Women Healers and the Medieval church

by Jani Farrell Roberts. c2000

An extract from her book "Seven Days: Tales of Magic, Sex and Gender."

One profession in which women still held much prestige in the early Middle Ages was that of the healer. The image we have today of the "witch" boiling ingredients in her cauldron, originated partially from that of the medieval woman healer - as well as of the cook. The cauldron of the healer was celebrated in many a chant and song of the bards and druids. It was called the "cauldron of regeneration" and "of inspiration".

The women healers possessed within their craft knowledge accumulated over many generations from the keen study of nature and from experiments to find useful ways to work with nature. Among many drugs they discovered, were ergot used to relieve pain, belladonna to regulate contractions and prevent miscarriages, and digitalis for heart complaints. Derivatives from these plants still play a very major role in modern medicine. Hildegard of Bingen 1098 -1179, who is not classed as a Beguine since she ran a convent, had the women in her convent wear crowns as symbols of their sovereignty. She wrote from what was effectively her convent-fortress authoritative books on medicine and nature that pre-dated the universities. She was also a mystic who honoured the earth as our Mother. One of her poems went as follows...


"Holy persons draw to themselves all that is earthy ...

The earth is at the same time mother.

She is mother of all that is natural

mother of all that is human.

She is the mother of all,

for contained in her

are the seeds of all"


She was effectively rediscovering, or expressing, both the female and mystical sides of religion that had been suppressed by a male church. In the following example of her writing the Goddess seemed to live again.

"Thus I seemed to see a girl of unsurpassing radiant beauty, with such a dazzling brightness streaming from her face that I could not behold her fully. She wore a cloak whiter than snow, brighter than stars, her shoes were of pure gold. In her right hand she held the sun and moon and caressed them lovingly. On her breast she had an ivory tablet on which appeared in shades of sapphire the image of a man. And all creation called this girl Sovereign Lady. The girl began to speak to the image on her breast 'I was with you in the beginning, in the dawn of all that is holy. I bore you from the womb before the start of day' and I heard a voice saying to me: 'The girl whom you behold is Love, she has her dwelling in eternity." (P212Trev)

She has also been credited by historians such as Ronald Hutton as one of the first users of the Pentagram as a religious symbol - although others say it was used in ancient Middle Eastern faiths. She saw our 5 senses, 5 fingers and 5 limbs (including the head) as symbolised by this five pointed star. In modern times this symbol has become one used by pagans as their own symbol - but this begs the question of how we define such wise women as Hildergard and even define the nature of "paganism". She lived within a very Christian world and identified as a Christian, albeit as her own kind of Christian. She honoured the female in nature, saw nature as sacred - both key criteria in modern paganism (and she would thus meet most of the criteria set for membership by today's most representative UK pagan organisation, the Pagan Federation.), Beguine such as Porete would meet other criteria by rejecting an imposed moral code, seeing our guide simply as "love". For me, in such cases I forget these misleading labels and simply see both as inspiring ancestors and teachers. I prefer a world of mutually tolerant religious paths that seek to learn from each other while all acknowledge as a basis the sacredness of nature and all that this entails.

The authorities during Hildergard's lifetime suspected that she was not really a Christian. They often harassed her and even excommunicated her. When the Inquisition was soon afterwards founded, it had among its first targets the secular and semi-religious Beguine communities of women. Many churchmen especially distrusted the women's herbal knowledge. Some of them believed that the only cures that should be attempted were those that drew on the power of the Church's relics, chants, prayers and holy water - which many used in a magical way.

These universities were a vital tool in the Church's efforts to remove healing work from women. Their medical courses focused on old texts including the rediscovered works of Aristotle with his concepts about the physical and mental inferiority of women.. The students were instructed that a priest should accompany them to see patients and sometimes that they might have to deny medicine to patients who refused to go to Confession.. Some preachers even condemned any attempt to heal the deaf and dumb arguing that such people were barred both from faith and healing by quoting St. Augustine who wrote of deafness: "this defect also hinders faith itself as the Apostle has taught "Faith comes from hearing" (Rom 10:170". Eu241

These universities taught a medicine for over 200 years that was inferior to that of the better women healers. Their cures were often based not on experimentation but superstition - thus they learnt to cure leprosy with the flesh of snakes caught in hot rocky places or to cure a toothache by writing a prayer on the sufferer's jaw. Blood letting became a cure-all remedy. Their main text-book became the thousand year old works of Galen who had specialised in the most elaborate of medical preparations with rare, costly imported ingredients. It was not witches but these doctors that prepared the portions of legends with such ingredients as unicorn horn, viper's flesh, powdered mummy, crabs' eyes, oil of earthworms and rhino horn. Such medicines were sold for very high prices making affluent both apothecaries and doctors.

