Who are the "Lady Experimenters?"

It has been pointed out to me that I use the term lady experimenter quite a bit. 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.  Lynette Hunter first used the term lady experimenter to describe wealthy young women who were taught the art of physick and herbal preparation and provided free care for their families and those in service to their families.[1]

The medicinal formulas they used were shared throughout their communities by word of mouth and were recorded in handwritten journals often referred to as receipt books which we will talk about more in another post. It was the responsibility of the female head of the family to manage the household frugally and efficiently. This 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 took on a role as keepers of knowledge, and it was very trendy in the late 1500s and 1600s for women or their spouses to brag about the contents of their medicinal closets.  Lest we feel too sorry for these women, keep in mind they were part of the upper class and had scads of people to do the labor in their service.

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 some of the highest-ranking servants in the household. So, you can see how this system would have the unintended effect of circulating healing knowledge throughout the laboring classes as well. The receipt books also give an occasional nod to “the country folk” or “the gardener” as evidence of lateral transference of knowledge. So people were learning from one another.

I am not proposing this as 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.[2] I am just suggesting that women were being encouraged to step up their game during this era.

Home production of preparations made with homegrown plants has always been a cornerstone of domestic medicine. In the early modern period, this meant that gardeners were often well-versed in the medicinal uses of plants.[3] 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 by 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.”[4]

When the Reverend Lawson entreated all women to grow cunning in their knowledge of medicinal plants and preparation, this was not unusual advice. It was a duty that members of the clergy placed on women as commonly as other household labor. Not everyone excelled at it certainly. It was included in an idealized list of skills that it was thought a woman should bring to the marriage contract.

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.”[5] These duties were part of the job of being a woman of the gentry and in fact the duty of every god-fearing woman.

Isn’t that a polite, scholarly way of saying they were educated to serve as unpaid labor 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.

This brings me to a final point. There has been a lot of sensationalized history written about the cunning/wise woman as a village herbalist. We need to step back and understand that this was not the case. Every household had someone who was knowledgeable in providing domestic medicine, and very frequently the expert they turned to when they were in over their head was a member of a religious community.

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.

The “old women” that we read about taking their colebaskets into the city to peddle plant preparations were often those who had fallen upon some misfortune. This was one way that they were able to survive. They are different from those who would profess themselves to be cunning women but that is another post.


[1] 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.

[2] Montigny, Guy (presumed). Le Ménagier de Paris. Translated by Hinson, Janet, 1393. http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Medieval/Cookbooks/Menagier/Menagier.html.

[3] 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.

[4] Lawson, William. The Country Housewife’s Garden. 1983 Reprint. London, England: Breslich & Foss, 1617. 32.

[5] 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.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website www.domestic-medicine.com

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