First published on Blogcritics
The traditional view of women healers of the medieval and early modern period has been that they were marginal, distrusted figures, at risk always of being cast as witches, enjoying little or no respect, if some fear. It’s a view that modern scholarship is gradually overturning. I was fascinated when I was reading about early modern England to learn of the respect with which midwives were held, and how, particularly in London, they were subjected to rigorous training and a strict licensing system that involved testimony from women they had attended in childbirth.
Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany by Alisha Rankin is a further piece of the story, showing how a wide cast of noblewomen enjoyed considerable respect for their medical knowledge, not just from their peers but also professional physicians, with whom they operated in general in concert, rather than competition.
Indeed the final chapter in this book, focused on Elizabeth of Rochlitz, who had a modest reputation as a healer, but here is studied most as a patient, provides a fascinating Insight into the actual experience of being treated for illness in early modern times.
Physicians – classically trained in book learning dating back to classical times, and with a traditional contempt for empirical evidence (although Rankin suggests that was fading) – tended to prescribe regimens, particularly diets, to match what they saw as the underlying problems of the patient, rather than treat particular symptoms. Barber- surgeons dealt with wounds and at least some of the time dressings. pharmacists, including the gentlewomen described here, were the true scientists of the time, testing and trying herbal and chemical treatments, sharing and comparing them.
Elisabeth – it is a sad story, suffered more than a decade of illness, which she resolutely refused to allow to be diagnosed as “the French disease” (syphilis). Rankin maintains her professional uncertainty in saying we can’t be sure, but given her father and brother died of it, this seems highly likely. There was of course stigma attached, which Rankin says may have been one reason for refusing to accept the diagnosis, but another may also have been her dislike of regimens- one suggested to her involved giving up garlic, onions, mustard, horseradish, spices, smoked protein, all food fried in butter, beans, lentils and sauerkraut, and wine. Quite a lot to ask of an aristocrat, even a minor one.
Instead, she put her faith in herbal remedies, aqua vitae (distilled strong liquor – which certainly must have made the patients feel better) and a barber surgeon’s plasters of egg white, honey, saffron and flour. (Which might actually have done her some good.)