered branches, and at their tips are small “testicles” implanted in their upper part’.
Sílne and coimpert, meanwhile, are found with reference to vaginal secretion as well as sperm:
cum na mna do hsanntugad na coimriachtana ┐ cum na silneadha do theacht a n-aeinfheacht
‘for the woman to desire intercourse and for the “sperms” to come at the same time’.
teilgid a coimpert fein uatha tre muinel an micloig
‘they eject their own “sperm” through the neck of the womb’.
As is clear from the second citation above, allusions to the vagina tend to characterise this simply as the ‘neck’ of the womb (muinel an micloig). In the Irish version of Magninus of Milan’s Regimen santitatus, made sometime in the fifteenth century, muinél is the preferred term, but the roughly-contemporary translation of Guy de Chauliac’s major treatise on surgery has brágha, of similar meaning:
ōir atā an maclac ┐an muinēl annsna mnāib nach fuil annsna fearaib
‘for there is the womb and the “neck” in women which is not in men’.
atā fad na brāigid sin mur fhad na slaiti fearrda .i. ocht nō nae d’ordlaighib
‘the length of that “neck” is like the length of the penis, i.e. eight or nine inches’.
In the main, then, terminology employed in scholarly medical translations to discuss female anatomy involves some interesting semantic extensions of common Irish words, seemingly driven by Latin exemplars, but it reveals very little new information about what Irish people outside the medical profession may have called the relevant products and parts of the body. This being the case, it is provoking to find the peculiar form féil appearing in remedies for menstrual irregularities and issues of conception. Statements which include this term often refer to the insertion of pessaries, so it seems clear that féil is mostly being used to mean ‘vagina’.In a passage preserved in Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS 23 F 19, féil is employed exclusively and repetitively:
prema madra do brugh ┐ a cur na feil
‘madder roots to be boiled and it inserted into her vagina’
an lus fein do cur na féil
‘the herb itself to be inserted into her vagina’.
However, in RIA MS 24 B 3, similar material alternates féil with féile:
frema madra do bruith ┐ a cur na fele
‘madder roots to be boiled and it inserted into her vagina’.
an lus fein do cur na feil
‘the herb itself to be inserted into her vagina’.
Since the Old Irish period féile had been employed with reference to what seems to be both male and female sex organs, this usage being almost certainly a semantic development of a word whose primary meaning is ‘modesty’.Although probably to be explained as a new nominative created as a backformation from constructions involving the genitive of féile, féil seems to exist as a genuine variant and, to judge by the above evidence, both féile and féil were used in medieval medical material where the approach was practical rather than descriptive or theoretical.
Neither féile nor féil occur in the Irish version of the Trotula, but that text does contain a number of terms which are curiously out of step with the prevailing vocabulary of women’s medicine. As has been amply discussed elsewhere,the Latin original of this material is a twelfth-century compendium of texts, probably only one of which is to be associated with a woman named Trota of Salerno in Southern Italy. The content of this work is remarkably diverse, but in places it reads almost as a practical handbook for the midwife or self-treating woman rather than as a textbook for the physician-scholar: there is advice on the successful delivery of a malpresented foetus and (to the modern mind) bizarre tips for those who wish to engage in intercourse but do not want to conceive. The Irish version relates only to the treatises known as Liber de sinthomatibus mulierum ‘The book on the conditions of women’ and De curis mulierum ‘On treatments for women’. Probably translated around the mid-fourteenth century, partially overlapping fragments of the Irish text are extant today in two fifteenth-century manuscripts.
One item of obvious interest in the Irish adaptation of the Trotula material refers to menstruation. In medieval Irish, there are various terms for this process: the phrase fuil na mban ‘women’s blood’ appears in charms and elsewhere,and fuil míosta ‘monthly blood’ is the usual term in medical treatises. While fuil míosta is in evidence in the Irish Trotula, euphemistic bláth banda occurs also. This expression, which has the surface-sense of ‘womanly bloom’, is used where the Latin text has menstrua:
do chifi an bean gnathaigheas sin an bláth banda
‘the woman who practices that will see the bláth banda’.
