Renaissance and Reformation Women and Medicine
by
Mary E. Fissell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0278

Introduction

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.

Journals

The four major English-language journals in the history of medicine (the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Social History of Medicine, and Medical History) each publish essays on a very wide array of topics in medical history, including women and medicine. Dynamis publishes in Spanish and English and has produced some helpful special issues. Early Science and Medicine publishes on topics up through the 18th century; its history of medicine articles are often focused more on ideas than practices. Some key articles on women and medicine have been published in women’s history journals, such as Gender and History rather than history of medicine ones.

The History of the Patient

Beginning in the 1980s, historians of medicine turned from examining doctors to analyzing their patients as well. Some of the early classics in this field such as Porter 1985 and Beier 1987 discuss female patients but rarely use gender as an analytic category (see section on Gendering Illness). Anselment 1996, Broomhall 2002, and Rankin 2008 examine the experiences of specific women patients, usually those who were wealthy enough to record their experiences. Siena 2004 examines poor patients, recovering experiences of VD by focusing on a remarkable range of institutional provision of care in London. Smith 2003 complicates the doctor-patient dynamic by considering the role of family members in negotiating health care.

Gendering Illness

After the first wave of scholarship on the history of the patient, historians began to examine how patients’ experiences were shaped by gender in a wide variety of ways. Duden 1991 is a pioneering study of a German doctor’s female patients: the study revealed that such women had ideas about how their bodies worked that differed from those of learned medical practitioners. Kassell 1999 uses a casebook to reconstruct gender relations between patient and practitioner, while Weisser 2013 emphasizes the differences in the ways men and women understood illness. Rublack 2001 highlights the gendered understanding of bodily fluids. Herbert 2009 explores women’s experiences at spas, while Lutes 1997 focuses on a single patient. Dixon 1995 explores representations of women’s illness in art.

  • Dixon, Laurinda. Perilous Chastity: Women and Illness in Pre-Enlightenment Art and Medicine. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

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    Examines paintings of lovesick young women visited by doctors in order to explore the social history of the disease furor uterinus.

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  • Duden, Barbara. The Woman Beneath the Skin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

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    Duden uses a male doctor’s records of his female patients to reconstruct the ways that those women experienced and understood their bodies.

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  • Herbert, Amanda. “Gender and the Spa: Space, Sociability and Self at British Health Spas, 1640–1714.” Journal of Social History 43.2 (Winter 2009): 361–383.

    DOI: 10.1353/jsh.0.0260Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Elite women who went to spas in England for their health combined health care with a female homosocial experience in which they were free to discuss many aspects of health and their bodies, creating a kind of shared female authority.

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  • Kassell, Lauren. “How to Read Simon Forman’s Case Books: Medicine, Astrology, and Gender in Seventeenth-Century London.” Social History of Medicine 12 (1999): 3–18.

    DOI: 10.1093/shm/12.1.3Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Forman was a prominent astrological healer in Elizabethan London; extensive case records reveal how Forman struggled to gain the confidence of his female patients, many of whom were reluctant to share details of their sexual activities with a male practitioner.

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  • Lutes, Jean Marie. “Negotiating Theology and Gynecology: Anne Bradstreet’s Representations of the Female Body.” Signs 22 (1997): 309–340.

    DOI: 10.1086/495158Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines Bradstreet’s descriptions of physicality through spiritual and medical discourse to show how her model of feminine experience situated itself within a dynamic network of competing ideas about women’s bodies.

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  • Rublack, Ulinka. “Körper, Geschlecht und Gef ühl in der Frühen Neuzeit.” Historische Zeitschrift 272.1 (2001): 99–105.

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    Essay explores ideas about the importance of bodily fluids and the flow of emotions, particularly in relation to ideas about elite men’s friendships and the bodies of female witches.

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  • Weisser, Olivia. “Grieved and Disordered: Gender and Emotion in Early Modern Patient Narratives.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 43 (2013): 247–273.

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    Weisser shows that 17th-century men’s and women’s experiences of illness, and their narrations of them, differed in the ways that they understood the relationship of emotions to ill health.

