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Gerit Quealy

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Forgotten Women: Witches, Healers and Medicine Women

Posted: 05/17/11 12:53 PM ET

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:

Three Witches
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"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 long it took to make these healing waters-- often days! See the Snail Water in slide 4.
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Check out more Forgotten Women. For more on women then and now, see Gerit Quealy's columns on StyleGoesStrong.com

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

 

Follow Gerit Quealy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/historychiq