More process, more complicated product? Monica Green on Twitter, digital (dis)information, and Women’s History Month

Monica Green, Professor of History, Arizona State U.

Monica Green, Professor of History, Arizona State U.

Today I bring you a guest post by eminent historian Monica Green, a European medievalist and historian of women, gender, and medicine.  Those of you who follow her on Twitter have probably noticed that she’s had a bee in her bonnet this week about Trota, a medieval healer, and her book the Trotula.  I asked her to write up a short blog post to talk about her late Tweet storms and other efforts to ensure that information being shared about women’s history was correct and adequately contextualized.  

Professor Green argues here that by only focusing on a superficial takeaway fact or two, non-historians may be distorting the fuller story or even seeding the ground with new falsehoods.  What are we to do as historians who see our work used simplistically, or even incorrectly?  The answers are even more difficult when you see journalists drawing attention to feminist causes like recognizing women in history who have been systematically written out of the story.

Take it away, Professor Green–

Updating Women’s History Month: Trota, the Trotula, and History as Process

Twitter is an amazing resource for the quick dissemination of news, whether it be political or academic. It is also a good measure of what passes for “common knowledge.” And what passes for “common knowledge” is often quite removed from current scholarly consensus.

trotula_of_salerno_miscellanea_medica_xviii_early_14th_century

Trota, as imagined more than 200 years after her death.

On Wednesday, 1 March 2017, I saw a sudden spike in the number of hits an old essay of mine, published in 1996, was getting on the scholarly repository, Academia.edu. This essay, “The Development of the Trotula,” was published in a renowned but not particularly well-known French journal, Revue d’Histoire des Textes (Review of Textual History). In 85 dense pages, I had laid out what I had uncovered to that point about the tangled history of the so-called Trotula texts. The critical discovery first made by the medieval historian John Benton in 1985, and then pursued by me in the subsequent decade, was that what had long been thought to be a singular text on women’s medicine and cosmetics was, in fact, originally three separate texts, each likely by different authors.

The reason there was this sudden spike in readership (about 500 new views in the past three days) was because the journal Mother Jones had included a link to my essay as “background” for a statement about the healer Trota in a timeline about women whose achievements had allegedly been stolen or falsely credited to men. The sole entry for the Middle Ages was this:

“Trota of Salerno” authors a gynecology handbook, On the Sufferings of Women. For centuries, scholars falsely assume Trota was a man.

Of course, I was delighted that Trota was having these 15 minutes of fame. And delighted, too, that the correct form of her name was being used (Trota, not “Trotula”) and that she was also placed in the correct century (12th, and not the 11th). But the crediting to her of a single book, On the Sufferings of Women, and the assertion that “for centuries, scholars falsely assume Trota was a man,” were oversimplifications of a story whose nuance is actually quite important.

A couple days later, as hits were still coming fast and thick on my 1996 study (few people were downloading it, and I rather doubt many read more than the title page), I looked through postings on Twitter to see what kinds of things were being said about Trota and “Trotula” more broadly. As I feared, most statements were wrong or misleading: references to this female medical practitioner placed her in the 11th century (sometimes with exact birth and death dates, even though we have no corroborating biographical information at all); she was said to have been affiliated with the university of Salerno, even though no such formal institution existed at that time; and so forth. Most worrisome, however, was the fact that she was usually still called “Trotula” (or worse, “Trotula de Ruggiero,” a family association without any historical basis), without any recognition of why it was important to distinguish the historic woman from the composite text.

Click here to see some of the tweets I posted to try to put some of the pertinent facts about Trota/the Trotula out into the Twittersphere.  (Ed. note:  see especially the post by Professor Green at the Wellcome Library’s blog, “Speaking of Trotula.”But the more important issue, to my mind, is that its seems time that celebrations of Women’s History Month include more recognition not simply of women of the past, but of the processes by which that record is discovered and assembled.

Many will have heard in the past year of Margot Lee Shetterley’s extraordinary success in retrieving the stories of a group of African-American women who were in involved in the United States space program’s efforts to get humans launched into space in the 1950s and ’60s. The story of Shetterley’s book Hidden Figures (also the name of the instantly successful movie) reminds us forcefully of how women’s stories can be forgotten. But Shetterley’s story also tells us of the painstaking work to reconstruct such stories. Just as Shetterley had to reconstruct the stories of the inner workings of both NACA and NASA, and the social structures of mid-century Jim Crow, including its effects of women’s access to higher education, so a reconstruction of the story of Trota and the Trotula must be placed against the status of women in 12th-century southern Italian society, their access to formal structures of education, and their ability to be recognized for their expertise.

