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.