The Relationship between the Medieval Medical World and Wise Women

The relationship between the learned medieval medical world and female healers of the time was complicated and nuanced. In 1322, the Medical Faculty of Paris accused Jacoba Felicie, a female healer, of working as a practicing physician without a license. Documents from Felicie’s trial, and the resulting arguments for and against the accused, provide a view of how medieval physicians perceived women’s roles.

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Felicie’s accusers claim that she visited several patients, examined them, and claimed to cure them, despite being warned against practicing without a license. Felicie’s defense brought forth witnesses that all attested to her experience and skill in curing them, even after many received unsuccessful treatment from well-known licensed physicians. Non-university trained traditional healers like Felicie, were the predominant medical practitioners of the early 14th century in Paris. Many women who acquired skills through apprenticeships or experience acted as healers. Women were not admitted to universities so they were unable to obtain the degrees that were necessary for a license. Therefore, academically trained physicians were all male. Because women had very limited options for training, they were at a disadvantage when academic institutions began to regulate medical practices. This implementation of licensing would have affected all women healers of the time. Although Felicie’s patients attested to her capability in the medical field, she was found guilty regardless. During the later medieval era, Europeans who could not afford to visit learned physicians turned to alternative female healers.

These healers were known as “wise women.” These women learned medical practices from knowledge passed down through generations, and also often through experimentation itself. They dealt with all kinds of illnesses and medical conditions, including injuries, childbirth, and diseases. Wise women used herbal remedies to help heal patients, drawing on their knowledge of plants and the rest of the natural environment. Wise women and their medical practices were looked down upon ? and even outlawed ? by professionally trained doctors. Time has vindicated some of herbal remedies used in medieval folk medicine, as many have been found to include naturally occurring ingredients that are medically useful. Katharine Park’s Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection explores the relationship between the “wise women” of Cremona and learned physicians of the time. In this text, Park focuses primarily on topics like practitioners’ knowledge of the internal workings of the body, how they discovered these insights, and to whom and how they communicated that medical information. The reading first provides some context by explaining that in February 1286, the cities that marked the southern edge of the Po valley were plagued by a harsh winter and a serious epidemic. According to a physician Brother Salimbene de Adam, the disease manifested itself in “swellings.” What struck him most was that the illness also affected chickens. Salimbene also mentions the city of Cremona, where one woman’s chickens died in a rapid fashion. Salimbene wrote, “And a certain physician had some of the chickens opened and found a swelling on their hearts. There was a kind of abscess [vesicula] on the tip of the heart of each chicken.

Likewise, he had a certain dead man opened and found the same thing on his heart.” Park details another account from Salimbene from May 1286 in which he noted, “the physician Master Giovannino, who was living in Venice, where he was on the municipal payroll, sent a letter to his fellow citizens back in Reggio telling them that they should eat neither vegetables nor eggs nor chickens for the entire month of May.” Because this led in a sharp decline in the price of poultry, the local wise women took action into their own hands and responded to this threat to their livelihood in their own way. According to Salimbene, “some wise women fed horehound to their chickens, either ground or crushed and mixed with water and bran or flour. And by the power of this antidote, the chickens were cured and escaped death.” Park explains the passage suggests two different models for gaining and spreading this knowledge. The first is the anonymous physician in Cremona and Master Giovannino of Reggio. The anonymous physician performed the anatomy and most likely communicated its results to civic and medical authorities. Salimbene implies that the physician’s findings made their way to Master Giovannino, who then wrote a letter of preventive advice. The second model of gaining and communicating knowledge about the internal workings of the body and the treatment of disease is highlighted by Salimbene is represented by those he called the “wise women” of Cremona. Lacking the formal medical training of Master Giovannino and the anonymous physician in Cremona, but experienced in raising chickens, these women had apparently already figured out that they could treat the illness in the chickens by administering horehound in chicken feed.