Women healers with their cheap local herb based remedies were seen by some male doctors as commercial rivals whose skills were to be disparaged and, if possible, replaced by their own. In 1322 a woman healer Jacoba Felicie, famed throughout Paris for her healing skills, was put on trial for daring to practice medicine without authority. A Church Edict reportedly stated: "If a woman dares to cure without having studied, she is a witch and must die". Since women were not admitted to the university courses, this edict put all female healers at risk of death..

Women healers were in danger however effective their cures. If they were not authorised by the church, they could be suspected of curing by witchcraft. In England a witch-hunter wrote: "It was a thousand times better for the land if all witches, but especially the blessing witch, might suffer death." A "witch" who did good was seen as a greater danger to the Church than the cursing" witch" for the healer might lead people to less rely on the church. Later the new male medical profession petitioned the British Parliament against the "worthless and presumptuous women who usurped the profession" asking for "long imprisonment" of the women concerned. However we now know that the mistresses of some rich English households treasured an extensive list of up to 500 useful herbs passed onto them quietly by country healers. p18

When the Black Death struck in 1348, killing within months one third of Europe's population - the new schools of doctors blamed it on a conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars. In 1496 the doctors had not learnt much more when syphilis arrived. Mercury was then grabbed from alchemy as a toxic substance that could kill the infection - and often the patient.

University medicine did not start to be reformed until Paracelsus in the 15th Century angrily denounced the excessive profits made by selling to patients expensive preparations with many imported components. He said that Nature had provided cures near to the need; that local plants could do much better than imports and that nature looked after us by even making plants indicate their medical function by their appearance. He wrote of the herb St John's Wort: "it puts to shame all recipes and doctors. They may yell as much as they wish. They will only break their teeth." Where did he himself get his own knowledge?. One day he dramatically burnt his own text on pharmaceuticals rather than take credit unjustly saying he "had learnt from the Sorceress all he knew". He recommended to his students: "A physician ... should learn of old women, Egyptians (as Gypsies were then called) and such like people, for they have greater experience in such matters than all the Academians." P48 But despite all he said, women healers still were not brought into the schools as teachers.

The Gypsies, despite the persecution, were trading their herbal and medical knowledge. Although we have few records of their practice, an account of early 20th Century Gypsy lore told of how the shuvihani (or shuvihano for a male)., which meant "Wise One", administered remedies accompanied by words that involved the whole person in the healing. For example, if one had eye problems, she might use an infusion of the herb eyebright and say:

Oh, pain from the eyes go into the water

Go into the water, into the herb

Into the earth. To the Earth Spirit.

There is your home; there go and feast. (Buckland p59)


In the High Renaissance period, even the alleviating of birth pains brought midwives in them into conflict with a Church that preached that women had a duty to suffer pain in childbirth as a punishment for tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden, Thus, in Koln (Cologne) between 1627 and 1630 nearly all the city's midwives were killed as witches. This tragedy inspired the Jesuit Spee to write a denunciation of the witch trials which said in part:: "Thus I have to confess that in various places I accompanied a good many witches to their death, women whose innocence I have just as little doubt about even now as I expended every effort and enormous diligence to discover the truth ... but I could find nothing but blamelessness everywhere". eu231

The authors of "Hammer of the Witches" extraordinarily targeted midwives. Kramer and Sprenger declared that: "no one does more harm to the Catholic Church than midwives." A question that excited them was why "the witch-midwives exceed all other witches in deeds of shame" (III q 34) If a baby was still-born or aborted, they said the midwife present could have killed the child to steal its soul. This was based on Augustine's teaching that unbaptised babies belong to the devil. They also suspected midwives because of a ruling of St Thomas Aquinas that it would be a heresy to deny there were witches with power over human conception. They also accused midwives of dedicating children to the devil. These charges lead to the deaths of many midwives by "incineration" - the word used by these authors.

The Inquisition gave the "Medical Doctors" trained by the universities and sanctioned by the Church, the power of life or death over all female healers or midwives. If any woman was accused of 'healing' before a witchcraft tribunal, the presumption was that she had cured through witchcraft. But to be doubly sure, the authors of Malleus Mallificorum said that the question of how the woman had healed the patient should be put to a "Qualified Medical Doctor". If he said she had cured through witchcraft, then she would die. (P41) According to some recent scholarship, up to 20% of those killed as witches were healers.

Sprenger and Kramer had a blind faith in these male doctors. They recommended them for cures for witch-induced impotency. (P157) "Although some of their remedies seem to be vain and superstitious cantrips and charms [for] everybody must be trusted in his profession." The operative word here is "his". No such trust was extended to female midwives and healers - unless one be a bishop. They noted that one bishop had received a dispensation to go to a witch to have removed from him an illness inflicted by another witch - and that witches offering to do such magic were so common at that time that they could be found "every German mile or two" along the highways. It is likely that other witches survived by offering services against those who did black magic.