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Menstruation

Historians were slow to examine menstruation, a bodily experience specific to women. Crawford 1981 is a pioneering essay that uses a range of social history sources such as letters and diaries to begin to reconstruct early modern English attitudes to menstruation; Hindson 2009 argues that Crawford’s model is too unitary, while Lord 1999 explores a slightly later time period and demonstrates strong continuities over time. Evans 2012 reminds us that regular menstruation was crucial to a woman’s health in the humoral medical system, and Stolberg 1999 examines how menopause was therefore also potentially harmful.

Pregnancy and Fertility

As with menstruation, Crawford pioneered the exploration of women’s experiences of reproductive events with Crawford 1978, an essay focused on a specific woman. De Renzi 2010, Rublack 1996, and McClive 2002 all take a cultural history approach to reconstructing beliefs about and experiences of pregnancy. Huet 1993 and Todd 1995 explore the dark side of pregnancy, when a mother’s body produces some form of monstrosity. Klepp 2009 examines fertility by embedding contraceptive practices into a larger analysis of cultural meanings of family and motherhood in Revolutionary-era America.

Experiencing Childbirth

Historians have examined childbirth form a wide variety of perspectives. Gelis 1991 and Wilson 1990 both take an ethnographic approach, attempting to reconstruct the practices of childbirth and their meanings, while Cressy 1997 explores such practices in relation to the ceremonies of the Church. Musacchio 1999 takes a similar approach, focusing upon a material artifact. Both Atkinson 1990 and Howard 2003 also situate the childbirth in a religious context. Pollock 1997 and Fildes 1990 both place childbirth in the larger context of maternity and women’s relationships. Gowing 1997 offers us a micro-historical look at secret births when normal practices were not possible.

Anatomy

Park 2006 is a groundbreaking work that argues that women’s bodies and the interpretive issues they posed were central to medieval and Renaissance anatomy. Dacome 2007 and Messbarger 2010 both focus upon an Italian female anatomist who made wax models.

Sexing the Body

Laqueur 1990 caused much debate: was his model of a transition from a one-sex to a two-sex model of sexual difference correct? Park and Nye 1991 offers an important early corrective. Pomata 2001 and Schiebinger 1986 offer evidence that highlights the similarities that Renaissance medical men saw between the sexes, while Churchill 2005, Gowing 2012, and Stolberg 2003 show us ways in which the one-sex model does not fully capture the history of the Renaissance and early modern body. Mclean 1980 remains the most useful entry point for understanding learned medicine’s varied opinions on sex difference.

  • Churchill, Wendy. “The Medical Practice of the Sexed Body: Women, Men, and Disease in Britain, circa 1600–1740.” Social History of Medicine 18.1 (April 2005): 3–22.

    DOI: 10.1093/sochis/hki006Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Churchill assesses the “one-sex” model of the body by looking at differences in the treatment of three diseases in male and female patients and concludes that treatments were gendered.

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  • Gowing, Laura. “Women’s Bodies and the Making of Sex in Seventeenth-Century England.” Signs 37.4 (Summer 2012): 813–822.

    DOI: 10.1086/664469Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Gowing argues that anatomical sex difference was not as significant in early modern England as the social differences between the sexes produced by a patriarchal structure and policed by women overseeing other women’s bodies by means of touch.

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  • Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

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    Laqueur argues that the two sexes were understood as fundamentally similar until the later 18th century, when larger political shifts helped underwrite a new model in which male and female were categorically different.

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  • Maclean, Ian. The Renaissance Notion of Woman: A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Intellectual Life. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511562471Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Analyzes scholarly ideas about women and gender difference in the Renaissance. A very helpful entry point for studying learned discourse on women’s bodies.

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  • Park, Katharine, and Robert Nye. “Destiny is Anatomy,” New Republic, 18 February 1991, 53–57.

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    Provides an important critique of Laqueur’s claim that pre-modern Europeans used a “one-sex model” to think about differences between men and women. They highlight the complex and often contradictory nature of medieval and Renaissance sources that often rely upon metaphysical distinctions between the sexes as well as physical ones.