In contrast to Salimbene’s description of the physicians’ actions, it is not specified how the women gained this knowledge or whether they made any effort to disseminate it. However, the account strongly suggests that their measures were not anatomically based and were the result of experience, rather than of study and theoretical reflection. Park explains that Salimbene’s narrative concerning the 1286 epidemic was important due to the fact it recorded one of the first anatomies. The book also offers up the example of Chiara of Montefalco, a medieval religious woman whose body was cut open and examined after her death. The the examination of Chiara of Montefalco’s body highlights a moment of coexistence and interaction between learned and lay forms of healing, involve the presence of both oral and written modes of communication, and feature varieties of medical knowledge and practice, all of which had gendered associations. Park concludes that the context of this incident was highly localized and strikingly complex, and perhaps came about due to Chiara of Montefalco’s status as a religious woman.

This chapter also explores the gendered lens through which contemporaries understood the knowledge of the human body. Park first argues that knowledge of the body’s interior based on anatomy and dissection increased in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. The author contrasts these analytical approaches to the characteristically female and secret forms of knowledge espoused by the wise women. She then argues that the female body emerged during the course of this period as the ideal type of body, with a hidden and secret interior, the paradigmatic object of dissection. The idea of secrecy was central to the way learned men wrote and thought about such issues. Individuals like Chiara of Montefalco could guard secrets in their hearts, to be discerned by religious authorities. However, secrets are more commonly something collective within a group. In cases of this sort, in which secrecy was attributed by one group to another rather than claimed by the group in question, the idea often had sinister connotations, calling forth associations of power, on the one hand, and withholding or deception, on the other. In the hands of “untrustworthy people” such as Jews, Muslims, and unlettered women, according to Christian men of learning, secret knowledge could be monopolized and kept for unsavory ends.

Parks last part of the text mainly covers the perception of the female anatomy. First, Park introduces De secretis mulierum a medieval treatise generally attributed to the philosopher Albertus Magnus. This medical text concerns itself with human reproduction and the secrets of women. Park specifically notes and explains the meaning of the word “secrets” in the context of this text. This is the word used to describe the orally transmitted and experience-based, knowledge possessed by the wise women. Then it covers the uterus and other female reproductive organs. Monica Green’s essay Women’s medical practice and health care in medieval Europe works to break the assumptions that surround the word “midwife” as well as display how medieval medical practice was not as gendered as once believed. Monica Green first speaks on the blurring between the words “midwife” and “female health care practitioner. Green explains that this is not just a mere case of semantic inaccuracy, but that the two can not be used interchangeably in this way. This leads Green to explore the question: Who was responsible for the care of women? She explains that several major studies into medieval medical practitioners demonstrate that the care of women was broadly spread throughout numerous medical communities. While midwives were apart of a much larger group of female practitioners.

Although studies show very few women were involved in medicine, in general, this was by no means limited to midwifery. Of the 7,647 practitioners documented in France between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, only one was a women. From the sparse data of health practitioners from medieval England, only eight are women. Of these women 6 of which identified simply as “healers”, 1 as a surgeon, and 1 as a midwife. Of these 44 were midwives while the rest were barber-surgeons, trained physicians, or untrained empirics. Green concludes her point by explaining while the data proves the existence of all types of female healers she still questions: Why is the data for these women especially midwives is so sparse? The next part of Green’s essay covers professionalization and the restriction of women’s medical practices. Europe experienced an implementation of medical licensing by both secular and religious authorities through the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. This created fierce tension between the trained apothecaries, physicians, and surgeons and the empirics. Green talks about how in France in the late thirteenth century physicians of the Parisian faculty of medicine made concerted efforts to control the practice of surgeons, barbers, and empirics. This led to the well known 1322 trial of empiric Jacoba Felicie who treated both men and women. She was accused of practicing without a license.

