bunnyjadwiga: (Default)
So, I'm reading the chapter in Diane Purkiss' The Witch in History where she talks about modern pagans witches. I can't dispute, and in fact agree with, her claims about the ahistorical nature of modern witchcraft's foundation myths and the dangers of them.

But I can't help being wierded out by her objection to the celebration of traditionally female roles and ideas. There seems to be some idea that if you identify with ideas that were discussed by patriarchial men about femaleness you are clearly putting yourself and betraying women.

Interestingly, she also claims that pagan women rarely get involved in political activism and instead involve themselves with navel-gazing self-help rituals (or words to that effect). I find this hard to believe but this section would be the one in her book most biased by her personal experiences with actual modern women pagans, and her reaction to them.

If I were thinking in the Goddesses in Everywoman vein, I would peg this reaction as clearly Athena-like, and it seems as if she's modelling the conflict between the rejection of history by the mythology of goddess worship and the academic world's reliance on solid scholarship. It's a tough division, and I think she has good points to make, especially about the dangers of absorbing into our textual history the writings of men who pointed to Diana-as-muse. Also, the mythology of the return-to-the-earth while living in a urban setting does have the issues she points out.

I understand the idea of absolute equality and seeing both men and women as equally qualified to express either side of the duality of life. But it seems to me in practice, it's still asking women to act more like men, and devaluing for everyone those ideas and behaviors that men have traditionally assigned to women. Celebration of the power of things traditionally considered female seems to me to be not the opposite side of the same coin in those circumstances, but offering an alternative to a previous trend of thought.
bunnyjadwiga: (Default)
And herein I begin to wrap up my notes from the presentation I made at Darkover:

The most reliable picture of the women-as-herbalist, and in fact of the healer-herbalist in general, in medieval history, is actually that of the lady of the house as healer, physica, concoctor of medicines and treater of injuries. Whether she be the mother, 'housekeeper,' or lady of the manor, women through the seventeenth century were expected to be nurse and Dr. Mom. From the great ladies nursing wounded knights in the romances, right through Gervase Markham's exhortation:
"...you shall understand that since the preservation and care of the family, touching their health and soundness of body, consisteth most inher diligence, it is meet that she have a physical kind of knowledge, how to administer many wholesome receipts or medicines for the good of their healths, as well as to prevent the first occasion of sickness as to take away the effects and evil of the same when it hath made a seizure on the body,"
though he does say that he does not intend to make his reader a practitioner, since knowledge of physic would be beyond her. We do have examples of that in fantasy, though the path is somewhat complex: consider the main character in Sharon Shinn's Summers at Castle Auburn.

But we are more likely to see the making of herbal remedies in fantasy as a side business for the fantasy healers. Sometimes that is perfectly in line with their roles as mythic characters -- see the Old Woman in the Swamp and the Young Sorcerer's Girl Student in Teresa Edgerton's Welsh/Arthurian Caelydonn series, or the education of Eilonwy in the Welsh-inspired Prydain Chronicles. The combination of great lady who through her holiness, some mystic power, or some other power, is shown in a lady of the manor in Edgerton's Grail and The Ring, and in history in the stories of St. Francesca Romana, a fifteenth-century woman who set herself to minister to the ill through touch, prayer, ointments and liquids.

On the other hand, I sometimes wonder where the counterpart to Cadfael is in our fantasy world. Anyone familiar with the writings of Hildegard of Bingen on plants and medicines realizes that there would have been women infirmarers and abbesses who were interested in both herbal medicine and physic, as Cadfael is. The fact that Cadfael's type-- the healing monk-- is better documented and more described in history and of course in mythology is no excuse. (Often, we are told that only the use of herbs by monks kept all knowledge from being swept away, which anti-Christian or anti-Catholic writers take to mean that the monasteries or the church drove all other herbal healing underground. There's no evidence of this, and contrary evidence in the fact that Anglo-Saxon, formerly pagan, texts such as the Leech book of bald were written down at the end of the first millenium, and that their writers struggled to reconcile their herbal and medical knowledge with that in the Latin books they had access to. Admittedly, there was a great deal of ancient medical knowledge that ended up in Arabic and/or Muslim hands and was brought back to Christian Europe during the Crusades, often with added information from Muslim practioners.