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  • Pomata, Gianna. “Menstruating Men: Similarity and Difference of the Sexes in Early Modern Medicine.” In Generation and Degeneration: Tropes of Reproduction in Literature and History from Antiquity through Early Modern Europe. Edited by Valeria Finucci and Kevin Brownlee, 109–152. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

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    Men and women’s bodies were understood in very similar ways in the humoral medicine of the Renaissance: so similar that certain men were understood to undergo processes analogous to menstruation.

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  • Schiebinger, Londa. “Skeletons in the Closet: The First Illustration of the Female Skeleton in Eighteenth-Century Anatomy.” Representations 14 (1986): 42–82.

    DOI: 10.1525/rep.1986.14.1.99p01227Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that the skeleton was not portrayed as sexually differentiated in anatomy texts until the later 18th century, when changing political ideas reshaped ideas about sexual difference.

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  • Stolberg, Michael. “A Woman Down to Her Bones: The Anatomy of Sexual Difference in the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries.” Isis 94 (June 2003): 274–299.

    DOI: 10.1086/379387Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Stolberg analyzes the gendering of depictions of skeletons and thus sexual difference in the 16th and 17th centuries: other historians have argued that during this period, sexual difference was understood in fairly limited terms.

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Gender and Generation

A number of historians have analyzed a range of Renaissance medical books about generation (what we would call “reproduction”), reading them as gender prescriptions. While Fissell 2004 and Gowing 2003 both focus on 17th-century England, they analyze very different sources and end up with opposing views, Fissell emphasizing change while Gowing sees continuity. Keller 2007 explores medical writings as a way to examine ideas about the self, while Crowther-Heyck 2002 and Fissell 2003 examine popular medical works. Morgan 1997 analyzes travel writing about reproduction as a form of imperial boundary setting.

  • Crowther-Heyck, Kathleen. “‘Be Fruitful and Multiply’: Genesis and Generation in Reformation Germany.” Renaissance Quarterly 55.3 (Autumn 2002): 904–935.

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    Analyzes vernacular texts, showing that in Reformation Germany, the processes of reproduction were understood in deeply religious terms and as analogous to the biblical account of Creation. This discussion of reproduction prompted deeper reflection on issues such as original sin and the relationship between body and soul.

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  • Fissell, Mary E. “Hairy Women and Secret Truths; Gender and the Politics of Knowledge in Aristotle’s Masterpiece.” William and Mary Quarterly 60.1 (2003): 43–74.

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    Analyzes one of the most popular books about reproduction, showing how it appealed to both men and women.

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  • Fissell, Mary E. Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    Using “cheap print,” Fissell analyzes how changing ideas about conception, pregnancy, and women’s reproductive bodies mediated social and political changes such as the Reformation and English Revolution.

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  • Gowing, Laura. Common Bodies: Women, Touch, and Power in Seventeenth-Century England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

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    Gowing shows how women regulated and interrogated each other’s reproductive bodies in a range of contexts.

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  • Keller, Eve. Generating Bodies and Gendered Selves: The Rhetoric of Reproduction in Early Modern England. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007.

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    Examines the interrelations between medical writing about generation and childbirth and emerging early modern notions of selfhood.

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  • Morgan, Jennifer. “’Some Could Suckle Over Their Shoulder’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology.” William and Mary Quarterly 54.1 (January 1997): 167–192.

    DOI: 10.2307/2953316Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Morgan looks at how early explorers to the Americas described African enslaved women’s bodies and sexual behaviors in ways that heightened their differences from European women, particularly regarding reproduction and motherhood.

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Gynecology and Obstetrics

Late-20th- and early-21st-century scholars have produced rich accounts of the medical areas that focus on the reproductive health of women: gynecology and obstetrics. Eccles 1982 is a good introduction to English texts. Green 2008 traces the development of a sophisticated gynecology in the later Middle Ages, prompted in part by the need for aristocratic families to maintain bloodlines. King 2007 argues that the translation into Latin of the Hippocratic texts on women’s bodies in the 1520s gave European physicians a wealth of new textual material and a strong claim to assuming a significant role in managing women’s reproductive health. King 2002 focuses on a specific gynecological disease: green sickness. Park 1997 is a study on the clitoris; and Schiebinger 2007 studies a plant with contraceptive properties.

