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‘A maid bringing medicine and soup to her master who has a cold.’ (1857)

Medicine Maidens: Why Did Women Become the Primary Medical Providers in Early Modern Households?

A primary female occupation in the early modern period (AD 1500-1800) was that of medicine. Though there were formal doctors—known by various titles and with various tasks detailed by their occupations—household women were often turned to as the first, second, and sometimes third source of medical aid. Men worked primarily as "proper" doctors: apothecaries created potions and salves, while barber-surgeons performed surgeries; women were assigned with midwifery because of the intimacy of childbirth. Yet women's roles gradually decreased in the medical field until even female midwives were few and far between (at least openly). Despite society's attempt to sequester women to the perimeter of the medical field, people could not afford the complete loss of women supplementing doctoral roles in both professional and practicing manners.

 A woman in bed recovering from childbirth, a midwife washes the baby while another attendant looks after the mother. Woodcut.

 A woman in bed recovering from childbirth, a midwife washes the baby while another attendant looks after the mother. Woodcut. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )

 

First Choice in Medical Care

Women were the first preference in medical care. More often than not, early modern people could not afford a proper barber-surgeon to attend to their wounds, or the potions of apothecaries, so they would first attempt to find healing at the hands of the women in their household. Mothers, wives, or sisters would tend to wounds as best they could, wrapping injuries when necessary or attempting their own healing brew (often potions, calming teas, or soup) depending on the type of injury/illness sustained. Even when the care of female house members failed, the next option for the patient was the wise women of his/her respective village. Usually this woman was along the same lines as an herb woman or—in some cases—a supposed witch. She was capable of concocting medicines—potions, lotions, or salves—and she generally performed prayers or chants over the injured person for less than an apothecary would charge or with no charge at all.

A witch, raising her arm above a cauldron, is making a potion; a young woman is kneeling in front of the cauldron.

A witch, raising her arm above a cauldron, is making a potion; a young woman is kneeling in front of the cauldron. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )

Following the wise woman was the elite woman, a wealthy, charitable village figure who might take pity on a person and attempt to aid for no charge. It was only after even the elite woman's techniques were exhausted that the injured or ill turned to the men of the trade, either peddlers, traveling quack-doctors, or if they could somehow afford it, true barber-surgeons. However, by this point in the sick/injured person's life, there was a very good chance his money would have been drastically depleted, or he would have died from the various ‘fixes’ attempted.

Practical and Religious Reasons to Seek Aid from Women

It is evident through this chain, then, that it was ingrained in the mentality of early modern people to first turn to the women of a household, not for financial purposes alone, but because they were women and were believed to be innately skilled in medical care. It was considered common sense to seek out another woman if those in the household could not heal the injured.  This logic stems from an assortment of reasons, both of practical and religious kinds.

Painting of a young housewife by Alexey Tyranov.

Painting of a young housewife by Alexey Tyranov. ( Public Domain )

On the practical level, though lowest on the doctoral hierarchy, women were believed to be quite skilled at medicine due to the various tasks they were already allotted based solely on their sex.  Care of children, midwifery, and brewing were all labors of the early modern women, out of convenience or religious inclination. As women were left to tend to the household, the young children were often in their care, presenting various opportunities for women to learn tending skills, as children would often fall sick or injure themselves during chores or games. Even in families that were wealthy enough to have servants, it was the female servants who saw to the children and thus cared for them when they were ill or injured.

The biblical side of women's care stems from the Bible's profession that “…women 'by experience know better than any physician how to treat such infants.'”  This theory—and thus men's acquiescence to women's abilities—stems strictly from the biblical decree that women birth children and tend to them intuitively (though this might have been understood differently in the early modern period), so it was sensible that they understood how to tend other beings too.

A midwife giving the Virgin Mary her first bath. Anna is visited by well-wishers congratulating her on the birth. Colored line engraving.

A midwife giving the Virgin Mary her first bath. Anna is visited by well-wishers congratulating her on the birth. Colored line engraving. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )

Women's medicinal roles began to change with the study of science, and as time went on, new methods began to replace the old. The initial Galenic approach, derived from the classical scholar, was comprised of a humoral based system. An imbalance of the humors was believed to be the cause for most illnesses, so holistic medicine was utilized to attempt to heal the sick by rebalancing. For example, if an ill woman was being tended, since women are cold and moist according to Galens' humors, she would be given a hot medicine to equalize whichever of her humors was overwhelming her.

18th century depiction of the four temperaments: Phlegmatic and choleric (above) Sanguine and melancholic (below).