Another thing that seems to be missing in fantasy is the idea of woman gardeners or herbalists, who gathered and sold raw materials, which we can document to approximately 15th c. France, where the trade was followed by both men and women. Male gardeners, like male cooks, seem to have been the norm in noble houses, and the interest in creating one's own garden and having it laid out just so can be documented to both sexes. However, with the desire to have materials for medication and the still-room, the middle class and upper middle class women would have taken more interest in their gardens. Women were hired in gardens to do weeding, and surviving depictions of workers in the gardens show women doing difficult work. But they seem to have existed within the social structure, rather as proud and independent characters, and thus are not well-represented in fantasy so far. An unusual appearance is the green mages in Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic series, where there are natural magic practitioners who work primarily with plants, and sometimes get pressed into service for healing, rather than the other way around.

The trope of the healer/witch/herbalist has been used, overused, abused, mythologized, and turned round and round to the point that it has migrated into and sometimes been relegated to Young Adult Literature and Romance Novels. But if we throw away the fantasy of the historical witch/healer/herbalist, we find that there are a diversity of types and ideas that inspire new thought and ideas.
bunnyjadwiga: (Default)
The preceding information on women physicians, midwives and empirics in general, shouldn't be taken to say that the Colleges of Physicians were not trying to get women out of the medical profession. They were, though not steadily. But I would still characterize the problem as a trade dispute first, and misogynistic second.

There is, for instance, the singular case of Jacoba Felice, brought to court in Paris on charges of practicing, successfully, as a physician. The argument of the Faculty of Medicine of Paris was that she could not practice not because she was a quack, or untrained, but because she was a woman. However, the charges brought against her were specifically on the grounds of not being licensed, not of being a woman:

"That, in these actions, she has often exercised and continues to exercise a medical practice in Paris and its suburbs, that she has practiced and practices it from day to day, although she has not been approved in any official school in Paris or elsewhere, and that she does this without the license of the chancellor of the church of Paris and of the said dean and masters."

(However, I have found no credible evidence that Felice was burned for practicing medicine, as one Canadian journal author claims.)

Even in places where the Colleges of Physicians regulated the activities of 'empirics,' women empirics were often allowed to practice on women, due to the argument that many women would be embarrassed to talk about their illnesses or be examined by a male medical professional. Also as a result, midwifery flourished well into and through the 18th century, since male professionals were generally banished from the birthing-room until the advent of special birthing equipment.

"A memorial of Eleanor Willughby, a seventeenth century midwife," Adrian Wilsong, in Women, science and medicine 1500-1700: mothers and sisters of the Royal Society , describes a country midwife who practiced in concert with her physician father, and sometimes smuggled him into her cases to examine the patient. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A midwife's tale : the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary, 1785-1812 speaks of the process by which physicians began to take over the midwives' practice in the early 19th century.

