Teaching from the Archive: Mary Fissell

“A Miracle of St. Trophimena Provides a Cure for Theodonanda” in Patricia Skinner, Health and Medicine in Early Medieval Southern Italy (Leiden: Brill, 1997): 149-51.

Interview by Anna Weerasinghe

Anna Weerasinghe: Thank you for sharing this source with us! How did you first come across the “Miracle of St. Trophimena,” and what drew you to it?

Mary Fissell: I first came across “A Miracle of St. Trophimena” by accident while reading Patricia Skinner’s book. It’s a short ninth-century hagiography that tells the story of young girl, Theodonanda, who becomes extremely ill. After a learned physician fails to find a cure, Theodonanda’s parents bring her to the shrine of the virgin saint Trophimena, where the girl is miraculously healed. I thought it would be a great source for developing students’ close reading skills and for drawing out important themes.

AW: How have you used this source in the classroom?

MF: I use this text in history of medicine survey courses that go from Classical Antiquity to about 1700. The undergraduate course is a typical 100-level lecture course with a TA-led discussion section in which students focus on reading primary sources. The graduate course covers the same timeline in greater depth through a weekly seminar.

For both undergrads and grads, I like to use this source to model close reading. I go around the class and have each student read a few lines aloud, then pause to unpack those lines together with the group. The text is short enough that we can work our way through the whole thing in this way. I find that it helps demonstrate the rhythm of close reading and encourages students work through the parts of this story that are puzzling, sometimes to me as well as them. It forces students to ask more basic questions, like “what kind of text is this?” or “what does the word ‘hastened’ really mean here?” These are exactly the kinds of questions needed to pull meaning out of pre-modern texts, but students sometimes hesitate to raise them because they seem too naive.

“The ‘Miracle of St. Trophimena’ is a great example of how powerful hagiographic sources can be for teaching the history of medicine.”

AW: You mentioned that this source is particularly useful for drawing out themes, could you talk about those a little more?

MF: One theme I emphasize throughout the course is the importance of religious healing. Students often come in with the assumption that religion and medicine are opposed, but in fact religious healing was a dominant form of healthcare for millennia and was often intertwined with “rational” medicine. The very first primary sources we read are the Epidaurian iamata—short miraculous healing narratives taken from an Asklepion temple—which exemplify religious healing in Ancient Greece. The “Miracle of St. Trophimena” raises similar issues. I’m always waiting for the moment when a student says, “Oh, the girl sleeps in the church, that reminds me of incubation.” Bingo! Even though it’s happening in a very different context, there are strong thematic continuities.

This source also sets up an important inflection point in the early Middle Ages, when medicine was beginning to become a learned art of the book. When Theodonanda’s parents bring her to a physician, he consults “immense volumes of books on his art.” I love the image of the learned doctor poring over his books of medicine—it’s a mark of his status as a learned physician and his dedication as a practitioner.

The “Miracle of St. Trophimena” is a great example of how powerful hagiographic sources can be for teaching the history of medicine. It may not be a medical text written for doctors, but at the center of the story is a vivid story of sickness that students can understand and relate to. There’s secondary literature out there demonstrating how hagiography can be helpful for historians of medicine, but this text allows students to draw that conclusion for themselves. After reading about Theodonanda, no one wonders why we’re reading a religious text in a class about the history of medicine.

AW: One last question. How can teachers and students access the “Miracle of St. Trophimena”?

MF: Patricia Skinner has printed the Latin hagiography side-by-side with her own English translation in her book. With her permission, we’ve reproduced her translation here for easy online access.

Anna Weerasinghe is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation investigates the practice and regulation of women’s medicine in early modern Portuguese South Asia. Mary Fissell is a professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Her scholarship focuses on health and healing, gender, and sexuality in early modern England. We are indebted to Patricia Skinner for kindly allowing us to share her translation on the blog.

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