18th century depiction of the four temperaments: Phlegmatic and choleric (above)
Sanguine and melancholic (below). (
Public Domain )

Lady Grace Mildmay, Combining Medical Techniques

By the 16th century, however, another common mode of practice was put in place by Paracelsus.  Paracelsus disagreed with Galen's approach, and instead believed that disease was brought on by the infection of seeds within the body. This new mode of medicine began the belief in disease "species," as Pollock describes it, and the practice of looking at certain symptoms before determining the remedy - rather than assuming balance was necessary. The Paracelsian idea was "that man was to transform the raw products of nature into a state appropriate for man's utilization" and from this product came a cure. This herbal and vegetable solution to medicine was accepted in England because of its "tradition of alchemical medicine." Women—many of whom tended to turn to herbal medicine, particularly the wise women and witches—approved of this new approach because of its alchemical roots. 

Female physician in the process of bloodletting. 1400 - 1425 (From an early 15th century English manuscript, The British Library).

Female physician in the process of bloodletting. 1400 - 1425 (From an early 15th century English manuscript, The British Library). ( Public Domain )

One particular woman revolutionized women's study of medicine by combining the Galenic and Paracelsian techniques. Lady Grace Mildmay, an elite woman, was a prime example of a non-professional, female medical practitioner who gained a great deal of her skill from reading or experimenting with remedies. Lady Mildmay was one of the few healing women who read to gain knowledge, rather than learned her craft on the job, reading such herbal and astrological documents as Galen and Paracelsus to gain information on medical matters. As an elite woman, Lady Mildmay had quite a bit of money at her disposal to experiment with cures - she was able to afford exotic materials and could offer her services for free with little impact on herself.

Grace Mildmay.

Grace Mildmay. ( Lacock Unlocked )

Other Notable Female Medical Practitioners

Though she does not represent a large population of female practitioners, her importance lies in her ability to gain the respect of the male doctoral class, providing evidence that is was possible for women to gain a successful reputation in medical circles at the time. Toward the end of the 17th century, it even appears to have become common practice for women to attempt to obtain licenses in their chosen medical fields. Often granted by churches—another indication of the religious connection to the female medical field—women such as Margaret Neale sought to be professionally acknowledged as doctors, in her case: a surgeon. There is also an increase in evidence of licenses granted to women around then, indicating that there was also a rise in the acceptance of women having an official medical profession. 

Two female doctors discussing a patient.

Two female doctors discussing a patient. (Wellcome images/ CC BY 4.0 )

As time continued, however, many female medical practitioners were gradually phased out, as men deemed themselves “better prepared.” Midwifery is the best example of this shift, as it had been a singularly female role for centuries. Men, even husbands, were banned from the delivery area because of the intimate nature of birth. However, as doctors expanded their knowledge into the field of feminine medicine, they began sneaking into the delivery room disguised as women for a personal examination. Before long, women had once again been relegated to the background of medical tasks and, as men became viewed as the predominant midwives, even the practice of teaching midwifery within the home vanished. The skill, therefore, faded out of families.

Though the profession underwent changes in the early modern period, women were fortunate enough to not lose their professional positions completely. Midwifery might have suffered when universities decided to expand their curriculum, however other forms of licensure were still granted to women with medical knowledge and skill.

Whether backed by churches or privileged enough to be born into wealthy families, women remained on the medical scene throughout the early modern period in varying capacities. The shifting of this profession could never completely disregard women, despite what attempts men made, because illnesses would always need to be tended to and ‘proper’ doctors and barber-surgeons would never be enough in numbers or a rational choice economically. Thus, though women might have lost some of their official powers to the opposite sex, they did not entirely lose their practices.

Women doctors being trained to care for women patients, 1887, from The Graphic.

Women doctors being trained to care for women patients, 1887, from The Graphic. ( Public Domain )

Top Image: ‘A maid bringing medicine and soup to her master who has a cold.’ (1857) Source: Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0

By Riley Winters

Bibliography

Bennett, Judith M. 1996. Women's Work in a Changing World 1300-1600: Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Coxe, John Redman. (eds.) 1846. The Writings of Hippocrates and Galen. Epitomised from the Original Latin translations . Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston. Accessed August 7, 2017.

Debru, Armelle. 1997. Galen on Pharmacology: Philosophy, History, and Medicine: Proceedings of the Vth International Galen Colloquium, Lille, 16-18 March 1995. BRILL.

Ehrenreich, B. and D. English. 1974. Witches, Midwives and Healers: A History of Women Healers. London.

Pollock, Linda. 1993. With Faith and Physic: The Life of a Tudor Gentlewoman, Lady Grace Mildmay 1552-1620 . London: Collins & Brown Ltd.

Nutton, V. 2004. Ancient Medicine . Routledge: NY.

Webster, Charles. 2008. Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic, and Mission at the End of Time . Yale University Press.

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