In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women and Medicine

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • The History of the Patient
  • Gendering Illness
  • Menstruation
  • Pregnancy and Fertility
  • Experiencing Childbirth
  • Anatomy
  • Sexing the Body
  • Gender and Generation
  • Gynecology and Obstetrics
  • The Work of Midwifery
  • Studies of Individual Midwives
  • Man-Midwifery
  • Representations of Midwifery and Midwifery Texts

Renaissance and Reformation Women and Medicine
Mary E. Fissell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0278


Women played substantial roles as healers in Renaissance and Reformation Europe, as well as experiencing ill health and serving as a focus of medical inquiry. The history of pre-modern women and medicine received its first modern treatment in a 1930s overview by a feminist physician, but the topic only began to receive sustained attention from the 1970s, when women’s history emerged as an academic discipline and the history of medicine became oriented to social history. Prior to this period, the history of medicine had emphasized the scientific developments that led to breakthroughs and the men who had made them and was often written by physicians. The ordinary everyday practice of medicine, let alone the kinds of domestic or marginal healing often performed by women, were simply not part of the agenda of the discipline. Feminist scholarship of the 1970s, combined with a new social history of medicine, broadened the remit of historians of medicine. Initially, historians offered stories of how male doctors elbowed female midwives out of the birthing room: a kind of feminist morality tale, a rejoinder to late 19th and early 20th century obstetricians’ portrayals of midwives as ignorant, superstitious, and dangerous. Such portrayals, of course, tell us more about the politics of obstetrics at the turn of the 20th century than they do about early modern midwives. Scholarship on women, health, and healing has expanded considerably since the 1970s, and such studies often complicate or nuance our more general understanding of early modern health and healing. First, scholarship on practitioners has broadened beyond midwives. While midwives were significant health-care providers (often the only medical occupation to be clearly designated in many historical records) we can now situate them in a much larger array of female healers. Healers ranged from the many women who prepared sophisticated medicines in their homes and treated family, friends, and neighbors, to the more specialized health-care workers such as searchers (who examined bodies to determine cause of death) and the variety of women who provided forms of nursing care in their own and others’ homes and in hospitals. Research into women and women’s experiences has also extended into other areas of medical history. Scholars have developed the history of the patient by examining the role of gender in shaping how women (and men) experienced illness and made meaning of their sufferings. Historians have also explored how ideas and practices about gender and body intersect with the history of medicine in multiple ways, from studies of popular ideas about reproduction to a new interpretation of the rise of anatomy that takes gender as a central category of analysis.

General Overviews

There is only one overview specifically focusing on women as health-care providers in the early modern period (Whaley 2011), but it is not deeply grounded in the history of medicine, nor does it connect practices to medical theory about women’s bodies. Much valuable information about women and medicine can be gained from Lindemann 2010 and its social history of early modern medicine, and Elmer 2004; Siraisi 1990 focuses on learned medicine, so it has somewhat less to say about women. Hurd-Mead 1938 is a pioneering work written by a feminist physician in the 1930s; it was the first book to highlight the history of women’s work in healing.

  • Elmer, Peter, ed. The Healing Arts: Health, Disease, and Society in Europe, 1500–1800. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004.

    Provides an overview of early modern medicine. Written as a textbook for the Open University, this collection is particularly strong on the role of religion.

  • Green, Monica. “Gendering the History of Women’s Healthcare.” Gender and History 20.3 (November 2008): 487–518.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0424.2008.00534.x

    Offers a new model for understanding early modern female healers as neither victims of male persecution nor as skilled empirics, criticizing predominant models in the secondary literature.

  • Hurd-Mead, Kate Campbell. A History of Women in Medicine: From the Earliest of Times to the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Haddam, CT: Haddam, 1938.

    An early exploration of the broad sweep of women as healers.

  • Lindemann, Mary. Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    Provides an excellent overview of the social history of medicine in early modern Europe: practitioners, patients, institutions, and practices.

  • Siraisi, Nancy. Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226761312.001.0001

    Siraisi explicates the theory and practice of medicine in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

  • Whaley, Leigh. Women and the Practice of Medical Care in Early Modern Europe, 1400–1800. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230295179

    An overview of women as healers in France, Spain, Italy, and England from the late Middle Ages to 1800.

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