When I first started engaging with with the herbal community™ here in the US, I was exposed to a lot of stories of the history of herbalism involving women healers and midwives being burned at the stake during the witch trials – usually because the patriarchy wanted to suppress powerful women or the church had deemed herbal healing the devil’s work. This narrative goes on to say that this knowledge was all but lost until it was “saved” by a handful of professional herbalists who revived it in the 1970’s and 80’s. This is all unmitigated nonsense.
I find it wildly annoying that the history was distorted like that. I have no idea as to the motivations behind it, but I definitely don’t like the fall out which is the toxic cultural erasure of traditional healing cultures and the devaluation of domestic labour.
Since that narrative didn’t jive with my experience growing up in a poor, rural community where all the god-fearing grandmothers made home remedies, I was confused. That led to me trying to write a paper about this for a sociology class I took in 2005, as I felt it was possibly due to a socio-economic disparity. I was kind of embarrassed when I found out that I had bought in to a false narrative. People who have attended my classes and other historians already know this, but if you haven’t been told yet, the “extermination of women healers” mythology is entirely without basis.
A couple of years later I stumbled across a chapter in a book that opened my eyes to the existence of the medicinal receipts in Early modern manuscript receipt books and I started digging for everything thing I could find about those receipts and the women who wrote the manuscripts. It was fascinating.
Many of my colleagues don’t agree. In modern popular mythologies, teachers capitalize on stories of about magical herbs and “hedge witches” (which I think is mostly a Jungian invention) and very little attention is paid to the everyday labour of women throughout history. When I teach about the topic of “phisical receipts” in old manuscript receipt books at herbal conferences, it is a source of astonishment for many people who had no idea they exist.
So it was almost 15 years ago now I was reading a paper by Julian Goodare in which he said it was no longer necessary to argue against outdated ideas from the 1970’s and thought to myself, “Unless you happen to be an herbal practitioner in the US.”
Unfortunately, that is situation still hasn’t improved. The resistance to change in the profession is unprecedented. I’ve never seen such a stagnant body of knowledge in any other field.
But I digress.
Part of the disconnect is because domestic work has always been devalued – even by other women. As Maria Mies wrote in The Subsistence Perspective, “In all economic theories and models this life-producing and life-preserving subsistence work of women appears as a “free good,” a free resource like air, water, sunshine. It appears to naturally flow from women’s bodies.” I am fascinated with the history of this undervalued and unpaid subsistence work as it pertains to domestic medicine.
The fact that this unpaid domestic labour was forced on many might have something to do with the fact that feminists turned their noses up at it, but that does not negate the fact that a lot of people were damn good at it. The practice of domestic medicine persisted in many communities and knowledge was passed down in a manner similar to the early modern skill sharing networks. It often happened in places so poverty-stricken that people had no money for doctors. My great-grandmother, for example, lived in shack on a riverbank and became a midwife out of necessity.
In wealthier communities, many factors that led to this knowledge being devalued. The Victorian infantilization of women spurred on by Freudian philosophy, the industrial production of opium and its marketing for products like “venetian treacle” and “soothing syrups” which led to prescription laws, and the disparagement of home remedies by the modern medical-industrial complex all played a role in the loss of knowledge in the wealthy classes.
Those are the kind of historical aspects of domestic medicine, I will be trying to address while at the same time bringing forward some of the amazing women whose stories and knowledge have been neglected.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this blog will be regurgitation of old texts, though. Think of it more as a living-history blog. I have been making herbal preparations and using them with my family for my entire adult life and a practicing clinician for over almost 20 years. I have grown, or am currently growing, many of the plants I will mention on this blog.
I am going to talk about herbal preparation and I am going to encourage you to do it, too. That’s where my work deviates wildly from dry academic discourse.
I decided against my better judgment, to enable comments on this blog but I want to be clear that I have no interest in debating dogma with people who have been “Llewellynized.” Nor am I going to get in to a debate with overly cautious historians who don’t understand that integrative medicine is a thing now and that doctors quit disparaging phytotherapy when they started using it again. I am going to use a heavy hand in deleting comments.
If you have a question you would like me to address, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Davidson, Jane P. ‘The Myth of the Persecuted Female Healer’. In The Witchcraft Reader, 3rd ed. Routledge, 2019. (first edition published in 2008)
Goodare, Julian. ‘Women and the Witch‐hunt in Scotland’. Social History 23, no. 3 (1998): 288–308. https://doi.org/10.1080/03071029808568039.
Goodare, Julian, Lauren Martin, and Joyce Miller. Witchcraft and Belief in Early Modern Scotland. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Hutton, R. ‘Witch-Hunting in Celtic Societies’. Past & Present 212, no. 1 (2011): 43–71. https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtr003.
Ostling, Michael. ‘Witches’ Herbs on Trial’. Folklore 125, no. 2 (2014): 179–201. https://doi.org/10.1080/0015587X.2014.890785.
Purkiss, Diane. ‘Witchcraft: Eight Myths and Misconceptions’. English Heritage. Accessed 2 September 2021. https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/eight-witchcraft-myths/?