Even when medicine began to be more scientific and less literary/philosophical -- so that a physician's education didn't have to discuss whether the human female had a single or double-horned uterus -- male physicians usually had little practical experience in birthing. What they did have was metal implements, specifically forceps, which were used to assist in difficult births. (In the hands of a rough or inexperienced professional, however, those forceps could do great damage to mother and baby alike.) In fact, 17th and 18th century physicians could, and did, do something similar to partial-birth abortions to save women's lives when the child could not be extracted (since there was no reliable or actually survivable Cesarean section operation). Still, in rural areas, midwives practiced in concert with doctors into the early 20th century.
bunnyjadwiga: (Default)
If we demolish the feminist ideal of the herbalist-witch-healer, we can replace it with a larger more diverse idea of healers, based on the historical record.
Even if we restrict ourselves only to female practicioners, there may not have been many, but they were fairly diverse.
Read more... )
This greater diversity of practitioners is reflected in children's books such as those by Karen Cushman (The Midwife's Apprentice and Matilda Bone).
bunnyjadwiga: (Default)
I'm going to take a minute to look at the various witchly activities that Sprenger & Kramer were concerned about. The first is of course causing damage to people and animals; this concept of ill-wishing or bewitching someone's body or property is a fear in most cultures. There is also the specific accusation of raising storms, hail, etc. (A good fantasy example of this is The Wind-Witch by Susan Dexter.) Casting love spells. And the specific midwife-related issues: hindering generation/conception, including causing abortions, and offering babies up to the Devil either by killing them and using their bodies in demonic rites, or by consecrating them to the Devil at birth. And lastly, removing bewitchments and other 'good magic', which could be witchcraft if the assistance of the devil was invoked, or merely heresy.
because this is long )
bunnyjadwiga: (Default)
So, we discuss the witch because the herbalist persona, in fantasy and in herbal historiography, is irrevocably tangled iwith that of the witch, and specifically the witch of the 'burning times'.

This association of woman healer with witch is most often traced back through Ehrenreich and English's booklet, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: a history of women healers, 1973. This wasn't the first such discourse, but it's the one that gets cited continuously, and erroneously. In a discussion of the Malleus Maleficarum [Hammer of Witches] the 1486 witchfinder's manual by Sprenger and Kramer, they say, in quotes, "If a woman dare to cure without having studied, she is a witch and must die."

The trouble is, that sentence doesn't appear in the Malleus Maleficarum edition they cite. Closer examination shows that English and Ehrenreich are not specifically crediting that sentence to Sprenger and Kramer. It may be a quote that has lost its attribution, from another source; or it may simply be the author's framing of what they see as a continuing trend in the literature of the witchhunt. But the Malleus actually specifically exempts the use of herbs and other usual healing objects in healing, as not being witchcraft:

“Therefore we can answer their first argument in this way: that if natural objects are
used in a simple way to produce certain effects for which they are thought to have some
natural virtue, this is not unlawful. But if there are joined to this certain characters and
unknown signs and vain observations, which manifestly cannot have any natural efficacy,
then it is superstitious and unlawful. Wherefore S. Thomas, II, q. 96, art. 2, speaking of this matter, says that when any object is used for the purpose of causing some bodily effect, such as curing the sick, notice must be taken whether such objects appear to have any natural quality which could cause such an effect; and if so, then it is not unlawful, since it is lawful to apply natural causes to their effects.”

Again, there are some things in nature which have certain hidden powers, the reason for which man does not know; such, for example, is the lodestone, which attracts steel and many other such things, which S. Augustine mentions in the 20th book Of the City of God. And so women in order to bring about changes in the bodies of others sometimes make use of certain things, which exceed our knowledge, but this is without any aid from the devil. And because these remedies are mysterious we must not therefore ascribe them to the power of the devil as we should ascribe evil spells wrought by witches. (Part I, question 2)

But natural bodies may find the benefit of certain secret but good influences.
Therefore artificial bodies may receive such influence. Hence it is plain that those who perform works of healing may well perform them by means of such good influences, and this has no connexion at all with any evil power.

To this we add the fact that most of those who were excecuted for witchcraft don't appear to have been either midwives or healers. Whether they were in fact practicioners of some pre-Christian or alternative religion, rebels against Christianity, innocent victims, or sufferers of some delusion is unclear, and may have varied from place to place. There is some suggestion that the witch-crazes may have been associated with outbreaks of ergotism (a deadly, hallucenogenic condition caused by consuming the ergot rust that forms on improperly cured and stored rye and other grains), but since these stories don't seem to be associated with stories of fingers, toes, or noses turning black and falling off, I'm inclined to doubt them, as this is one of the major side effects of ergotism.
bunnyjadwiga: (Default)
In their pursuit of role models, of analogies, of mythic figures, feminist historians siezed upon the witch. Diane Purkiss, in her excellent The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations gives us this excellent word-picture, that I think you'll recognize:

Here is a story. Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived on the edge of a village. She lived alone, in her own house surrounded by her garden, in which she grew all manner of herbs and other healing plants. Though she was alone, she was never lonely; she had her garden and her animals for company, she took lovers when she wished, and she was always busy. The woman was a healer and midwife; she had practical knowledge taught her by her mother, and mystical knowledge derived from her closeness to nature, or from a half-submerged pagan religion. She helped women give birth, and she had healing hands; she used her knowledge of herbs and her common sense to help the sick."

