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.