It is found also earlier in the text where it corresponds to flores in the Latin.
maille fuil místa darab comhainm asin innsgai choitc[hinn] an bláth banda
‘along with menstruation, the name of which in common speech is the bláth banda’.
Given that semantically-similar flores ‘flowers, blossoms’ appears in the Latin version of the second instance noted above, the question inevitably arises of whether bláth banda is another Irish calque on underlying Latin or whether a native phrase, perhaps a genuine representative of ‘common speech’, has made its way into the Trotula here. While its status is unlikely to be confidently determined unless further attestations come to light, there seems at least some reason to think that there is more to bláth banda than mere calquing. As an alliterating phrase, it bears comparison with other Irish collocations in use in the medical arena such as sine Sheáin,a term for the uvula, ruadh rasach, which appears in reference to a major blood-vessel, and greabhán na gcos, a recently identified name for varicose veins. Moreover, Monica Green has pointed to the recurrence of the ‘flowers’ analogy in different vernacular translations of the Trotula texts, suggesting that this may have reflected a colloquialism which women themselves used in the Middle Ages.
The case for bláth banda as a genuine term, perhaps belonging to a register which did not normally feature in medical discourse, may be strengthened by the existence of another uncommon, alliterating phrase in the Irish Trotula. In reference to the afterbirth – to the placenta and fetal membranes which are discharged after the child has been delivered – the expression brat boinne is used four times. This phrase seems to be made up of brat ‘a cloak’ or ‘a covering’ and a word possibly related to boinenn ‘female’ (although, as discussed below, the second element in this phrase is attested also with long -o-). Just like bláth banda, which offers an alternative to fuil míosta, brat boinne stands in opposition to a better-established term for the same entity. In medieval Irish medical texts, the word slánughadh sometimes serves to indicate the afterbirth and the process of expelling the afterbirth.At one point in the Trotula texts, slánughadh is mentioned together with brat boinne:
do tocht na fola míosta deis na mna do slanugadh no a brat boinne
‘on the retention of the menses after the woman has delivered the afterbirth or brat boinne’.
Elsewhere, brat boinne stands alone, e.g.:
labrum anois cinnus is coir in brat boinne d’innarbadh da roib fostadh air deis in leinim do breith
‘let us now speak of how the brat boinne should be expelled if it were retained after the child was born’.
To date, I have not come across other attestations of brat boinne in the medical materials of medieval Ireland. Variations on the phrase turn up in more recent language, however. The dictionary of Modern Irish published by An Gúm in the 1970s lists brat bóinn ‘caul’,and ‘caul’ seems also to be the meaning in an example of the phrase written in the 1930s as part of the National Folklore Archive, Schools’ Collection. Under the heading ‘Calving Cow’, an item from Co. Cork, records: ‘Occasionally calf enclosed in sack – brat bóinne: considered lucky and preserved in stall’. Also of Cork provenance and included in the Schools’ Collection is a verse composition, entitled Aiséirí beag, in which the speaker asks for divine forgiveness at the end of life. While there can be little doubt that this composition contains the phrase of interest here, it is not clear to me who is indicated by Mac a’ brat bóinne in the relevant lines:
D’árduigheadar leo Mac a’ brat bóinne ∣ Cun ár d’aon Mhac Rí uasal do chrádh
‘They took with them the man with the caul (?) to torture our noble King’s Son’.
