Saturday 23 July 2016

Woman healers of the Seventeenth Century, by Leslie Wilson

A Young Lady called Henrietta Boyle, Christian Friedrich Zincke, Wikimedia 

If you think about women in medicine in the past, the chances are you'd think first of all of midwives, and yet, four hundred years or so ago, women were playing an active role in medical care. The philosopher Hobbes said he much preferred 'an experienced old woman' to the 'most learned and inexperienced physician.' Nowadays, people speak perjoratively of 'old wives' tales,' and yet medical research often confirms views that doctors used to dismiss (like getting a cold if your feet get wet).

Far from being amateurs, the women had access to medicines handed down from generation to generation, with proven efficacy. Sir Ralph Verney, writing to his wife in 1647, advised her to give her child 'n phisick but such as midwives and old women, with the doctors approbation, doe prescribe; for assure yourselfe they by experience know better than any phisition how to treat such infants.' Women cured lame legs, brought down swollen arms, worked as oculists.
spearmint, once used to cure watering eyes

Some of these were paid, but others, notably aristocratic ladies, did the work for no pay. One of these was Madam Springett, the mother-in-law, from her first marriage, of the early Quaker Mary Pennington, and I can't do better than to quote from what her daughter-in-law wrote about her in later life.

'She kept several poor women employed in summer, simpling (gathering herbs) for her; and in winter procuring for her such things as she wanted in surgery, physic, and sore eyes. She had excellent judgment in all these, and admirable success; which made her famous, and sought unto out of several counties, by persons of the first rank, as well as those of other classes. She daily employed her servants in making oils, salves, balsams, drawing of spirits, distilling of waters, making syrups and conserves, lozenges and pills.
 melissa officinalis, calming herb and good for digestion

She was so famous for taking off spots and cataracts from the eyes, that Stephens, the great oculist, sent many to her, when the case was difficult.. She cured.. many desperate burns, and cuts, and dangerous sores that came by them.. One very remarkable cure of a burn I shall mention. A child's head was so burnt, that its skull was like a coal: she brought it to have skin and hair, and invented a thin pan of beaten silver, covered with bladder, to preserve the head in case of a knock or fall.'

People came hundreds of miles to consult Madam Springett, and stayed in the area while she dealt with their case, sometimes for months. She could have twenty patients to see in a morning.

Being a lady of substance, she never took a penny for these services, though she did make wealthy patients buy the ingredients for the medicines.

What is clear from the above account is that Madam Springett relied on the expert knowledge of her female herb-gatherers, and also must have trained the servants who made up the medicines. I wonder if some of them subsequently set up as healers on their own account? I would also love to have the details of her cures for cataracts.
eye-bright, for eye problems!

Doubtless some of the illnesses went away of their own accord, and the placebo factor may also have been involved. But dermatological conditions, for example, are notably tricky to treat. I have found myself, through trial and error, that witch hazel is better for the inflammation I get from some mosquito bites than any steroid creams or anti-histamines, and many herbal 'house remedies' remain unattested simply because the big pharma companies aren't interested in testing or developing them.

In those days, you had the choice between a woman who had spent years observing illness and the effects of various herbal substances on them, or a doctor who had trained in what was largely a theoretical discipline, based on 'humours', and eager to let pints of blood from already weakened patients, literally bleeding some of them to death. The women healers were arguably the more scientific of the two.
The doctor's visit, Jan Steen, (Google Art Project)

Women (particularly aristocratic women) also functioned as bone-setters, so when one of the villagers in my novel 'Malefice' broke his leg, Alice Slade, the local 'cunning woman' was called in to set it, because the lady of the manor was in childbed.

However, even in Henry VIII's reign, legislation was being passed to restrict women's work in this respect. As with midwifery, the male doctors formed professional associations and excluded women, though of course household and herbal remedies continued to be practised, but this was more and more confined to the women's own families and friends.

In addition, as the eighteenth century progressed, more and more villages were removed from proximity from the great houses. Blenheim and Nuneham Courtney spring to mind. The lady of the manor must have been similarly cut off. She might still sally out to visit the poor, but only to dole out broths and advice. In Capability Brown's centenary year, it's worth considering how his landscape gardening quarantined the gentry from their 'inferiors.' If you want to see how it used to be, before Brown, Kent et al started holding their noses at the whiff of a cottage, go to Chastleton House in Oxfordshire. It's almost shocking to see how cheek-by-jowel the village is with the great house. Madam Springett's local patients, in such a set-up, would have found it an easy walk to the doctor.

The Working Life of Seventeenth Century Women, by Alice Clark
Experiences in the life of Mary Pennington (written by herself) with preface by Gil Skidmore,  Friends Historical Society.
Malefice, by Leslie Wilson, reissued on Kindle May 2016


Anonymous said...

"Like getting a cold if your feet get wet"?

Do you have a source? I understood that scientific experiments (including having college students sit around on giant ice cubes) had mythbusted this.

Susan Price said...

Whether or not you're right about wet feet giving rise to colds, Leslie, this is a fascinating post, which I enjoyed a lot.

I created a similiar 'lady of the manor' in Mistress Crosar - she's one of the main characters in 'A Sterkarm Tryst' which is published this autumn. She's very proud of her still-room and the medicines and ointments she makes in it.

Wish I could have read this post before I finished the book!

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, it was reported in the New Scientist. I believe the research was carried out by the Cold Research Institute (I know that's not the proper title, but hey!) I'm glad you liked the blog, Sue! Can't wait for the Sterkarm Tryst!

Elizabeth St.John said...

Wonderful post - fascinating time. This is so dear to my heart! Here's a link to an article about Lady Johanna St.John's Recipe Book which is curated within the Wellcome Foundation Library in London. Her medicinals and the stories behind them were turned into a play that was performed at Lydiard in her walled "miracle garden" a few years ago.

Lady Johanna's seventeenth century recipes span everything from the King's Evil to Cancer, to being bitten by a mad dog. And, many of them work for her livestock as well as her human patients.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, I use witch hazel for mosquito bites(admittedly from a bottle!). It's a soothing thing to put on them. I wrote a children's book on women in science, but can't recal, the name of the old wise woman who discovered the healing properties of foxgloves and had it pinched by one William Withering, who nowadays gets the credit for the discovery.

Leslie Wilson said...

Thanks for the link, Elizabeth! Was Lady Johanna an ancestor of yours?

Rwdyer said...

Fascinating article, Leslie. I am searching for a historical character of this period who specialized in herbal treatments. Madam Springett looks to be the perfect example. I am having trouble finding much on her younger years or from whence she gained her knowledge. Do you have any additional sources for me?

Leslie Wilson said...

I’m afraid I can’t, Richard. It’s one of the frustrating things about finding out about women; they pop up and disappear. Try reading the Mary Pennington book, though, and you could try the library at Friends House, Euston Road. They might be able to tell you if it’s worth your while to go there. I’ve found them very helpful in the past.