  • Eccles, Audrey. Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Tudor and Stuart England. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1982.

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    Contains a useful overview, along with an introduction to many of the key primary sources on childbirth for the period.

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  • Green, Monica. Making Women’s Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-Modern Gynaecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    Shows that in the Middle Ages, learned doctors were treating women for reproductive health issues. Such health care was not just the province of female healers but was also the subject of learned medical discourses.

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  • King, Helen. Midwifery, Obstetrics and the Rise of Gynaecology: The Uses of a Sixteenth-Century Compendium. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

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    Traces the history of a Hippocratic text on gynecology, first translated into Latin in the 1520s, that re-introduced learned European medicine to a Hippocratic understanding of the female body.

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  • King, Helen. The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis, and the Problems of Puberty. London: Routledge, 2002.

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    Analyzes the history of “green sickness,” an ailment in adolescent girls that is no longer diagnosed. Explores the disease’s cultural and social meanings in early modern England.

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  • Klairmont-Lingo, Alison. “The Fate of Popular Terms for Female Anatomy in the Age of Print.” French Historical Studies 22.3 (Summer 1999): 335–350.

    DOI: 10.2307/286711Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Explores the language used for women’s genitals in print, and controversies over the morality of putting such terms in print.

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  • Park, Katharine. “The Rediscovery of the Clitoris.” In The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe. Edited by David Hillman and Carla Mazzio, 171–193. New York: Routledge, 1997.

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    Explores the “discovery” of the clitoris by Renaissance anatomists and situates their findings in cultural contexts, including beliefs about female sexuality and same-sex relations.

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  • Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

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    Analyzes how slave women in the Caribbean made an abortifacient from an indigenous plant but their knowledge remained local.

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Practitioners

During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, historians began to recover a wide range of female healers in the Renaissance and Reformation. We now have scholarship on many types of women who worked in some sector of health care; midwives have been the subject of an extensive secondary literature, covered in the separate section Midwives and Childbirth. Both Fissell 2008 and Cabré and Gomez 1999 are special issues of journals that problematize the categories used to describe women as healers, while Broomhall 2004 and Pomata 1999 explore the range of female healers in France and Bologna respectively, demonstrating that women performed a very wide range of healing work.

Domestic

Most early modern medical care was performed in the home, and women were frequently the providers of such domestic care; but it was only in the late 20th and early 21st centuries that historians began to pay attention to such practices. Pollock 1993 was path-breaking in showing us just how intensive one Englishwoman’s medical practice was; Leong 2008 explores the intertwined medical practice and illness experiences of another such woman a century later. Rankin 2007 focuses on one German aristocrat who practiced in a court context, while Rankin 2012 explores a range of such practitioners. Snook 2008 reminds us that such women produced cosmetics as well as medicines.

Recipe Books

Related to the recent interest in women as domestic healers is the surge of interest in recipe books, both as evidence of medical practice and as a female-authored genre. Literary scholars, as seen in Field 2007, have explored recipes as a form of women’s writing, while Knoppers 2007 and Laroche 2010 have analyzed the relationships between printed and manuscript recipe, books, and herbals respectively. Historians of science and medicine, as seen in Hunter and Hutton 1997, Leong and Rankin 2011, and Pennell 2004, have cast recipe books as forms of scientific writing, considering recipe work as a form of experiment.

  • Field, Catherine. “‘Many Hands Hands’: Writing the Self in Early Modern Women’s Recipe Books.” In Genre and Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern England. Edited by Michelle Dowd and Julie Eckerle, 49–63. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

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    Situates recipe books as a genre of early modern women’s writing and explores their social production.

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  • Hunter, Lynette, and Sarah Hutton, eds. Women, Science and Medicine 1500–1700: Mothers and Sisters of the Royal Society. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 1997.

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    An edited collection of essays about women’s domestic knowledge production in early modern England, arguing that practices such as making and testing remedies were analogous to men’s early scientific work.

