Sunday, 22 July 2012

Lessons of history - suppression of the women healers Part 2

The main character of my trilogy (Girl in the Glass, Love of Shadows, Fear of Falling) is a woman healer. My books are fantasy/magic realism, nevertheless I am by training a historian and the lessons of history inform my writing and themes, so I began to research the story of the women healers.
Having destroyed the educated women healers (see previous post) by the end of the 14th century the authorities turned their attentions to the lower class women healers. As with the educated women healers the wise-women were faced with an alliance between the church and the new university educated (and therefore male) medical profession. The alliance’s motives were financial self-interest, misogyny and social control.

The majority of the population had no access to any form of medicine other than that provided by the local wise-woman. Even if they had, the medicine taught in universities was closer to magic than the empirical approach of the wise-woman. But whether the wise-women were healing their patients was not a consideration, the very act of healing was a crime and that crime was witchcraft. As one English witch-hunter said:
For this must always be remembered, as a conclusion, that by witches we understand not only those which kill and torment, but all Diviners Charmers, Jugglers, all Wizards, commonly called wise men and wise women…and in the same number we reckon all good Witches, which do no hurt but good, which do not spoil and destroy, but save and deliver…It were a thousand times better for the land if all Witches, but especially the blessing Witch, might suffer death.

The witch-hunts were not a case of mass hysteria, but organised state persecution. At the heart of it was the book Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), which guided the witch-hunters. At the beginning of the hunt a notice was posted in the village commanding that if anyone knew or suspected a witch they should report her to the authorities, failure to do so was itself a punishable. If this resulted in the identification of a witch, she would be tortured to reveal more witches in the community. That torture is detailed in Malleus Maleficarum . The “witch” was stripped and shaved of all her body hair, and inspected for signs of the devil such as moles and marks, although not having such signs was simply seen as an indication that the witch had hidden them. Beatings, thumb screws and the rack, bone-crushing boots, and starvation followed. Soon other “witches” would be identified and so on. On continental Europe these witch-hunts resulted in many thousand executions usually by burning. At Toulouse 400 were killed in one day, 1000 died in one year in the Como area, whilst in 1585 two villages in the Bishopric of Trier were left with only on female inhabitant each. 
Women healers were not alone (there were also some male healers although they make up approximately on 15% of the numbers killed), it is hard to credit now but midwives were also under attack:  
Midwives cause the greatest damage. Either killing children or sacrilegiously offering them to devils. . . . The greatest injury to the Faith are done by midwives, and this is made clearer than daylight itself in the confessions of some of those who are afterwards burned.

The witch-hunts lasted from the 14th to the 17th century. By the time they finished possibly over a million women had died, much of the knowledge that had been acquired by generations of women healers had been lost and women’s roles in healing had been so denigrated that women had to fight even to be nurses.  


Karen said...

I heard about the witch hunts in Massachusetts, but I never realized how long, or far, or how many women were convicted. It all seems so crazy now... but a little scary too.

potok said...

The witchhunts in Massachusetts were relatively mild compared to what went on in Europe. England too was not as bad.

Celestial Elf said...
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