I am a historian by training and I use history to give a reality to my books. I deliberately don’t fix the books in a specific time or place, but the subject matter and the details are influenced by my knowledge of and research into events in history. In this blog I intend sharing with you some of those “lessons of history.”
In Girl in the Glass my heroine Judith is warned about the dangers of becoming a healer. In the second book in the trilogy Love of Shadows (which I am writing now) she pursues her calling and puts her life at risk. The subject of the suppression of women healers over the centuries is a fascinating one.
Up to the 13thcentury women traditional healers (wisewomen) were practising their arts throughout Europe relatively without hindrance. Their medicines were born of traditions handed down through the generations and tested by use. In addition they were midwives and bonesetters. They were the only medical help available to most people and they had status in their communities as a result.
Then in the 14thcentury things changed. A new medical practitioner was being created – the university-trained physicians – one whose services were more expensive and elitist. Not better. The university medical training at that time was based on Galen’s concepts of the humours and governed by Christian doctrine. It did not have the empirical approach of the women healers and was mostly mumbo jumbo. Nevertheless the new male (nearly all universities were closed to women) physicians, supported by the Church, pushed for and got laws forbidding the practice of medicine by non-university trained healers. Suddenly women could not legally practice medicine. Of course given the low numbers of university medical students, these laws were unenforceable across the board, but they could be applied selectively.
The first targets were not the peasant women healers, but literate urban women healers who were in direct competition for the male physicians. In 1322 Jacoba Felice was put on trial in Paris – her crime practising medicine illegally. No matter that she produced witnesses verifying that she had cured them where the university physicians had failed, her competence was evidence of guilt.
The court found that: “Her plea that she cured many sick persons whom the aforesaid masters could not cure, ought not to stand and is frivolous, since it is certain that a man approved in the aforesaid art could cure the sick better than any woman
- Perhaps the true reason for her prosecution and other women like her can be found in
- Her accuser was a university-trained male physician.
One witness Jean St Omer stated that Jacoba had visited him repeatedly throughout a grave illness, never asking for payment prior to a cure. He affirmed that she had done more for him, and with far less demand on his purse, than any licensed physician. As her punishment Jacoba was excommunicated and fined. Nothing more is known of her. In some ways she was lucky, from then on the suppression of women healers started to a more deadly turn. More of that in a future post.