Women In Science

Medieval Women Monitoring A Birth

Medicine    Professional.Women    Midwives    Science    Alchemy    Astrology    Witchcraft


Overall, the net progress of medieval medicine was rewarding, despite the lack of technology and the abundance of obstacles.

In the great medical schools such as that in Salerno, a student would have learned diverse pieces of useful information: the analysis of urine for detection of disease, the understanding of excesses or deficiencies in one of the four humors, how to keep a modest demeanour, how to maintain good personal hygiene and a polished bedside manner. Dissection, and therefore a knowledge of anatomy, was usually prohibited.

Even where dissection was remotely permissible, a student faced lots of red tape and restriction before being allowed to carry out research on a dead body. Consequently, surgery was an inexact science to say the least, and knowledge of anatomy wasn't advancing. Clerics, some of the major contributors to medieval medicine, were forbidden to practice surgery.  In addition, physicians disdained to operate on patients, leaving the task to barber-surgeons, who were in turn forbidden to practice the herbal art of the physician. And in peasant villages, where neither doctors nor barbers were to be found, villagers were left to their own devices. Consequently, most people relied on the medical knowledge of women.

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Professional Women

Women's professional medical practice was not limited to the convents and Beguine houses; independent women practiced as well. Both religieusess and lay women were vital to the well-being of a town population before the establishment of all-male medical universities.

Though women often learned the use of medicinal herbs and first aid, they were often forbidden to make a career of healing in cities. Their practice was restricted to their household. Women were vital to the successful treatment of women's ailments. The Catholic Church forbade male doctors to look at women's bodies.

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Men were not allowed to attend women in labour. Midwifery was based largely on superstition. Common practices included sympathetic magic such as removing the hairpins from the patient's coiffure, opening all the doors and drawers and cabinets, and unstopping every bottle, jar, and jug. However, the midwife knew the most about female health -- both from practical experience and medical knowledge. In Central Europe, there is evidence of collaboration between male doctors and midwives. In Flanders, the midwife's husband was often a doctor.

Midwives were apparently much prized by the towns that realized their worth. Many towns provided a stipend for midwives and sternly regulated the practice to prevent the common people from being cheated.

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Contrary to popular belief, science was not dead during the medieval period. Astrology, alchemy, and astronomy were diligently practiced if not fully understood, and in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the works of the ancient Greeks began to resurface.

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Alchemy was introduced into Europe at the time of the Crusades. The first alchemical texts were translated from Arabic into Latin. The alchemist's work was based on Aristotle's theory of earth, air, fire, and water. These four elements were related to the four humors: phlegm, blood, bile, and black bile. In a healthy human, the humors were balanced; illness resulted from a deficiency or surplus of one of the humors. Alchemy is not entirely the search for a stone that would turn lead into gold. Many alchemists used that search as a metaphor for the search for moral perfection, believing that what could be accomplished in nature could be accomplished in the heart and mind.

Alchemy was a mysterious and terrifying art to those unfamiliar with it. Alchemists used odd-shaped instruments and magical incantations, codified symbols and symbolic colours. Science was considered a challenge to the authority of the Church, as were many things not understood by everyone. Aristotle's books were banned.

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Astrology also dated back to the Greeks. An astrologer would forecast the life of an infant by observing the alignment of the stars and planets at the moment of birth.

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Women were considered prime targets for the powers of evil. It was not only the practice of harmful spells that first alarmed Church officials, but also that of herbal medicine. It is understandable why the paranoid Church and town officials often accused herbalists of witchcraft, as many of the wise women's practices had pagan origins. This was synonymous in the mind of the Church with evil, so these women's practices, rarely harmful, were condemned.

The Malleus Maleficarum, known variously as The Hammer of Witches or Hexenhammer, was published in 1486 by Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer. It detailed processes for seeking out and destroying witches. The authors feared and warned against women who posed as healers and midwives and used the opportunity to work evil. This distinction probably did little to prevent harm coming to harmless women.

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Adapted with permission from Dominion and Domination



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