The dominion over the natural elements was traditionally the uncontested domain of the ancient goddesses. They became the custodians of a doctrine revealed to women ever since the beginnings of time when society spontaneously evolved assigning men with the roles of protecting the group, hunting, and battle, while the women looked after the work within the village, collecting herbs, using natural resources, and caring for children, the old and the sick. It was the size of the intimate restricted territory which formed the female space of action and thus led to the fundamental aspect of their cultural contribution, destined to be best expressed in “cloistered” life.
The expertise linked with healing the sick and medicine has always represented a kind of inconsistency in the history of female culture, a concession accorded with the blessing of the male population; however, over the centuries it became a double-edged sword because of the consequences it could produce. On one hand, it represented the strength of wifely skills, and on the other, a source of discrimination and prejudice. Women were permitted to possess certain levels of knowledge on condition that this was of an informal nature, handed down through oral tradition and experience gained through observation, repetition and consolidation with experimentation. Methods which were quite different from those of male culture with a doctrinal basis, founded on the written word and academic learning. Men reserved for themselves the universe of the word, leaving the realm of nature to the women.
The acquisition of scientific knowledge permitted the healers to act in a therapeutic field, proposing a vision of the human being that could be defined as “gender influenced”, more closely integrated with the cosmos, and mediated though the typically feminine approach of respect and humility, quite unlike the masculine intervention of control and dominion over nature. It is by no means accidental that the outstanding female figures of healing bloomed in every era within the ambit of religious life: the pythia, the priestess, the vestal, and later the nun and the abbess gave life to the ancient prerogatives of mystic goddesses through their role as carers and healers.
In every civilisation the space within the temple (and later within the monastery) was a place of refuge and healing: at the same time, for many women, by relinquishing their role of wife and mother it represented a unique and extraordinary privilege of social equality in the male world. In the Christian Middle Ages with its application in the realm of medicine, the feminine aptitude for dedication to physical and mental care reached a peak, increased by botanical curiosity and a desire for knowledge. Sitting close to the sick body of a patient, perceiving the suffering, and touching open wounds not only constituted an act of humility and expiation but also represented an instrument of sublimation and confirmation of spiritual strength. Shortly after the year 1000, the exceptional figure of Saint Hildegard of Bingen was to become the symbol of feminine healing capacity through her texts of scientific knowledge as well as an authentic philosophical treatise on principles of general health.
Already complete cosmological and mythical collective imaginaries sustained the principle of female medicine in the ancient classical era: collective imaginaries that were linked with the female divinities of the Mediterranean area, powerful goddesses who controlled the seasons and harvests; shamans, able to dominate wild animals and protect magical and healing plants. Above all, they knew the vast secrets of the generation of life, and its dark side: death. The archetypes of the woman healer from ancient mythology forged the imaginary of the herbalist who was also part-sorceress and from there became rapidly transformed to witch. Familiarity with the therapeutic power of plants was considered an integral part of esoteric expertise, also capable of sinister results. This was the domain of knowledgeable and enigmatic women, powerful, but also feared for their obscure feminine faculties and for their close links with arcane and mysterious figures. The route that led from a vision of the priestess-healer to the prototype of the witch destined to burn at the stake under the Inquisition began in remote times, deeply rooted in misogyny that began long before the birth of Christianity.
With the decline of an archaic era still open to the female perspective, a new vision of the world began to assert itself: this was the androcentric movement brought by the Indo-European peoples during a period that ranged as far as the threshold of the first millennium B.C. rapidly spreading throughout the whole Mediterranean area. It was the precursor of a new partriarchal and warrior structure that would destabilize the authority of the ancient Mother Goddess. A modern conceptual universe, dominated by reason, undermining the ancient magical and mystical perception of life closer to the female nature. This was a crucial moment for the womanly medical skills which till now had been accepted as a natural aspect of feminine polarity, but which were now in open conflict with the new order, and women were accused of dealing in the occult and esoteric practices, able to overturn the natural balance of God’s creation. Feminine healing practices began to move into a shadow zone which gradually led towards a domain of secrecy.
However, women soon learnt to survive as opponents and strove to ensure their talents were not suffocated. The world of feminine healing expertise remained extremely rich and varied. The application of this knowledge and experience represented a recipient that contained a blend of intuition, empirical experience, inspiration and spirituality. A wide range of different approaches evolved and within this context arose many figures of great wisdom.
Despite all the difficulties, historical evidence demonstrates that the female profession continued to remain alive and active. Female medical healers worked above all in caring for other women, in gynaecology and obstetrics, but they were often called to deal with general medicine and other specific fields. Their example shows an unpredictable flash of professional independence, crowned by written texts which, simply because they were produced by female hands, are reason enough to inspire admiration for their exceptional feat: their unexpected foray into the male world of books and the written word.
One example is the Byzantine physician and obstetrician Metrodora, who wrote a gynaecological treatise on women’s ailments between the 5th and 6th century. Her work contains all the aspects which can be found with identical content several centuries later in the gynaecological treatise by Trotula de Ruggiero, which clearly demonstrates that the relay of knowledge was not interrupted with the passage of time, even though any accessible evidence is based on a few fragmented scraps that fortunately survived. Trotula worked in the vibrant cultural environment of 11th century Salerno in the renowned medical school which was incredibly open to women. Trotula wrote three texts of great female knowledge and wisdom: Diseases of Women, Treatments for Women, and Women’s Cosmetics. According to traditional models, the texts outlined the main problems with female reproductive organs, specific diseases or ailments, problems in pregnancy and childbirth, notions on infant care, and quite a range of advice on cosmetic treatment for health and beauty. It was based on Hippocratic medical principles, but also contained a great deal of information from popular healing practices and some superstitious beliefs handed down through generations.
The famous names from ancient female medicine are simply the visible layer of a buried world populated by a vast number of women who placed their expertise at the service of the community. These interventions varied in type and nature and included contributions by the learned physician, the rural midwife, the herbalist, and the expert in casting spells. The methods often belonged in a shady area, existing between accepted medicine and more obscure practices, forbidden activities such as contraception and abortion, or those linked with magic spells to attract a lover or for fertility.
Goddess, pythia, sorceress and midwife, herbalist or healer; priestess, vestal, abbess or saint. Last of all, alchemist or witch. These figures, vibrant reflections of female culture, are all merely different representations of the same original model: definitions by which women have been judged throughout history.
In collaboration with: www.abocamuseum.it
Text by Erika Maderna