Those larger structures are what we historians mean by “gender.” In fact, the irony of the Trotula ensemble was that, for much of the texts’ history, what were likely two male authors were deprived of authorial claims. What had originally been a book title, the Trotula, was soon misunderstood as a female author’s name. We still don’t know these male authors’ names, and perhaps never will. (The attempt to assign male authorship to the whole of the Trotula only came late in the 16th century, and was relatively shortlived.)

A more important effect of the retrieval of Trota’s story, to my mind, is not that we have reclaimed a female author (though that is important), but that we have learned a little more about bigger questions about women’s healthcare in this period. We still don’t know enough. But the efforts of more than two generations of women’s historians (many of them themselves women) have transformed the landscape of what we can know about women of the past. Those efforts are themselves worthy of recognition.

Jonathan Swift’s comment nearly three centuries ago about that “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it” seems more apt than ever in the digital age.  I wanted to include a link to this quotation, so I looked one up and found that the fuller context of his comments were even more perfect for our post by Professor Green, one that Trota herself might have appreciated too.  From Swift’s essay, “Political Lying:” 

If a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, and there is no further occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.

This is where we are today, in the age of the digital anthropocene and in the dark shadow of Donald Trump.  It’s coming to feel quaint to insist on accuracy in anything anymore.  How can a steady, nutritious saline drip of facts compete with the firehoses of opinion and disinformation that spew from social media like Twitter and Facebook?  In editing this blog post and collecting all of the links, I realized just now that I’ve been off Twitter for nearly a full hour.  What has happened since then?  Has the King of Fake News, Steve Bannon, launched a nuclear weapon?  Have the Marines invaded and occupied Washington or Teheran yet?  Has the FBI declared martial law?  It could be anything, right?  Or it could be reported falsely that any or all of these things have happened.

Many thanks to Professor Green for sharing her expertise with us, and God bless the United States of America.

5 thoughts on “More process, more complicated product? Monica Green on Twitter, digital (dis)information, and Women’s History Month

  1. Interesting post and great editorial apparatus. So, what is the affirmative case for spending *any* time on capitalist rules-defined electronic media “platforms” like Twitter, whether trying to deflect the firehose, or just to socialize? That the bad guys would otherwise dominate the sphere? Can it persuade anyone of anything who is not already at least positively inclined toward the perspective in question? We can stipulate that it’s great for speed-organizing things like the Womens’ Marches of the other month. But–controlling for things like population growth and the continued existence and hard-to-quantify effects of other information technologies, some of them very old tech (I ended up at one of the marches by noticing and “following,” in the old sense, an unusually large group of pink-hatted women streaming north through a park in Philadelphia)–were the events of 1/21/17 really all *THAT* much larger than those of 10/15/69, or 11/15/69? The latter phenomena were dependent mostly on mimeograph machines, about the same level of informational firepower that Ho Chi Minh was using (well, he died a few months before that). If a medieval Bannon, an evil king’s hawkster, had launched a dozen falcons in a royal forest, actual birds would have steered them out to sea with less damage than a trillion human tweets could have deflected an actual missile in the last hour. But they’re wired for neural short-form in ways that hominids will never be. What’s the answer to the existential question posed by the post and the editorial emendation?

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    • Hello Indyanna,

      “What’s the answer to the existential question posed by the post and the editorial emendation?” My answer is that we live in the world we live in. That’s the one where we have power to interact and engage. All my work on Trota and the *Trotula* was published in formal academic journals or by academic presses. But in terms of the public stories about “Trotula” (Trota’s existence never even being noted for years after her discovery in 1985), all that scholarship was having no effect at all. That’s because a lot of what gets on the Internet is from dated (out-of-copyright) sources. Stories have been told about “Trotula” since the 17th century, but for different political purposes. As Internet content about women’s history was being developed in the 1990s, people were going back to old 1st-wave feminist stories about “Trotula” that had little engagement with medieval historical records. My engagement with Wikipedia (see entries for Trota and the *Trotula*), my blogposts, my use of Academia.edu, and my use of Twitter, are all means to bring “common knowledge” more closely in alignment with new information produced by rigorous historical inquiry.

