‘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?

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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.

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