I tend to use the term lady experimenter a lot. People who know me and have seen my own still room complete with fancy microscope and distillation equipment are sure to understand why I love the concept. In the interest of providing some context I thought I should introduce you to them. The term lady experimenter was first used by Lynette Hunter to describe wealthy young women who were taught the art of physick and herbal preparation and provided free care for their family and their husband’s servants.
The medicinal formulas they used shared were shared throughout their communities by word of mouth and informal handwritten sources often referred to as receipt books which we will talk about more in another post. It was the female head of the family’s responsibility to manage the household frugally and efficiently, which meant among other things that she was to keep expenses down. As engaging the services of a physician was extravagantly expensive one way to do this was to copy down their formulas sometimes with attribution to be used in the future.
Women of means engaged in being the keepers of knowledge as a hobby, and it was very trendy in the late 1500’s and 1600’s for women or their spouses to brag about the contents of their medicinal closets. Now before we feel too sorry for these women, keep in mind they were part of the upper class. They had servants around to do the strenuous work for them including housekeepers, gardeners and still maids. By the Regency period very wealthy households might have two still maids who were assigned exclusively to the still room and supervised directly by the housekeeper. They were generally some of the highest-ranking servants in the household. So, you can see that this how this system would have the unintended effect of circulating healing knowledge throughout the working-classes as well.
I am not proposing that this was a new practice. Late medieval cookbooks often contained medicinal receipts and there are a few examples of this sort of instruction occurring prior to this time. Le Menagier de Paris is one example. It was written in 1393 by a French man instructing his young wife on how to direct her staff on such matters. I am just suggesting that women were being encouraged to step up their game during this era.
The receipt books would also give an occasional nod to “the country folk” or “the gardener” as the source of a particular receipt, so it seems that was reciprocal. Home production of preparations made with homegrown plants was an important aspect domestic medicine. This meant that gardeners were often well-versed in the medicinal uses of plants. One of the most popular publications of the year 1617 was a short book by William Lawson called The Country Housewife’s Garden. Lawson concluded his chapter on growing plants to be used as medicine saying,
“I reckon these hearbs onely, because I teach my Countrey Housewife, not skilfull Artists, and it should be an endlesse labour, and would make the matter tedious to reckon vp, Land• beefe, Stocke-Iuly-flowers, Charvall, Valerian, Go-to bed at noon, Piony, Liconas, Tansie, Garden mints, Germander, Centaurie, and a thousand such Physicke Hearbs. Let her first grow cunning in this, and then she may enlarge her Garden as her skill and ability increaseth. And to helpe her the more, I haue set her downe these obseruations.”
One woman who has been discussed much by historians due to a detailed autobiography she wrote was Lady Grace Mildmay who was born in 1552 C.E. According to the editor of her autobiography, “Grace learned skills conventional to her sex, class and religion: music, arithmetic, letterwriting, needle-work, basic surgery and physic, and daily scripture reading – a curriculum intended to produce pious and useful domestic companions to men.”
Isn’t that a polite, scholarly way of saying they were educated to serve as unpaid labour for their husbands?
Among Lady Mildmay’s contemporaries were Lady Margaret Hoby, Lady Anne Halkett, Lady Ann Fanshawe, Lady Sedley, Lady Margaret Clifford, and many others. Our lady experimenters documented their receipts and preparation methods in handwritten books along with other household receipts which they then passed along in their family to be added to by subsequent generations.
Of course, you never hear these names mentioned at herbal conferences unless you have been to one of my classes. They would have you think only male physicians and mystical wise women were using herbal remedies at this time.
The practice of domestic medicine might not have become so widespread in Britain and Ireland were it not for the Reformation. Between the years of 1536 and 1541 Henry VIII began the legal procedures which led to the dissolution of monasteries, priories, convents, and friaries in Britain and Ireland. Members of these religious communities had been very much involved in the growing of herbs and the production of herbal preparations, as well as providing charitable care for the poor. When they were banished to continental Europe, healthcare was undoubtedly less accessible for many.
This brings me to a final point. There has been a lot of sensationalized history written about the cunning woman as a village mystic and healer. In his book the Reverend Lawson entreated with all women to grow cunning in their knowledge of medicinal plants and preparation. It seems doubtful that our pious protestant was encouraging women towards witchcraft.
Cunning was a commonly used adjective for wise back then and our cunning woman is simply one who has lived long enough to get a good handle on the practice of domestic medicine. Some women would use this knowledge to support themselves when they fell upon unfortunate circumstances. That is all there is to it.
Even the much-sensationalized Biddy Early turned to the knowledge of herbalism her mother taught her to make a living, after her parents died and she ended up in the poorhouse. It’s almost certain it was to her advantage to encourage the stories that flew around about her.
 Hunter, Lynette. ‘Women and Domestic Medicine: Lady Experimenters 1570-1620’. In Women, Science and Medicine 1500-1700, edited by Hunter, Lynette and Hutton, Sarah. Gloucestershire. England: Sutton Publishing, 1997.
 Montigny, Guy (presumed). Le Ménagier de Paris. Translated by Hinson, Janet, 1393. http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Medieval/Cookbooks/Menagier/Menagier.html.
 Hill, Thomas. The Gardener’s Labyrinth. Translated by Mabey, Richard. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1577. It should be noted that Hill was not a gardener. He was just a bored noble interested in publishing. He had earlier published an English translation of Conrad Gesner’s Jewel of Health and an anatomy book.
 Lawson, William. The Country Housewife’s Garden. 1983 Reprint. London, England: Breslich & Foss, 1617. 32.
 Mildmay, Lady Grace. ‘The Autobiography of Grace, Lady Mildmay’. Edited by Martin, Randall. Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme 18, no. 1 (1620): 33–81. and Hellwarth, Jennifer Wynne. ‘Be unto Me as a Precious Ointment: Lady Grace Mildmay, Sixteenth-Century Female Practitioner’. Dynamis: Acta Hispanica Ad Medicinae Scientiarumque. Historiam Illustrandam 19 (1999): 095–117.