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  • Laroche, Rebecca. Medical Authority and Englishwomen’s Herbal Texts, 1550–1650. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2010.

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    Explores the ownership and use of printed herbals by women in early modern England.

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  • Knoppers, Laura Lunger. “Opening the Queen’s Closet: Henrietta Maria, Elizabeth Cromwell, and the Politics of Cookery.” Renaissance Quarterly 60 (2007): 464–499.

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    Knoppers explores the political meanings of recipe books linked to Queen Henrietta Maria and to Elizabeth Cromwell.

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  • Leong, Elaine, and Alisha Rankin, eds. Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500–1800. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

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    Collected essays that explore the many meanings of “secrets” in making medical and scientific knowledge.

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  • Pennell, Sara. “Perfecting Practice? Women, Manuscript Recipes and Knowledge in Early Modern England.” In Early Modern Women’s Manuscript Writing. Edited by Victoria E. Burke and Jonathan Gibson, 237–258. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004.

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    Argues that women’s manuscript recipe books are a form of medical knowledge and explores the complexities of their social production.

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Nursing and Caretaking

Both Cabré 2008 and Pelling 1998 emphasize that women’s roles as healers were co-extensive with their domestic responsibilities, making it difficult for historians to distinguish between work that was expected of all women and more specialized healing functions that only some women performed.

  • Cabré, Monserrat. “Women or Healers? Household Practices and the Categories of Health Care in Late Medieval Iberia.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 82 (2008): 18–51.

    DOI: 10.1353/bhm.2008.0040Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Explores the ambiguities inherent in the categories of late medieval female caregivers, which overlapped with those of mother, nurse, and friend.

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  • Pelling, Margaret. “Nurses and Nursekeepers: Problems of Identification in the Early Modern Period.” In The Common Lot: Sickness, Medical Occupations and the Urban Poor in Early Modern England. Edited by Margaret Pelling, 179–202. London: Longmans, 1998.

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    It is difficult to discern among the categories of female health-care providers in early modern records, such as between nurses who provided bedside care and wet nurses, but much female healing activity can be glimpsed in such records.

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Surgeons and Apothecaries

Surgeons and apothecaries were nearly always men in Renaissance Europe; both occupations were structured around guilds, at least in cities, and thus open only to men. However, because their work was usually performed in workshops in the home, these men’s wives often provided some measure of health care. Chamberland 2011 shows how London surgeons’ wives managed aspects of the health care their husbands provided while Cohen 2008 reveals a similar kind of overlap for Roman apothecaries; by contrast, Strocchia 2011 shows that Florentine nuns were significant drug providers.

Wet Nurses

Wet nurses were commonplace in Renaissance Europe and, as Otis 1986 shows, had been so from the Middle Ages; Fildes 1988b offers an overview from Antiquity to the 20th century, highlighting the variety of wet-nursing practices. Fildes 1988a rehabilitates the role of the wet nurse in early modern England by showing that such employment was relatively well paid for women’s work and was undertaken by relatively large numbers of women. Lindemann 1981 by contrast shows that Hamburg tried to regulate wet nurses because they had such a bad reputation. Sussman 1992 suggests that wet nurses in 18th-century France were not much better and documents the extent of the practice.

Practitioners and Institutions

Scholarship on the regulation of women practitioners has been relatively scarce, in part because medical regulation itself was only ever partial and sketchily applied to women. Women practitioners evoked a wide range of responses. Harkness 2008 argues that many in Elizabethan London were well respected, countering Pelling 2003, which bases its study on women prosecuted by the College of Physicians for practicing without a license. In every case, the structures of regulatory authority were relatively weak, and the state relied upon women health-care workers to provide a range of services, such as “searcher of the dead” (Munkhoff 1999) or “sworn witnesses” (McClive 2008). In rare instances, such as those documented in Logan 2003, women even had a role to play in fields dominated by men.

  • Harkness, Deborah E. “A View from the Streets: Women and Medical Work in Elizabethan London.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 82 (2008): 52–85.