Sounds like a great life, right? I'd sure jump at an existence like that.

"However, her peaceful existence was disrupted. Even though the woman was harmless, she posed a threat to the fearful. Her medical knowledge threatened the doctor. Her simple, true spiritual values threatened the superstitious nonsense of the Catholic church, as did her affirmation of the sensuous body. Her independence and freedom threatened men. So the Inquisition descended on her, and cruelly tortured her into confession to lies about the devil. She was burned alive by men who hated women, along with millions of others like her."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? That would be our prototypical fantasy healer/herbalist.

But the fascinating part here, is what Purkiss says next:

"Do you believe this story? Thousands of women do. It is still being retold, in full or in part, by women who are academics, but also by poets, novelists, popular historians, theologians, dramatists. It is compelling, even horrifying. However, in all essentials it is not true, or only partly true, as a history of what happened to the women called witches in the early modern period."

It's when we begin to imagine the variety of the history obscured by this idea of the herbalist, of the healer, that we can see the diversity of fantastic possibilities which that history suggests.
bunnyjadwiga: (Default)
(Sorry if y'all are bored. You may have figured out that I'm re-creating my notes here preparatory to writing it all up in a single doc. Zing me if something sounds wrong or more than usually overgeneralized.)

Another major force behind the emergence of the idealistic herbalist-healer in fantasy was the resurgence of interest in herbs, and herbal medicine in particular.

This also was somewhat related to the women's movement, as there was a strong backlash against "traditional," scientific-style medicine in the women's movement. That backlash was definitely justified; the problems with women's healthcare in that time period are amply documented in many studies and first person narratives from healthcare providers and patients of the 1960s.

In particular, male medical establishments' control over women's health was a major issue. (Though I'm not from that period, I can remember going on the Pill and my personal struggles with having to jump through the hoops of authority to control my body.) The question of herbal contraception (did/does it exist? work safely and reliably?) is one that continues to be disputed. John Riddle's Eve's Herbs argues that there were safe reliable contraceptives used 'under the radar' before the modern period; I personally don't buy his arguments, but some people do. We do know that people used contraception, of some type, off and on from the Roman, through the medieval and modern periods. Catherine of Siena, the 30th 23rd child of her parents, railed against those who practiced it (a clear case of self-interest there!) In fantasy and science fiction, of course, there's nearly always a safe reliable contraceptive of some sort.

During the 1970s and their climate of distrust of modern medicine, interest in herbs went through a renaissance. Around the turn of the 20th century, herbs had become devalued in society, though there was a resurgence in interest in the 1930s and 1940s led by scholarly garden-club women such as Eleanor Rhode and Rosetta Clarkson, leading to the foundation of herbal guilds and societies. However, by the late 1960s, most people knew and cared little about herbs as garden plants, seasonings, or medicines. This began to change when the counterculture (and, to a certain extent, the pre-bicentennial celebrators) embraced and promoted the study and growing of herbs, and the use of herbal medicine.

The old woman who lived in the woods, either as a good or bad witch, or the miraculous young woman who dispensed magical healing, were alread features of the folk and fairy tales ardently collected and dispensed by 19th century ethnologists. But in this time period, studies such as the Foxfire Books brought the 'cunning' and 'wise' men and women who practiced folk healing in remote areas-- the Ozarks, the Appalachians-- as their predecessors in remote areas of 18th and 19th century Europe had practiced folk medicine. We'll call these folk healers 'empirics,' a term that was first used in the middle ages by University-trained physicians for those who were not informed by University knowledge and theory. An example of such a folk-healer, folk-witch appears in Nancy Springer's The Hex Witch of Seldom.

