In testimony at her trial in 1410, the surgeon Perretta Petone claimed that ‘many women’ like her were practising all over Paris. While she may have been exaggerating for rhetorical effect, Perretta was certainly right that she was not alone as a female in medical practice. From the famous Surgeon Hersende, who accompanies St Louis on Crusade in 1250 and who would later marry a Parisian apothecary, to various Jewish eye doctors in 15th-century Frankfurt, to phlebotomists at the French Dominican nunnery of Longchamp, to Muslim midwives at the royal court of Navarre—whether they were surgeons or optometrists, barbers or herbalists or simply ‘healers’ (metgessa, medica, miresse, or arztzatin), women were almost always among the range of practitioners who offered their services in the western European medical marketplace from the 12th through 15th centuries. (Green 2008 [b] 120)
A great diversity of women practised some form of medicine throughout Europe in the Middle Ages (500-1500). Medical historians have identified a wide variety of female practitioners—from various regions, faiths, and social classes—engaged in general healing as well as specialised branches of medicine, including surgery, barber-surgery, and apothecary. Moreover, these female practitioners had the freedom and legal right to practise their healing arts. These rights were not taken away in systematic broad measures until the 14th century.
The open existence of officially sanctioned women healers came sputtering to a halt with the widespread establishment of European universities and the accompanying degrees and licences necessary to practise medicine. A licence to practise medicine as a physician could only be obtained after completing a university education—and women were banned from attending university so… that should have been that.
A potted history of the exploitation of folk healers in Europe, as well as in conquered lands (the Americas, West Indies), in the 17th & 18th century by the professionalised medical community—with a special focus on how this impacted female folk healers.
Here is a little video I’ve made explaining a bit of what my project is about. I’m now almost two months into my research journey! I will be presenting my preliminary findings at the Bridges 2022 conference, ‘Bridges Between Disciplines: Gender in STEM and Social Sciences’, at the Universitat Politécnica de València – Campus of Gandía. I’m excited to share what I have learned so far!
“I fancy he may be something of a misogynist.” — Beatrix Potter, in her journal December 1896, about Mr Thiselton-Dyer Director, Kew
Several years before Miss Helen Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) became the beloved children’s author whom we all treasure, creating the world of Peter Rabbit and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, she had much smaller lifeforms on her mind: fungi. And there was a man (or rather, several men) standing in her way to mycorrhizal greatness. One of whom was no less of a personage than William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
It all began with her illustrations. She was a very talented artist, in both sketch and watercolour, but alongside this ability she also had the gift of very close observation. Beatrix sketched and painted a variety of fungi that she found in the Lake District in England and in Scotland. As her documentation became more detailed, she began to be fascinated by how fungi reproduced. By the autumn and winter of 1895, when she was 29 years old, she was spending an increasing amount of time drawing fungi under a microscope. She became convinced that she could germinate some spores herself. She wanted to study the environment in which they germinated, discover whether or not conditions were the same for each species, what the spawn of each consisted of, and whether or not she could reproduce it more than once. This is where her hobby graduated from observation to experimentation.
Ah, the archive… That reliquary of truth and unbiased historical fact.
This week’s ‘fun fact’ is one of those research moments when another researcher points out a solution to your problem that actually should have been obvious from the beginning: if you’re looking for hidden histories, do not look at ‘official’ records, such as those kept by licensing guilds or at published works, nope. Look at court documents. Fines, punishments, incarcerations—executions. That is where you are going to find the true stories of what historical people—who were not White Christian Men (WCM)—were actually up to.
This week’s ‘fun fact’ has to do with one of my favourite research subjects—witches. Research into the history of women in medicine will inevitably lead us back to the witch hunts. (And yes, there will be ongoing research into this particular flavour of persecution still to come… )
Ok, so perhaps there isn’t much ‘fun’ in this week’s Fun Fact! This week, I’ve been marvelling at the notion of ‘modesty’. This concept has presented a huge stumbling block in medical care for women throughout history; but ‘modesty’ is just a polite word for shame. I’m currently reading about modesty from the mediaeval and early modern perspective, however the tendrils of this insidious concept can be felt in society today.
The thing about modesty, is it appears to be something imposed upon women by others. Yes, women perhaps do end up taking upon themselves the shame they are told they should have (if you tell someone something long enough, they will start to believe it themselves) but the idea that a woman would rather suffer in silence—and perhaps die—than present her gynaecological problems to a physician is the horrible result of this.
One thing I found fascinating this week, is in ancient Rome and Greece, up until the 2nd century, medical texts were written directly to midwives. It was expected that women would be taking care of women’s issues, but also that they would be literate (read Greek, Latin, and/or Arabic) and had knowledge of the full anatomy. They were respected medical practitioners. It was only after waves of plague hit north Africa and the Mediterranean during the 5th and 6th centuries that governments and organised education fell apart, entering in an age of chaos, which these various societies never quite recovered from for the next 600 years.