Female Scientists of the Middle Ages

I didn’t do a Comment o’ the Week on Friday, so let this almost make up for it. These are from the comment thread on yesterday’s Quickies . . . there are some interesting names dropped that are totally new to me.


Jake Lswhere wrote:
So, in recent years I’ve seen several lists like this Women in Science History one. They all seem to follow a pattern of name dropping Hypatia then leaping into the Enlightenment. Fellow Skepchic readers, please help out here, do we know of any women in science history from the Dark Ages / Middles Ages / Medieval period / Renaissance? There’s 1300 years of history there to fill.


Lucky for all of us, historian Richard Carrier was on hand to answer:

Regarding the request for women scientists in the lost 1300 years, there are several issues to make note of: there is a difference between a scientist who actually does research and makes discoveries and advances a science, and a mere doctor or engineer who just uses science in professional practice (ditto working astronomers).

In the Middle Ages you might find a practicing female doctor or two (there were tons of them in antiquity; probably hardly any in the Middle Ages, but my field is antiquity so I’m not enough of an expert in the medieval sources to say for sure), but is that really a top woman in science? (you wouldn’t put your local female surgeon or GP on such a list; so putting medieval ones on that list would just whitewash what was actually wrong with the Middle Ages)

I very much doubt you’ll find any medieval female professionals in the sciences apart from doctors, if even that (unscientific carers-for-the sick don’t count). Gender issues blocked women’s access to engineering in antiquity, and I expect likewise afterward; and female astronomers/mathematicians were exceedingly rare in antiquity, so I’d be surprised to find any afterward.

So for the Middle Ages (those lost 1300 years) I very much doubt you’ll find even a single female scientist in the proper sense“since there weren’t even any men who qualified for that title.

See my long, dull/fascinating discussion of this point elsewhere:



And in a second post, Richard wrote:

Note that even Hypatia probably doesn’t deserve to make the list. She made no significant scientific discoveries that we know of, nor even conducted any research that we know of, and appears only to have been a science teacher and editor, possibly a practicing astronomer. Which is cool, but we shouldn’t misrepresent reality.

The only woman I know from antiquity who appears to have made advances in a science is Ptolemais, a first century expert in harmonics who wrote what appears to be a highly respected and influential treatise on unifying the disparate theories of harmonic science, and she may have contributed important advances. Sadly the medieval Christians chose not to preserve any of her writings. We only have a quote or two (and only from pagans, BTW). So we can’t be sure.

By contrast, that website says Hypatia is “considered the first notable woman in mathematics” but that’s simply a bias in modern scholarship. The “first notable woman in mathematics” from the POV of ancient writers, and that we know of (many others will simply have been lost in the surviving record), is a female mathematics professor in the earlier 4th century A.D. named Pandrosion. Male mathematicians referred to her admiringly but we know nothing of her or her writings.

It’s also possible the late 2nd/early 3rd century philosophy professor Arria (whom we know of only because Galen was crushing on her a book he wrote around that time) was a mathematician, and possibly dabbled in mathematical astronomy, since she was a Platonist (just like Hypatia, and probably Pandrosion), and Platonists were typically keen on math, far more so than empirical science, which they tended to sniff at.

But certainly Pandrosion beats Hypatia for the “first-known” slot in mathematics. And Ptolemais beats her for the “first-known” slot in actual science.

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Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.


  1. Avatar of Autochton

    I’m wishing we could have an actual medieval historian pipe in, here. The middle ages are hugely misunderstood as an era (people tend to forget that slavery was abolished the first time around 500 CE and that benighted savages could not have built Nôtre Dame), especially, I find, by classical and renaissance historians.

    Women habitually and often held positions of interest and power in the Middle Ages, across Europe. Abbesses, noblewomen, even simple peasant women holding their own property and voting in assemblies on their own behalf. Science was not a well-developed field at the time, certainly, but many new developments were made, and I think I would be surprised to find that the Renaissance, with its attitude of women as chattel and reintroduction of slavery, etc., did better. (My source on those informations, incidentally, is an excellent book by the late, great Régine Pernoud, a true star among historians IMO.)

  2. Avatar of Autochton

    D’oh, forgot to mention the title: “Those Terrible Middle Ages”. :-)

  3. Avatar of mks.mary

    Contra the previous comment…

    I can’t even name a single *male* scientist from the middle ages, let alone one who did actual research and made real contributions.

    I think middle ages were such a deeply religious era that most people with that kind of mind were studying theology instead.

  4. Avatar of Autochton

    Thomas Aquinas comes immediately to mind, being one of the fathers of the scientific method.