      Will those efforts ever eliminate all misunderstandings? I have no reason to think so. But we–human beings–are forever engaged in a task of renewing our sense of our own heritage. That’s what history is all about. It is always having to be relearned. And what we learn each time is new.

      Thanks for engaging.

      Monica Green

      P.S. If you’re interested to know more about the different political purposes of the Trota/Trotula story, I have written this piece: https://www.academia.edu/4613220/Monica_H._Green_In_Search_of_an_Authentic_Women_s_Medicine_The_Strange_Fates_of_Trota_of_Salerno_and_Hildegard_of_Bingen_in_Dynamis_Acta_Hispanica_ad_Medicinae_Scientiarumque_Historiam_Illustrandam_19_1999_25-54. Or here (no sign-in needed to download): http://www.raco.cat/index.php/Dynamis/article/view/106141/150117.

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    • The affirmative case is that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are where le menu peuple are these days. It’s the digital town square, so scholars have an obligation (my view) to understand it and to think about their responsibilities there.

      Scholars are citizens, too. I think Professor Green’s interventions, even if they’re destined to be overlooked or ignored by many, are worthwhile for those who will heed her advice. Not everyone will, but it seems to me to be too fatalistic for scholars not to try to engage a wider public on areas in which they are experts, especially.

      Now I really must get back to editing Esther Wheelwright’s wikipedia entry, which is mostly misleading or downright incorrect. (I went to work on it last spring, but have neglected my responsibilities there. I know Professor Green has also worked on Trota’s wikipedia page!)

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      • Well, I think that’s a start, and a good one, and I don’t disagree at all on any of the obligation parts. But I think the affirmative case still needs to be made more fully as to whether these utilities are (empirically or theoretically) *the* “digital town square,” or even parts of it, based on assumptions about how or who they are populated by. Even in these advanced capitalist times, most physical places that comprise the analog town square are not owned (except in a metaphorical sense) by private entities, especially for the purposes of structuring and regulating expression there. This may well vary or differ across these several platforms, (it obviously must), but if Twitter was a socially useful property, its owner(s) would presumably be able to sell it, which they apparently can’t, to focus their energies on their other Square, which Wikipedia defines as a “merchant services aggregator and mobile payment company.”

        I wouldn’t want to go down with the ship on the “bubble” or “filter” phenomenon, whereby these media are said to cluster people into monolithic groups that are already in essential agreement (or even argue that that is a bad thing if true, because people do that in physical space too for rational reasons). But it is not implausible, and could probably use more measurement and less epistemological debate. There is always the “Occupy” analogy: yes, the square is owned by equity holders who can apparently wait forever to cash out their stakes at a profit, but it *is* populated, so it’s therefore a good or even a mandatory place to be, in a contestive or resistive sense. But, in Facebook terms, proverbial pictures of cats, kids, and what’s on our table tonight, don’t seem to be doing much of that work, or even trying to. And for Twitter, rote obedience to the 140-character rule ruins it for me, even if I could be convinced that humans had avian as well as ungulate consciousness; chirp as well as chew, in an informational sense. In addition (or in tribute) to the Wiki editorial intervention projects, one of which is going on at my place right now, I would love to see hackathons break out to start sending 175-character tweets. Long enough to seem undeniably disobedient, or even malign, but not long enough to be clearly distinguishable from random technical glitches. Diss-rupt should be a customer-side as well as a proprietary-side attribute of information-age property practices.

        I thought Prof. Green’s post was great, and I learned a lot about what I didn’t even know existed. But I don’t see how even a million digital micro-expressions about an 85-page essay, dense or otherwise, could cause any clarity to happen, even speaking to the discrete issue of “what we can know….”

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  2. Fascinating. Just plain fascinating. Especially the actual evidence of the very subtle effects of social power on thought and therefore on remembering.

    I’m a biologist, but with a strong interest in ethnobotany and in that capacity I spent a lot of time mining medieval herbals for traces of information about roses. (It was very interesting to realize how much they copied from each other, without attribution. Finding “confirmation” of a usage in widely different sources didn’t actually mean a thing except that communication across great distances was much more common than us non-historians knew. This was in the 1970s.) Hildegard von Bingen was, if I remember right, the only female source I encountered. I didn’t come across one single mention of Trota anywhere. The Great Forgetting of Women is an impressive time- and globe-spanning project.

    Thanks for sticking at least one knife into it!

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