Women's studies historians were attempting to retrieve the history of the daily life of women ("the world's best kept secret: Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity" as Carolyn Kizer put it in "Pro Femina"). Women as nurses, nurturers, home doctors, were traced back, by these historians, to the suppression of the empiric medical practicioners and the witches; and here is where the witches come in to our narrative.
bunnyjadwiga: (Default)
So, where did this stereotypical fantasy herbwife/healer/midwife/witch come from?
She makes her appearance in the early 1970s. There's a number of factors going on here:

1. The rise of feminism, which comes into it in several ways. There's the development of fantasy, and the development of female roles, at the same time.

2. The rise of women's interest in and participation in the fantasy reader and writership. About 35 years ago, there was a surge in women reading and writing fantasy. The tradition of women in fantasy goes back further than that, but up to about 15 years ago, the major female fantasy/sf writers could be traced by a literary geneaology back to that Grand Dame of FSF, Andre Norton. The surge of fanfic, particularly by women, also dates to that era.

Early on, there was a surge in fantasy fiction role models of the type I think of as the Artemis, running-jumping-whacking-people kind. (Artemis was a major cult figure for the early women's movement: young, athletic, free-legged and free-loving, hanging out with Daddy and doing boy stuff, unencumbered by children, house, women's work, etc.) But there were some women and girls (I think it may be called third-wave feminists) who didn't feel able to identify with this picture. These Bagginses ("We have no use for adventures here, Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!"), among which I count myself, wanted someone to identify with, someone who might actually wear a skirt and not disdain nuturing, caring activities.

An example of this non-non-traditional heroine would be Maggie Brown, of Elizabeth Scarborough's Song of Sorcery and later books. Maggie isn't an herbalist, though her grandmother is; but what she is, is a hearthwitch of the most extreme kind; her magic can do all kinds of housewifely tasks, but to raise a cyclone, for example, she needs to tell it she wishes to whip a VERY large quantity of eggs, "right there." When I first encountered her as a teen, I was enraptured. Here was someone I could identify with.
bunnyjadwiga: (Default)
So, the herbalist of fantasy has some standard attributes:

  • Exclusively female
  • Generally lives alone, in the woods or at the edge of the town
  • Raises, compounds and dispenses her own medications
  • Medications are uncannily reliable.
  • Respected and/or feared by the community
  • Some sort of tension or conflict with 'the authorities,' whether church or otherwise
  • Often practices 'older'/pagan religion; always very close to nature
  • Often a witch or other magic-worker.
  • Makes a living from her herbalism/curing
  • Strong sense of responsibility for her patients

The first two examples in fantasy literature I gave, because they really outstanding ones:

  • Keisha, in the second and third books of Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon's Owl Mage trilogy, Owlsight and Owlknight. Keisha is a young woman who has just moved out of her parents house into a comfortable cottage provided for her because she is the village healer. She grows, compounds and dispenses her own herbal remedies, as well as trading for them; she is paid for her healing by a sort of barter-salary arrangement where food and other things are provided for her use. She is aware of the medical basis for her treatments, and she is able to do some magical healing. She won't leave her village to go to a far-off healer's college because that would leave her village without a local healer. And yes, she later comes into conflict with authorities over a healing intervention.
  • Juniper, in Monica Furlong's Wise Child, who is a practitioner of an earth religion, who cures by both herbal and magical means, who is a lot more educated and tolerant than her Christian neighbors. She lives on a hill outside the village, and is feared but respected by the villagers, and in conflict with the Christian priest. [Curiously, though the story seems to be set around the turn of the first millenium AD in Britain, a Church Inquisitor makes a late appearance; the Inquisition was organized in the 13th century.]
bunnyjadwiga: (humph)
Something I quoted in my "Beyond the Herb-Wife" presentation, about the certain witchcraft-related beliefs, from the MALLEUS MALEFICARUM

And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird's nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report? It is to be said that it is all done by devil's work and illusion, for the senses of those who see them are deluded in the way we have said. For a certain man tells that, when he had lost his member, he approached a known witch to ask her to restore it to him. She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he liked out of the nest in which there were several members. And when he tried to take a big one, the witch said: You must not take that one; adding, because it belongs to a parish priest.

bunnyjadwiga: (Default)
Some notes from my presentation at Darkover, "Beyond the Herb-wife: Feminism and the Fantasy Herbalist."

