Guest post by Laura Matthias Bendoly
Did women of the late medieval and early modern era (1500-1650) take part in paid professions? Could they earn an income? Were they permitted to study or to transmit their learning to others? The short answer is ‘no.’ And yet, there were occasions in 16th and 17th century Europe for ‘however.’
Under most circumstances, medieval and renaissance trade guilds did not permit women full membership. Rare, too, were cases when women earned an income. If a female did receive payment for services, including those of home-healing, those payments would have been sporadic. They would have been far less than payments made to a male counterpart, and the woman might receive her fees in secret. Opinion in most European communities of the 16th and 17th centuries held that women’s services should be for free, and that such services as healing, midwifery, and beyond-the-home cooking were performed as a hobby or as charity and did not deserve compensation.
So which women were entitled to earn?
There do exist tax and court records reflecting women’s participation in medical trades for hire. Some of these practitioners lived in Saxony and nearby German states. Other examples of women’s medical entrepreneurship took place in 16th century Great Britain. Though the British women mostly lacked the designation “physik,” or even “healer,” hospital documents refer to lady “keepers” and “searchers.” These women were hired to research cause of death at the hospital and to prepare the deceased for burial.
Similarly, hospitals in 16th century Ulm and Nordlingen both refer to Meisterin (lady masters) among the ranks of medical staff, as well as Siechenmägde (maids to the sick) and EhrbarenFraue (honorable women) who were tasked with preparation of proper diets. These professional women all receive mention in hospital documents and even merited cash renumeration.
Despite the advance of well-established women in city hospitals, these same towns were also locations of forced nursing among women of low status. Religious houses with meager patronage became sites for treating plague, pox, and leprosy often with the added threat of expulsion should the women/care-givers resist.
On the other hand, females in a burgher household often became accomplices of male doctors. One chronicler, Johann Christoph Götz, describes house calls from this period. To increase compliance with his diagnoses, he provided free services to clients’ (mainly female) servants. Though the remedies he offered usually involved ingredients already on hand in the patients’ kitchen, the trust he produced among the family and staff of each household bolstered his reputation considerably.
Though poor residents of Southern Germany were almost always submissive to a man’s medical authority, wealthy English women of the 17th century had another option. Home-medicine became a rite of passage among elite ladies of this era. In fact, a well-bred lady would have studied her region’s botanicals, herbs, spices, cookery, nursing, wound dressing, and purgatives. Her obligation as a wife included giving treatments to the poor and care to her household. Though a lady with such kitchen-healing would never be compensated for her skill outside the home, her knowledge of common illness would often keep her from the quack and defray the costs of physician visits.
After the English crown dissolved the monasteries, where treatment of poor and sick had so long taken place, needs abounded among the sick in London. Parishes took on some of this care at the homes of women in the congregations, often paying a fee to the wife of a salaried staff person. Various members of church communities also received payment for raising orphans and giving shelter to those too sick or injured to work. These duties were only provided by women, and though medically unskilled, such ladies received compensation via churchwarden. One such example exists from 1581:
‘for the takynge into her house of Isabell Byrde a pour diseazed woman beinge nykte [naked] in the strettes greaht with childe’.
Where does this leave us in terms of women in Renaissance medicine? Can we claim a lady healer received more than the leavings of her male colleagues? Perhaps not. And yet the Reformation, the rise of literacy, the scientific discoveries of the 1600s, including the sun-centered solar system, gave rise to reason, doubt, and decision-making. A woman could and did insist on personal choices. A better grain for flour, a cleaner water source, and sometimes the right to keep a coin or two for saving the life of her neighbor.
Laura Matthias Bendoly is a Columbus, Ohio-based author of historical fiction. as well as gothic, supernatural, and urban fantasy. He books include The Estate (YA mystery, 2015) and Laerka, (urban fantasy, 2016). She studied creative writing at Western Michigan University and art history at Indiana University Bloomington. You can visit her website at laurambendoly.wordpress.com
If you like historical fiction, especially featuring female healers, check out The Greenest Branch, my novel based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. It is out now in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces.