Forgotten Women: Witches, Healers and Medicine Women

What we now term homeopathic healers, were women back in the day -- the "day" being early modern history. But because women largely shared their knowledge with each other, their expertise and acumen missed out on getting a prominent place in the historical record.
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Chicken soup for the 16th-century soul? Well, kind of. If your chicken soup has snails or mole blood in it.

The fact is, many of what we now term homeopathic healers, were women back in the day -- the "day" being early modern history, for instance. But because women largely shared their knowledge with each other, their expertise and acumen missed out on getting a prominent place in the historical record -- or a place at all.

A dusting off of centuries-old documents points the spotlight in their direction.

This was the focus of Beyond Home Remedy: Women, Medicine, and Science -- a fascinating exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library that was the brainchild of Rebecca Laroche, associate professor of English at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Like our amorphous group of knitters' quiet contribution to history, these "Forgotten Women" formed the spine of medical and medicinal knowledge. Women as caretakers, in charge of the care and feeding of their families, meant that the kitchen often became the lab. Concocting cures naturally evolved into distilling tinctures and other scientific explorations in the healing arts.

This has a contemporary resonance in projects like Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, which encourages a return to getting our nutrition from food, as well as the ever-increasing interest in alternative medicine. In the 1500s though, "alternative" was the norm. "We've gotten so far away from our own healthcare," Laroche says ruefully. "We're so dependent on the medical establishment."

Another contemporary parallel: The rich could afford to go to a physician (although, as you'll see in the slideshow, that wasn't always the best care), but the poor went to the wise woman of the community. And lo! fears about witchcraft began to be exploited more for political than religious reasons.

Author of "Medical Authority and Englishwomen's Herbal Texts, 1550-1650", Laroche is also passionate about putting women back onto the scientific map. "As feminists, we're so bent on women having a presence in the scientific landscape now, but we have a place in science already," she says. "The idea that we don't is a fallacy."

Showing our presence in the past changes our relationship to the future, she says. I couldn't agree more.

Who's a witch, a wisewoman, a healer? See the slideshow:

Witches, Wisewomen & Healers
Three Witches(01 of 09)
"Double, double toil and trouble..." Trouble indeed. Women healers charged with witchery had more to do with their socio-economic status. But a wisewoman's healing practice didn't differ that much from that of upper-class medicine women. The recipe that Macbeth's witches incant is astonishingly accurate, Laroche says. The double toil may refer to how longit took to make these healing waters-- often days! See the Snail Water in slide 4.
Triall of Witch-craft(02 of 09)
Pamphlets, like this one by John Cotta in 1616, fanned anxieties about who your healer was. Men were licensed by the College of Physicians (they didn’t license women); midwives were licensed by the church; wisewomen took their chances and hoped nothing went wrong -- but they were essential to poor communities that couldn’t afford a doctor. Being a physician was considered sanctioned by god (origins of the rep doctors get for having a god-complex?). Cotta was particularly invested in this idea, says Laroche; his pamphlet was taken from his first book that basically lambasted everyone else – kind of a PR manual for his own practice.
Secrets of a Midwife(03 of 09)
Louise Bourgeois -- no, not the artist -- this one was midwife to the queen of France in the early 1600s. The only reason we have her wisdom is because she preserved them as a guide for her daughter. Laroche recounts an amazing incident of a pregnant woman who'd been kicked in the stomach by her husband. She came to Louise after a doctor told her she would lose the baby. From her personal experience and knowledge of the of the female body, Louise rigs up a truss for the woman that allows her to carry the child to term -- and several more after that.
Mmm, Snail Water!(04 of 09)
Soup is good food. Snail Water was an extremely popular remedy, passed from woman to woman, which served as sort of their "clinical trial". But does it work? That's the most oft-asked question, Laroche laughs, but really beside the point. "It worked as well then as our medicines do measured against medicines in the future." [Think hundreds of years from now.] Compared to the multi-syllabic vowel-challenged ingredients of today, at least you know what a snail is -- earthworms are in it too, yummy -- so there's your minerals. Plus, there were lots of herbs & vegetables, so it was probably very nutrient-rich, says Laroche. Still. It's very labor-intensive; you might want to stick with chicken soup.
She Took a Powder(05 of 09)
Elizabeth Talbot Grey, Countess of Kent took a powder and made it famous. It eventually made her famous too -- well, sort of. The book "A Choice Manual" ("A Choice Manual, or Rare Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery Collected and Practised by the Right Honourable the Countess of Kent"), published after her death, gives her credit for the recipe for Gascon's Powder that was effectual at that time. "Women had a working knowledge of the making of medicines that early scientific experiments were building upon," says Laroche, underscoring her point that women have been at the forefront of the medical field all along.
Your Countess/Your Pharmacist(06 of 09)
Like her sister in the previous slide, Aletheia Talbot Howard, Countess of Arundel was also involved in the healing arts. Both are examples of the keen interest upper-class women took in medical practice but since they couldn't be practicing physicians they often directed their healing talents in charitable directions. Also because they were usually well-read and well-educated, their recipes, like many contained in this posthumous publicationnow attributed to Aletheia, evinced advanced scientific understanding, such as Paracelsian chemistry.
Kitchen as laboratory(07 of 09)
Hannah Woolley deserves her own "Forgotten Women" page. Actually they all do, but she was perhaps the first to make a living writing what were essentially self-help books for women. And she used those books as a platform for in-person consults, a very contemporary notion. Her knowledge of the healing arts was extensive and she was well-respected for her expertise despite her "amateur" status. The frontispiece of this book shows all manner of women's work using the kitchen for the preparation of tinctures and medicines.
Sirrop of Violets(08 of 09)
Wealthy women, like the aforementioned countesses might have had a separate room as a distillery, as opposed to Hannah Woolley's kitchen. But they were all working with shared recipes, like Syrup of Violets. This tincture formed the basis of Robert Boyle's experiments that established how to determine pH levels but women such as Hannah had already noted the changes that occurred when you added acids (e.g., lemon) or alkalines to the broth. What else stocked the medicine cabinet? Hart's horn (grated, of course) for the Snail Water & Mole blood -- said to grow hair back (note to self: check ingredients of Rogaine).
Helena the Homeopath(09 of 09)
Helena, Shakespeare's heroine in All's Well That Ends Well, offers to heal the king (who does look rather green and cadaverous here) with "prescriptions of rare and proved effects" that her father left her, which Laroche says points out the "wonderful sense of networking" of medical knowledge. And that it ran the gamut of social strata. She also extracted a hefty fee for her services -- she got to choose her own husband -- woo hoo!

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Check out more Forgotten Women. For more on women then and now, see Gerit Quealy's columns on

All images by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC.

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