    And yes, most people of mind went to the church – but that did not stop them from employing said minds. The medieval church was far from the monolith of today’s Roman Catholic Church, and a lot of its clergy were indeed occupied with understanding the world around them.

    Rather than believe later propaganda about the period, I would advise everyone with interest in history to read up on what the actual middle ages were like. Plague, war and misery were really only major factors in the very late part, say, 1300-1500 or so. For the rest of the millennium covered by the period, it was prosperous, and a time of great progress.

  5. Avatar of Bjornar

    @Autochton: Admittedly I’m not an historian, but I’ve never seen Aquinas listed as a father of the scientific method, rather the opposite, being part of establishing Aristotle as an unquestionable authority.

  6. Avatar of wombats

    Ugh, but this really needs to be almost a full article with footnotes, quotes, references, and citations. Short answer – yes, the “Middle Ages” were a very active time. – no, they did not have any science by the definitions we use for science (and thus, no scientists). – the designation of “Dark Ages” is Renaissance in origins because those clever bunnies looked even further back and got a glimpse of the clever bunnies from the ancient era and gasped at how far things had fallen in the interim. This biased them such that they looked askance at anything done by the clever bunnies of the Middle Ages.

    What does this leave us with? Some great logicians, philosophers and theologians to contemplate (sadly, I don’t recall much on the engineers and architects of that era – they were pretty anonymous iirc) but no real scientists in the until the Enlightenment and later. For real science and scientific thought, wait for Boyle, Newton, Lavoisier, and Darwin. But, we were talking about women of science – who had made that list pre-1700?

  7. Avatar of LtStorm

    I can’t even name a single *male* scientist from the middle ages, let alone one who did actual research and made real contributions.

    Here’s a list of scientists from the Middle Ages, all of them Muslim. Remember, while Europe was floundering without a whole lot of innovation during this time period, the Islamic world stretching from Spain to North Africa to the Middle East was undergoing a renaissance never seen before (that’s not to say there were *no* European scientists from the time)!

    The Middle Ages were marked by alchemy as a hallmark of scientists in both Europe and the Middle East, though Europe showed a much larger attachment to it. Alchemists gave rise to modern day physics, chemistry, and materials science ultimately through their studies (with alchemy itself being about meditation and introspection). Out of them I’ve seen several mentions of the wife of the alchemist alongside him, and from the set up alchemists had at the time living with their laboratory as an adjacent room, there’s no doubt many wives were involved in the research alongside their husbands just like the wives of cobblers or bakers would be.

    But I wouldn’t expect to find any female alchemists from the time named independently, at least not in Western Europe. A Time Traveler’s Guide to Europe by Ian Mortimer gives a good picture of what England, and a large part of continental Europe, was like in its mindset at the time.

    That said, there are a few hints of things such as Mary, Countess of Pembroke being described by John Aubrey as being a rare female chymist. She lived at the tail end of the Middle Ages during the 16th century. If any other women were chymists at the time or before, they would’ve been nobility without a doubt.

    I also can’t find any actual names of female scientists from the Islamic Golden Age. Considering it was known women worked in all fields at the time, and even held gender monopolies in the textile industry, there were bound to be some that contributed to the body of scientific knowledge at the time. But I can’t find a web page dedicated to them, and am left picking up lists of Muslim scientists and searching for ‘bint’ (the female version of ‘ibn,’ meaning ‘daughter’) with no luck.

  8. Avatar of Zhankfor

    See the 2-7 quickies comments for the suggestion of Hildegaard of Bingen: http://skepchick.org/2011/02/skepchick-quickies-2-7/#comments

  9. Avatar of Malachi Constant

    @LtStorm: I’m currently reading “The Sceptical Chymist” by Boyle, and I’m finding it fascinating (and slow going). I’m really interested in the writings of scientists and proto-scientists of this time.

    You seem to know about this sort of thing, are there any books you could recommend for someone interested in the birth of scientific method?

  10. Avatar of JP

    @Malachi Constant: The principal problem is in defining “science” as several commenters (and the original post) have pointed out. For the most part, what we recognize as Science originated in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, although there are debts to earlier time frames (the mathematical contributions of Islam in particular.)

    Books of interest with regard to the birth of the Scientific Method:
    Stephen Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution
    I.B. Cohen’s Revolution in Science is an interesting take on just what constitutes a Scientific Revolution, although it is a bit long and somewhat dry.
    Lisa Jardine’s Ingenious Pursuits is a fantastic read on the intersection of early science and technology.

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