When one examines the recipe books of Early Modern Europe, it is not a challenge to find a plethora of recipes designed to cure certain ailments and heal the human body. This makes it clear that a large number of housewives had an interest in medicine and its practice, and inside the home a number of women probably actively engaged in the practice of medicine. However, outside of the household the story was rather contrasting. It was not that women did not want practice medicine outside of the household, but rather that many men disapproved of it. Male physicians and apothecaries actively sought to limit, and later even ban, the women who wanted to practice medicine. An example of this was the Paris Surgeon’s Guild, who after 1484 would only accept the widows of former Master Surgeons as members of the guild, and later in 1694 women were outright barred from membership. One could assume that this systematic persecution of women in the medical field resulted in the non-presence of female medical practitioners outside of the home, but this would not be true. There were still women who chose to practice medicine outside of the home, and this blog post will examine two sources that demonstrate the vital role that some women played in Early Modern medicine and healing.
The first source that will be examined is a letter written by Lady Mary Wortley Mortagu to a woman named Sarah Chiswell (a friend in England). The letter was written in April 1717, and concerns Montagu’s observation of the process that was used in Turkey to treat Smallpox. Montagu was living in Turkey as she was the wife of the British ambassador to Turkey. As Montagu is writing to a friend, I see little reason as to why she would lie about the events that she describes in her letter, and therefore they are most likely factually accurate.
Montagu starts of her letter by saying that “the Small Pox so fatal and so general amongst us is here entirely harmless by the invention of engrafting“. The Turkish, through a process that was known to Montagu as ‘engrafting’, but was more commonly known at the time as variolation have managed to totally eradicate the harmful effects of the disease. Montagu explains that there is a set of old women whom “make it their business” to carry out the procedure. Although it is not clear whether this means this women pursued this venture for profit or simply for the good of the people, it is clear that these elderly women carried out the treatment. Montagu then describes the process of ‘engrafting’ in great detail, frequently referring to the old woman throughout. For example, “the old woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox and asks what veins you please to have open’d“. This implies that the old woman has a good understanding of the anatomy of the human body, further emphasising her knowledge and involvement in the practice of medicine. Montagu also makes it clear that these women do not perform medicine just within their household, but rather that “every year thousands undergo this operation“. Obviously there are not thousands of people within these women’s households, and so it seems they were treating the community at large. Towards the end of the letter Montagu mentions that she wants to have the process carried out on her son, demonstrating the trust she has in the medical knowledge that these women possess.
The second source is another letter, this time written by a man named J. Hare to the famous Early Modern physician Hans Sloane. Hare was a vicar for the Parish of Cardington in Bedfordshire, England. The letter describes a man who falls ill and is subsequently treated by a local woman. Hare assures Sloane of the accuracy of his claims, saying “I affirm and in Testimony have subscribed my name” at the end of the letter. As Hare is a man of God, a testimony from him almost guarantees the authenticity of his statement.
The letter starts out by describing that a man within a household where Hare was staying had had an ear pain for two or three days, and upon a female servant searching the man’s ear she noticed small maggot like creatures within the ear cavity. Hare then says that a woman from the neighbourhood was sent for. According to Hare, the woman “applyd to it ye steam of warm milk“. The woman was sent for from the local area, and so was most likely already known within the area as a healer and practitioner of medicine. The woman applies the treatment to the patient, and a little later Hare manages to pick 24 maggots out of the man’s ear, although some still remain that were too far into the ear to reach. Hare then says he “left him for about an hour… & then returning to him, I could at first perceive nothing but a think bloody matter but by degrees they worked outward and I pickd out nine more“. Hare states the next day, the man was better and complained of no more pain. It seems the treatment the village woman had applied was likely responsible for the uptake in the man’s condition, as he had complained for several days of pain and suddenly no longer felt any. This exhibits the medical knowledge that this woman possessed, and gives us further evidence that women practiced medicine outside of their own homes. Interestingly enough, steam and is still known today to be an effective treatment for ear pain. Steam helps to clear the ear drum of pus and wax, which was most likely the bloody substance that Hare describes, and this seemed to push the maggots out of the patient’s ear.
Both these sources demonstrate that in the Early Modern period, some women were not only demonstrating exceeding medical knowledge, but they were also actively practicing outside of their home environment. Women were likely responsible for healing a large number of people from within their local communities, and even though they often were not allowed to become licensed medical practitioners, this did not stop them from trying to make a difference.