Magic and Medicine in a Man’s World: The Medieval Woman as both Healer and Witch
By Abigail Casey
Proceedings of The National Conference On Undergraduate Research (NCUR) 2016
Abstract: Medieval women live in the shadows of literary remembrance. Primary literature, much of it written by men, does little to give us an intimate knowledge of women’s work and lives. Nonetheless, they were an integral part of medieval life, particularly in the delivery of health care. Operating within the sphere of the home or the nunnery, women were largely responsible for tending to common ailments, treating childhood diseases, and attending to women in labor. With no formal education, they based their medical care in the practical application of botanical compounds, and religious and secular superstition. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, universities began offering medical education to male students, and formally-trained male physicians began practicing alongside nurses and midwives with informal training. This paper intends to show that a new combination of competition and deeply rooted antagonism towards the female sex tilted the public perception of women healers from well-respected necessities to witches and charlatans. This project explores the conflicting images of women as healers and women as charlatans, in reference to medieval gender conflicts, through a collective analysis of primary literature, including texts by Trotula, Hildegard of Bingen, and Jacqueline Felicie, as well as art from the Middle Ages.
Introduction: In twenty-first century America, with a pharmacy in every town and a remedy for nearly every malady, it is hard to imagine the extent of the gulf of knowledge that separates modern medicine from medieval medicine. Medieval medicine was often a guessing game, a mixture of heuristics, oral traditions, practical remedies and grossly ineffective treatments. Just as the poor efficacy of medieval medicine contrasts drastically with modern medicine, so does the difference in accessibility to professional healthcare. A well-trained, reasonably-priced physician was often impossible to find, and thus much of medieval healthcare was delivered and developed by empirical practitioners: mothers, nuns, midwives, and ‘wise women.’
Unfortunately, most medieval women live in the shadows of literary remembrance. Primary medieval literature, much of it written by men, significantly under-represents the work and influence of the medieval woman. As a result there are few direct accounts to give us an intimate knowledge of women’s work and lives. Despite a disproportionate lack of individual accounts from medieval women, their collective influence upon history confirms that they were an integral part of the delivery of practical and essential healthcare.
This paper intends to show that a combination of competition and strong medieval gender roles contributed to the tilting of the public perception of women healers from well-respected necessities to witches and charlatans, ultimately leading to the professionalization of medicine. This shift in perception towards women healers led to the general exclusion of women from advanced medical practice for the next five centuries, and the depersonalization of medicine that has only now been corrected within the last fifty years.