Bad History, birth, doctors, gender, language, midwives, novels, sex

Agnodice: reading the story

The story of Agnodice, ‘the first midwife’, is all over the web, and is often treated like it’s recounting historical events. Here, I’m going to challenge that by summarising some of what I wrote in my 2013 book, The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence (Ashgate), where I treated at length this story and its retellings from the sixteenth century onwards, in relation to debates about the proper roles of women in medicine and midwifery.

What’s the story?

Agnodice was a young woman (Latin puella virgo) who wanted to learn medicine, at a time when there were no midwives because the Athenians forbade any woman from doing this. As a result of the ban, many women died from shame. Agnodice cut her hair and dressed as a man and studied with a certain Herophilus. When she had learned medicine, she heard a woman crying out and went to her; the woman refused assistance because she thought this was a man, but Agnodice lifted her tunic and showed she was a woman. The doctors who lost business assumed this ‘young man’ was having sex with the women, who were merely faking illness. The Areopagus court was about to find ‘him’ guilty when Agnodice again lifted her tunic, but was promptly charged with learning medicine despite the law. At this point, the leading women of Athens arrived and announced ‘You are not husbands but enemies, for you are condemning the woman who brought us health’. Then the Athenians changed the law so that free-born women could learn the art of medicine.

The source: which, in itself, is quite a story

So, where does that come from? The story of Agnodice is known from just one ancient source: the Fabulae of Hyginus. Date (as I tend to ask when teaching ancient history)? It’s complicated. When is the story set? There’s no date given, but Herophilus was a real person who lived in the third century BC. However, there is plenty of evidence that the Athenians had midwives at that time! When was the story written? ‘Hyginus’ is about as elusive as a source can get; the writer of Fabulae used to be identified with Augustus’s freedman of this name, but that has been challenged since Jean Astruc in 1766. Perhaps the best we can do is to place the ‘original’ before 207 AD, when an anonymous Greek writer copied parts of this Latin text.

The version we have, however, isn’t even this original Latin one, but a copy of a fourth- or fifth-century AD summary of that text. And although there seem to have been other versions of this in circulation in the Middle Ages, that one source survived into the Renaissance in just one manuscript. This manuscript was written in around 900 AD, and – surprise, surprise – it’s now lost, although in a fascinating twist of history some bits have turned up in book bindings where they were used to stiffen the spines! So how do we know about this lost manuscript? Because the printed edition of Hyginus, published in 1535, was based on it. The story caught on quickly, and there are many sixteenth-century versions of it.

Latin or ancient Greek or what?

So, we currently have a Latin text in summary… or do we? It’s not exactly great Latin. It includes words that are borrowed from Greek and transliterated into Latin. Agnodice’s name is Greek, probably meaning ‘chaste before justice’, a reference to her being found innocent on the charge of seducing her patients.

Did the (very) lost Latin original itself come from Greek sources? If it did, this could explain not only the traces of Greek, but another otherwise odd feature, concerning the Fabulae‘s list of ‘Who invented what?’ (or, in Latin, Quis quid invenit?), the title of the list in which Agnodice’s story appears. Chiron established surgery, Apollo medicine for the eyes, Asclepius ‘the art of clinical medicine’. This is the sort of company Agnodice keeps.

Within this list, Agnodice’s story is the only detailed one. It sticks out like a sore thumb. So, could someone have inserted into this basic list a summary of the plot of a lost Greek novel? The timing works, as the earliest surviving Greek novel, Chariton’s Chaireas and Callirhoe, dates to the first century AD. Agnodice does seem to read like a character from this genre: a feisty young heroine overcoming long journeys (Herophilus worked in Alexandria) and legal battles, using disguise. There are also connections to Christian hagiography: the mid-third century AD St Eugenia, also disguised as a man and involved in healing, who showed her breasts to the court to prove her innocence on a charge of sexual assault. Or we could look back at the pagan courtesan Phryne who is said to have displayed her breasts when tried for impiety in the fourth century BC. Displaying the body to prove one’s sex isn’t unique to Agnodice.

Reading Agnodice as history

For early campaigners for women’s right to study medicine, Agnodice needed to be more than a myth or a character in a novel: she had to be real, despite there being plenty of evidence in literary texts and inscriptions for midwives existing in classical and Hellenistic Greece. Sophia Jex-Blake, finally admitted to Edinburgh University to study medicine in 1869, used as evidence supporting medicine as a profession for women what she described as Hyginus’s ‘history of Agnodice, the Athenian maiden whose skill and success in medicine was the cause of the legal opening of the medical profession to all the freeborn women of the State’ (my italics). Kate Hurd-Mead received her MD from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1888. In her 1925 history of medicine, she suggested that Hyginus took the story from ‘an old book dealing with the history of medicine’. Here, she drew on a tradition going back to seventeenth-century legal texts which had tried to reconstruct ancient law by bringing together references including Hyginus’s opening claim that women were forbidden to learn medicine.

The seventeenth century seems to have been the peak of claims for Agnodice’s historicity, but these always had their own spin attached.  At this time, the spin concerned not the main theme of the story – women in medicine – but the one from the opening line – women as midwives. John Potter’s Archaeologia Graeca, first published in 1698-99 but widely read and reprinted, reversed the opening of the story to make it ‘It is observable that the ancient Athenians used none but Men-Midwives’; here he was reading into the text the man-midwife, a feature of late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British medicine. But the story could go the other way: a 1759 discussion of whether women should be allowed to practise medicine, by Jean Paul Rome d’Ardène, presented what the Athenians did not as a desirable model, but as the exception to the normal pattern of human history. As only the Athenians had banned women from medicine, with the story of Agnodice showing that even they had soon been forced to change that law, the logical conclusion for d’Ardène was that custom and history support women in the role. So Athens becomes the anomaly, not the ideal.

Agnodice’s story has been used by both men and women making claims for medicine in their own day. But it’s a story: it comes from one source which is very difficult to pin down, and its picture of a midwife-free Athens matches nothing that we know about the ancient world. Over history, it has been used to argue for and against both men as midwives and women as physicians. It’s a great story: but it’s a story!



References cited:
Jean-Paul Rome d’Ardène, Lettres interessantes pour les médecins de profession, vol. 2 (Avignon, 1759).

Jean Astruc, L’Art accoucheur réduit a ses principes (Paris, 1766); English, Elements of Midwifery. Containing the most Modern and Successful Method of Practice (London, 1767).

Kate Hurd-Mead, ‘An Introduction to the History of Women in Medicine 1. Medical Women before Christianity (continued)’, Annals of Medical History, 5 (1933), 171-196.

Sophia Jex-Blake, ‘Medicine as a Profession for Women’ in Josephine Butler (ed.), Woman’s Work and Woman’s Culture. A Series of Essays (London, 1869), 78-120.

John Potter, Archaeologia Graeca, vol. II (London, 1722). Agnodice appears in book 4, chapter 14, ‘Of their Customs in Child-bearing, and managing Infants’.



1 thought on “Agnodice: reading the story”

  1. How things have changed. Even in male dominated specialisations such as urology and surgery, women are more proportionately represented. I’m not sure if it’s a dubious distinction, noteworthy, or not worth mentioning, but a few years ago, following a cancer diagnosis, it was a female urologist/surgeon who performed my radical bilateral orchiectomy. Male medical school administrators are probably turning in their graves at the thought of “‘lady doctors’ removing a man’s testicles! It’s unseemly!” Anyway, just thought I’d add my two cents.


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