However, the statute that she violated said nothing that restricted women more than men from medical practice. Assuming that these women existed and that they have the possibility of obtaining a license. In Valencia, prior to 1329 all the ordinances regulating medical practice simply applied to everyone. However, a law established in 1329 stated, “no woman may practice medicine or give potions under penalty of being whipped through the town; but they may care for little children and women to who, however, they may give no potion.” Meanwhile, in England this change came along later in 1421. In England a petition was put before Parliament requesting among other measures to ensure the physician’s dominance: “that no woman use the practyce of Fisykmedicine] under the same payne as long emprisonment and a fine of forty pounds. (54) Although this law never came to fruition Green believed it still speaks on the seemingly strong desire to prohibit females from practicing medicine. In Debra Stoudt’s Medieval German Women and the Power of Healing, she explores the extensive role of women as healers in medieval Germany. Stoudt explains that the role of medieval women in the healing arts in Western Europe traditionally has been viewed as a modest one, and its characterization has been fraught with myth and assumption. The common perception is that women healers of the Middle Ages either were uneducated or limited to folk medicine. Caring for illnesses and injuries among family and friends constitutes a customary to domestic duty a tradition that continues through the middle ages as references in the works of fiction suggest. By the 12th century, there is evidence to support the thesis that many women legally practiced medicine in European cities such as the Salerno and Paris. For example in 1394 in Frankfurt, the daughter of the deceased physician Hans Wolff twice received a payment for healing mercenaries who had been wounded in the line of duty.

In Hildesheim, two women were compensated for supplying draughts for wounds and otherwise treating wounded soldiers. Bishop John II of Wurzburg permitted the Jewish Dr. Sara to practice medicine in and around Roseburg in 1419 but at the end of the century in 1494 an unidentified Jewish woman was forbidden to treat the sick in Frankfurt. Licensing of physicians ostensibly barred secular and religious women from practicing medicine The relationship between religion and medicine is a close one. Throughout the middle ages, both religious men and women were dedicated to healing. Although there is little documentation about monastic female healers most scholars have asserted women were active in the healing arts. This is due to the fact religious men and women were the best educated in the medieval era. Although hospitals eventually became religious institutions both medieval men and women were both concerned with the wellbeing of the body and the spirit. Throughout the middle ages, both religious and laywomen served as healers. Because of religious involvement in the medical world women due to the fact, the sisters were allowed to practice as care providers. However, they were not allowed to act as physicians. A few laywomen gained notoriety for their abilities however they usually suffered also from the stigma that came along with being a laywoman. Often it was believed these women were witches. Stoudt ends her essay speaking about the struggles medieval women faced. Such as their lack of university training, the cloistered experience of religious women, and the suspicion and mistrust from society as a whole. Yet, despite the obstacles, by relying on innate ability and tradition women still were extremely successful. Katharine Park’s Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection, Monica Green’s Women’s medical practice and health care in medieval Europe, and Debra Stoudt’s Medieval German Women and the Power of Healing all focused on the complex relationship between wise women and the medieval medical world.

The historiographical texts all tell the story of the medieval wise women’s extensive part in medical history. It also delves into the struggle that females generally had working in the predominantly male medical field in the medieval era. One interesting thing I noticed in my research is that Monica Green emphasizes in her essay, Women’s Healthcare in the Medieval West: Texts and Contexts, the sparseness of data that is available to health practitioners during the middle ages let alone female health care practitioners. Green also notes that there has been no comprehensive archival study of information on female medieval health care practitioners. She questions, why this is? And encourages more extensive research into it. This questioning about lack of evidence is something we have done many times in our seminar throughout this semester with different medieval texts. For example, while we read about the plague the lack of records surrounding the epidemic were comparable to the lack of records for female health care practitioners. When looking at the historical context around the plague the lack of data makes sense due to the death toll and other circumstances. However, in the context of women’s healthcare, this lack of evidence leaves the unanswered questions of where the data is, and why is it that this was not included.

Bibliography

  1. Jacoba Felicie vs the Faculty of Medicine Paris, France, 1322.
  2. Furst, Lilian R. Women Healers & Physicians: Climbing a Long Hill. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
  3. Green, Monica Helen. Women’s Healthcare in the Medieval West: Texts and Contexts. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000.
  4. Park, Katharine. “Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection.” 2006.
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