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Women Healers of the Middle Ages: Selected Aspects of Their History

Women Healers of the Middle Ages: Selected Aspects of Their History

By William L. Minkowsli

American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 82, No. 2 (1992)

Introduction: She was known as the Angel of Alsace Street. As a bonnefemme, she was wise in the ways of folk medicine, midwifery, and disposal of the dead. Responding to all who called on her for healing and comfort, she was cherished in her wretchedly poor English neighborhood. Her compensation was love, respect, and a paltry pittance for her unstinting labors. She was the woman healer of the Middle Ages, the quintessential woman healer of every age.

Healing has always been regarded as the natural responsibility of mothers and wives. With techniques learned from family and friends or from observation of other healers, women have always succored the whimpering, feverish child and mended the wounded worker-warriorhunter husband. But because they were excluded from academic institutions, female healers of the Middle Ages had little opportunity to contribute to the science of medicine. Rather, they served as herbalists, midwives, surgeons, barber-surgeons, nurses, and empirics, the traditional healers. As women of lower or higher birth, as nuns in convents or members of secular orders, these healers were notable for their devotion to the sick under the most stressful circumstances. Untutored in medicine, they used therapies based on botanicals, traditional home remedies, purges, bloodletting, and native intelligence. Their medications were compounded of plant materials, some superstition, and a dash of charlatanism.

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