I started out with a disclaimer:
"I've been an herbalist, studying herbs and their history for over 25 years. I'm also a feminist and a pagan. But more than that, I'm a librarian. And if you know librarians, you know that they like fantasy, they like fiction, and they like non-fiction-- but they like the fiction and the non-fiction on separate shelves."

"We're going to be talking about the stereotype of the herbalist/healer/midwife in fantasy, and in history, and in feminist historiography. In the course of that, we're going to be taking on some foundational mythologies of fantasy, of women's studies, and of herbalism. I'm hoping I won't offend anyone, but please feel free to say something, make a comment or a question, if you want. If anyone is so offended they feel they have to leave, that's fine; I'll understand."

I then read out the definitions of herbwoman and herbs from Diana Wynne Jones' Tough Guide to Fantasyland to show the stereotype.
bunnyjadwiga: (Default)
In a moment of madness, I suggested that I could present on:

"Beyond the herb-wife: feminism and the fantasy herbalist."

at Darkovercon.

So, now I have to write something to present. Urgh.

More later on this topic... any suggestions of fantasy herbalist characters I can throw in, I'll happy to take.

*muse muse muse*
bunnyjadwiga: (Default)
In the mainstream literature, there isn't a lot that is specifically aimed at discussing Apothecary practice, so when I saw Hugh Petrie's The Apothecaries Shop Opened and the companion volume, The Still Room Opened, published by Stuart Press, I was very excited. Admittedly, these pamphlet size works can't cover material to much depth, and they are essentially home-published'. Hugh Petrie's spelling and sometimes grammar are somewhat erratic.The hand-sketched
illustrations are usually clear and give at least as detailed an idea of what goes on, for instance in distilling, as one would find in a good period woodcut (see John French's Art of Distillation for comparision).

As overviews of 16th and 17th century apothecary practice and distillation they make a good beginning. The target audience appears to be 17th-century re-enactors and interpreters, but material from In The Apothecaries Shop does cover earlier time periods to some extent. The Still Room is a good introduction to the terminology and equipment of medieval distillation, though the author cautions that all(?) distillation is forbidden in Great Britain and should be avoided. But The Still Room helped me to understand a good many terms and descriptions I'd been struggling with. In particular, there are some practical points about distilling spice oils vs herb oils, the different 'heats' of distillation, etc. that are helpful.

The Apothecaries' Shop discusses the nature and status of apothecaries, ingredients and their background, and gives some sample ingredients and recipes. Again, this is targetted primarily to the re-enactor, so things I would consider key are left out, and modern-ish applications are emphasized. But again, a good background, with lots of specific examples. There are descriptions of various pieces of equipment and a drawing/plan of a useful druggists' cabinet as well.

My biggest quarrel with this series is one the author admits:
"Although a lot of work went into this booklet it is a summary of other peoples work. Sometimes I have included references, but mostly I simply have not had the space to credit work. I apologize in advance to those who recognize their work here but are not mentioned."
-- Petrie, The Apothecaries Shop Opened, vol. I, p. 3.

To me, I'm afraid, such an admission is tantamount to admitting plagiarism. At the very least, a lot of information in this text would be infinitely improved by some sort of references. At minimum, a bibliography for further reference would be an immense improvement.

Still, for less than $13.00 for the pair, available from Sykes Sutlering in the U.S., this was well worth my money, if only to encourage others to keep collecting information and publishing it. I'd recommend both texts for those interested in the background of our art.


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