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  • eoghancarrick

19 COVID Thoughts #13

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

"Even a modestly informed woman

squinting at the rough outlines

of a compressed history of medicine

can discern that quite a bit

of what has passed for science

in the past two hundred years,

particularly where women are concerned,

has not been the product of scientific inquiry

so much as it has been the refuse

of science repurposed

to support already existing ideologies."

Sentence arranged from chapter 13 in On Immunity, Eula Biss


I remember reading an article by Germaine Greer a few years ago that talked about the relationship between women, witches and society and how in pre-industrial societies a recently widowed and childless woman existed in a precarious situation. Her rights, being so bound up with her husband’s, died when he did. The husband’s heirs could take her land, debtors could turf her out of her property; even in cases wither there were children, the lands and material possessions could be let to them rather than the woman. In order to survive, she might start to sell remedies or herbal solutions to help with medical issues of the nearby community. Biss, in On Immunity, contextualises this when discussing how:

“Medical care was still mainly the domain of women then, though the tradition of the female healer was already threatened by physicians and the Church. Mid- wives and wise women, guilty of crimes that included providing contraception and easing the pains of labor, were particularly persecuted in the witch hunts that burned across Europe from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. According to the Catholic Church's official guide for witch hunters, midwives belonged to the class of good witches who healed and did not harm, but this made them no less witches. While women were being executed for their suspicious ability to heal the sick, physicians in European universities studied Plato and Aristotle but learned very little about the body. They did not experiment, did not practice science as we know it, and had little empirical data to support their treatments, which were often superstitious in nature. Wise women were themselves susceptible to superstition, but as far back as the early middle ages they used ergot to speed contractions and belladonna to prevent miscarriage. Saint Hildegarde of Bingen cataloged the healing properties of 213 medicinal plants, and women lay healers knew the recipes for effective painkillers and anti inflammatories at a time when physicians were still writing prayers on the jaws of their patients to heal toothaches.”

These women, healers, dismissed by the community until sought, lived with the fear of retribution if named responsible for complications around pregnancy or childbirth or any other malady they happened to try their hand at. The power allowed them to survive —allay fears and create hope (once paid to do so) —but also could destroy her if she was seen to be dangerous or to have intended harm for whatever reason.

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