Although all of the twentieth-century attestations suggest that the second element of the phrase contains a long -o-, and the form in the An Gúm dictionary does not have the final vowel of bóinne, these are recognisable descendants of the term applied to the afterbirth in the Trotula texts. A reading contained in the eleventh- or twelfth-century comic-satiric tale of Aislinge meic Con Glinne is also, superficially, a good match. The Leabhar Breac version of this text has bratt boinni, with a short -o- in the second word,but there are interpretative issues surrounding this extract. In brief, in the passage in question king Cathal mac Finguine is associated with a place (Imbliuch nIbair or Emly, Co. Tipperary) where he is said to have eaten his fill of some type of bread and appeared with a dun-coloured bratt boinni around him:
Aire trá ba luige dó-sam Imbliuch nIbair, ar is innte fo-gebed a sháith min-aráin, ┐ no bíd ┐ bratt boinni odarda imme ┐ a chloidem cruaid coilc-dírech i n-a chlé-láim ic tomeilt blog ó cech boith i n-aroli
‘This is why he swore by Imbliuch nIbair, for he used to get his fill of small (?) bread there, and he used to go, with a dun-coloured bratt boinni around him and his hard straight-bladed sword in his left hand, eating a piece from one cell to another’.
At first glance, this seems to be a reference to some kind of cloak that Cathal has around him, but it is just possible that the text introduces here a play on Latin placenta, which can refer to a thin, flat cake. In other words, the scholar responsible for this interlude in the tale may have intended readers or listeners to understand that, having consumed bakery products, Cathal is left, not with a brat ‘cloak’ around him, but with brat boinne – placenta or cake – around him. In a text which encompasses many surreal elements, including a mallet of sausage and a boat of salt-cured beef, this suggestion is not necessarily an intolerable stretch.
Whatever about the status of king Cathal’s bratt boinni odarda, two facts emerge from a survey of the history of the phrase brat boinne/bóinn(e) in Irish: firstly, it is extremely rare in the written record and, secondly, it has clearly rumbled along in some quarters for at least six centuries.This fitful appearance in extant texts may suggest that the term is regional; alternatively, perhaps we need to look again at the claim that bláth banda is ‘common speech’ and at Monica Green’s proposal that the ‘flowers’ analogy, which is used to refer to menstruation in various vernacular texts on medieval women’s medicine, coincided with terms which women themselves already used. On reading the Irish Trotula, it is quickly apparent that the standout terms – bláth banda, brat boinne – are terms for bodily parts and processes which non-medical women are most likely to concern themselves with, to worry about, to talk about. That is not to suggest that we should necessarily be thinking of a female translator behind the Irish Trotula, but simple, metaphorical, alliterative formulations like bláth banda and brat boinne seem to come from a different place than the vocabulary which describes the female reproductive system in terms of the male or offers inconsistent calques on Latin forerunners. Even if not translated by a woman, it is tempting to speculate that certain words and expressions in these texts were deliberately selected in an attempt to connect with the women of fourteenth-century Ireland.
The extent to which terms from the Irish Trotula are present elsewhere in the written record of medieval Ireland has been a central concern of this discussion and, in closing, I want to pick up on another item of Trotula vocabulary and, briefly, trace how it surfaces in other Irish texts of earlier and later date. One of the attestations of bláth banda in the Trotula occurs when the author is expressing the idea that menstruation serves the same purpose for women as emission of semen does for men:
tic an purgóid sin dona mnaibh mur tic silne dona fearaibh tre aislingthibh
‘that purgation comes to women just as [release of] semen comes to men through dreams’.
This instance of unqualified aislinge ‘a dream’ in the Trotula broadly corresponds to the use of fuller aislinge collaide in the passage from Rosa Anglica which Wulff translated only into Latin. The second part of the longer phrase, aislinge collaide, derives from colainn ‘the body’ and the whole is obviously intended to signify an erotic dream. As envisaged in Rosa Anglica, however, such dreams cause a build-up of semen which may lead to imposthumes of the testicles:
Labrum anois do nescoid na nuirged … ar son aislingi collaidi, ┐ cur tinsguin in geinemuin tiacht amach, ┐ gur bacadh dí tiacht
‘let us now speak about an imposthume of the testicles … on account of an erotic dream, and the sperm started to come out and it was prevented from coming’.