    DOI: 10.1353/bhm.2008.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Harkness argues that women provided many kinds of health care in Elizabethan London and were often well respected by their clients and even by male physicians.

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  • Logan, G. Berti. “Women and the Practice and Teaching of Medicine in Bologna in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 77.3 (Fall 2003): 506–535.

    DOI: 10.1353/bhm.2003.0124Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Prior to the French conquest of Bologna in 1796, a few exceptional women such as Anna Morandi were permitted to excel in “masculine” areas such as anatomy, but afterward the few women who got university degrees were steered toward “feminine” fields such as midwifery training.

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  • McClive, Catherine E. “Blood and Expertise: The Trials of the Female Medical Expert in the Ancien-Régime Courtroom.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 82 (Spring 2008): 86–108.

    DOI: 10.1353/bhm.2008.0039Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In early modern France some midwives had an official function in the courtroom, testifying to matters about women’s reproductive bodies, such as pregnancy and rape.

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  • Munkhoff, Rachelle. “Searchers of the Dead: Authority, Marginality, and the Interpretation of Plague in England, 1574–1665.” Gender and History 11 (1999): 1–29.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-0424.00127Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Munkhoff illuminates the role of searchers, who were elderly poor women hired by early modern English parishes to examine the bodies of the recently deceased to ascertain whether they had died from the plague.

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  • Pelling, Margaret. “Compromised by Gender: The Role of the Male Medical Practitioner in Early Modern England.” In The Task of Healing: Medicine, Religion, and Gender in England and the Netherlands 1450–1800. Edited by Hilary Marland and Margaret Pelling, 101–134. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Erasmus, 1996.

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    Pelling argues that male physicians in England were constrained by gender stereotypes that made them seem feminine: their care of the body, association with preparing medicines (similar to cookery), their lack of civic participation, and the large number of leading physicians who married late (or never).

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  • Pelling, Margaret. Medical Conflicts in Early Modern London: Patronage, Physicians, and Irregular Practitioners, 1550–1640. Oxford: Clarendon, 2003.

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    Examines cases of irregular practitioners who were prosecuted by the College of Physicians and suggests that such healers were often not very different from the physicians: and therein lay the threat. Women healers were often quite successful and might be protected by powerful patrons and satisfied clients.

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The Work of Midwifery

Beginning with Marland 1993, the reputation of early modern midwives has been rescued from the condescension of subsequent modern obstetricians: midwives were neither witches (Harley 1990) nor ignorant and superstitious. Instead, scholarship such as Evenden 1999 and Labouvie 1992 has shown that midwives were often well respected in their communities and did not necessarily fare worse than their male counterparts in the workplace. Thomas 2009 analyzes the social interactions of midwives, and Weber 2003 explores two midwives who wrote almanacs. Weisner 1986 situates midwifery within the context of early modern work showing how it was regulated in German cities.

Studies of Individual Midwives

With the 1990s rehabilitation of midwifery, a number of historians began to explore the biographies of individual midwives. Gelbart 1998, Perkins 1996, and Ulrich 1990 all offer rich social histories of specific midwives while Bar-On 2004 takes a cultural history approach to the career strategies of a French midwife.

Man-Midwifery

The so-called rise of man-midwifery in the 18th century has been the focus of sustained scholarship but we still lack a full explanation for this shift. Wilson 1995 gives us a detailed study of the process in England, while Cody 2005 situates it in larger ideas about maternity. Labouvie 2007 complicates the story for Germany, while Pawlowsky 1993 focuses upon the role of hospitals. Cody 1992 explores a particular incident early in the transition to man-midwifery in England.

Representations of Midwifery and Midwifery Texts

While many scholars have used midwifery texts to discuss gender roles, medical practices, and the like, very few have focused upon the texts themselves. McTavish 2005 analyzes French midwifery texts. Green 2009 examines the roots of the most widespread and popular midwifery text across Europe, and Green 2000 probes the history of women’s literacy and reading habits. Bicks 2003 uses plays to explore the cultural significance of midwives in Tudor England, while Klairmont-Lingo 1999 examines the politics of the language used for genitals in vernacular medical works in French vernacular works.

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