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.)
Although this is an academic monograph, that example shows the down to earth, compelling, nature of the story it has to tell – I was particularly taken by the story of Anna of Saxony, the most powerful woman in the Germany of her day, who was a serious healer, with a large team of staff dedicated simply to the preparation of medicines, who decided she needed an extra staff member in 1576. She specified that the administrator staffed with the job search should look for an older woman, preferably a widow, who was hardworking, loyal and industrious, from an honest family, with a good intellect. she needn’t however know about distilling. “As long as she is a little bit clever, we personally intend to teach her everything she needs to know.” Sounds like a good way to recruit!
But there’s only one star of this show, Dorothea of Mansfeld, who was the expert at the centre of the growth of gentlewomen healers, helped by the fact that she lived to the ripe old age of 81, working to the end. Her fame came in large part because she helped the poor, sometimes they came in their hundreds in one day, and she claimed that her medicaments sometimes worked miracles. Yet she was clearly also a shrewd healer. One of her tales is of her successful treatment of a woman with breast cancer – which we might today doubt – but certainly her explanation that she gave the woman hope, when other professionals had told her her case was hopeless, shows real psychological insight.
Rankin, helped by voluminous surviving letters, shows how Dorothea used her healing to navigate through the turbulent waters of the Reformation (respected by both Protestants and Catholics, she left nothing that gives real insight into her own views, which was surely no accident)’ and through the deep social and financial slide of her own family, which went bankrupt and lost its lands. That’s not to say that Dorothea was cynical, she probably wasn’t, but she ran a fine line in self-promotion and avid cultivation of patronage networks, particularly with Anna of Saxony.
These are not characters who are household names – although in Germany Dorothea and Anna continue to be remembered in their home areas – but they are fascinating characters that have left enough of their lives to history for this rich telling of their stories. If you are interested in medical or scientific history, or women’s history, or just understanding early modern lives, this is well worth a read.