After the uncertainties which surround the appearance of bratt boinni in Aislinge meic Con Glinne, it is pleasing to be able confidently to show that aislinge collaide has continued from the early medieval period. The section of the Old Irish penitential work which Gwynn translated only into Latin specifies fasting as the penance for nechatchi aislingi colnidi co forbæ toili ┐ accobar ‘a person who sees an erotic dream with culmination of pleasure and desires’.Another attestation is provided by a text, dating from around the ninth century, which brings together various traditions associated with the Monastery of Tallaght. According to this source, a young anchorite, named as Laisrén of Clonmacnoise, once slept on the unwashed ‘cloak of a couple’ (brat lanamnæ), which obviously implies a cloak on which a couple had had sex. Laisrén wakes from his sleep extremely perturbed when atchí aislingi coildnidi ‘he sees an erotic dream’.
The case of aislinge collaide is useful, then, in confirming that, amongst snippets of Latin, the calques and the repurposed vocabulary, late medieval Irish medical texts avail also of simple, native collocations of long standing.Correspondences between the Monastery of Tallaght text and later medical writings are not confined to the account of Laisrén’s disquieting night, however. Seemingly reflecting on the incident, an insertion towards the end of the Tallaght text dicusses the lenient penalties which are incurred when noctural emissions are not accompanied by erotic dreams. The passage concludes that the experience is merely míchumne spiride fri télach neich din imarcraid lenda bís isind churp ‘an evil recollection of the spirit, accompanying a discharge of some of the excess humour that is in the body’. As part of the phrase imarcraid lenda, this extract incorporates the word linn, a common Irish term for liquid or fluid, whose sense was extended in the medical domain to apply to a bodily humour, as theorised by Hippocrates. Indeed, several centuries later, the lines of the Trotula which deal with erotic dreams similarly end by referencing imarcraid na leannann ‘an excess of the humours’:
tromaighthear nádúir agna mnaibh ┐ agna fearaibh an tan fodograid imarcraid na leannann d'innarbadh ┐ nach fedaid
‘the constitution of women and men is made heavy when they desire to expel an excess of the humours and they cannot’.
Evidence of Irish scholars embracing the doctrines of continental medicine in the pre-Norman period and of those doctrines influencing genres other than dedicated medical texts informs our understanding of Gaelic Ireland’s access to and reception of broader European learning at this time. Such evidence has been provided recently by Ranke de Vries, who has discussed manifestations of medical knowledge in Acallam na Senórach and elsewhere in saga literature,but back in the 1930s John McNeill was already showing how the principle of contraries was incorporated into Early Irish penitential texts. Collating excerpts on erotic dreams from the Monastery of Tallaght compilation and from the Irish Trotula neatly demonstrates that, in the late Old Irish period, certain scholars were aware not only of general concept of the bodily humours but also of the theory that these can exist in excess and of the supposed regulating role of bodily discharges. In other words, the Tallaght passage seems a particularly striking example of mainstream European medical knowledge being used to justify Church policy at a time long before the Irish were embarking on large-scale translation of Latin medical texts into the vernacular.
Cautious editors, working in conservative times, have made the task of identifying and assessing the medieval Irish lexicon of sex and reproduction more difficult than it perhaps needed to be. Unlocking that word-field has the potential, though, to reveal more than just a handful of lost terms for the bodily parts and intimate acts which are rarely mentioned in polite company and some notable semantic extensions which are not recorded in any dictionary of Irish. The medieval Irish version of the Trotula texts on women’s medicine has phrases which seem otherwise to have left little or no impression on the written record of Irish across the centuries and which raise questions about register, translator and audience. A hunt for precedents for the use of aislinge collaide in medical material of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries leads ultimately to Old Irish religious texts which confirm that the Irish – or some them – were familiar with humoral theory at a surprisingly early date. In short, there is a good deal to be learned from material which, a hundred years ago, might have been considered ‘too indecent to be published’.
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