"That's a Boring Topic for a Blog"

Source: Nathan Bailey's Dictionarium Domesticum 1736
These were the first words a friend said to me the other day when I mentioned this idea to them, so I am going to try to explain what led to my interest in the topic of domestic medicine.  I am aware that it’s not nearly as glamorous as "fairy doctors" or “ the Cailleach,” but the fact that this person found it so boring is enough to make me move forward. I am mildly stubborn.

When I first started engaging with  my colleagues,  I was exposed to a lot of  stories of the history of herbalism involving women healers and midwives being burned at the stake during the witch trials- usually because men wanted to suppress powerful women or the church had deemed herbal healing the devil's work.  Herbal knowledge was supposedly perilously close to being lost until it was “saved" by a handful of professionals who revived it in the 1970’s and 80’s.  

Since that didn’t jive with my experience growing up in a poor, rural community where all the god-fearing grandmothers made home remedies, I was confused.  That led to me trying to write a paper about this for a sociology class, as I felt it was possibly due to a socio-economic disparity. 

I was kind of embarrassed when I found out that I had bought in to a false narrative. People who have attended my classes and other historians already know this, but if you haven’t been told yet, the “extermination of women healers” mythology is entirely without basis.[1]

A couple of years later I stumbled across a chapter in a book that opened my eyes to the existence of the medicinal receipts in Early modern manuscript receipt books[2] and I started digging for everything thing I could find about those receipts and women healers in early modern times.

I decided to duplicate some of those receipts I deemed safe for modern experimentation, use them in my home, and find modern research that might explain their efficacy for the project. My professor was delighted, and it was great fun.  I intend on picking that up again and documenting my experiments on this blog.

I find it wildly annoying that the history has been distorted. I have no idea as to the motivations behind it, nor do I particularly care.  I don't like the fallout. 

We have totally lost sight of the fact that all women were taught  domestic medicine and knew how to take care of their families. Granted that was because it was unpaid domestic labor forced on them, but they knew how to do it and a lot of them were damn good at it. Some of us grew up in places so poor that women had to keep doing it because we had no money for doctors. My great-grandma lived in shack on a riverbank. She was a midwife out of necessity.

I remember sitting there (almost fifteen years ago) reading a paper by Julian Goodare in which he said it was no longer necessary to argue against outdated ideas from  the 1970’s[3] and thinking to myself, “Unless you happen to be an herbalist in the US.” 

Unfortunately, that really hasn’t improved. The resistance to change in the profession is unprecedented.  I’ve never seen such a stagnant body of knowledge in any other field.

But I digress. 

Part of  the disconnect is because women’s domestic work has always been discounted- even by other women. As Maria Mies wrote in The Subsistence Perspective, "In all economic theories and models this life-producing and life-preserving subsistence work of women appears as a "free good," a free resource like air, water, sunshine. It appears to naturally flow from women's bodies."  I am fascinated with the history of this undervalued and unpaid subsistence work as it pertains to domestic medicine. 

In US herbalism, teachers pass along stories about "wise women" and "hedge witches" (which I think is mostly a Jungian invention) and very little attention is paid to the everyday unpaid labor of women throughout history. When I teach about the topic of "phisical receipts" in old manuscript  receipt books at herbal conferences, it is a source of astonishment for many people who had no idea they exist.

Of course, there are other contributing factors.The Victorian infantilization of women spurred on by Freudian philosophy, the industrial production of opium and its marketing for products like "venetian treacle" and "soothing syrups" which led to prescription laws, and the disparagement of home remedies by the modern medical-industrial complex all played a role in silencing many of our great-grandmothers and devaluing their knowledge.

So those are the kind of historical aspects of domestic medicine, I will be trying to address while at the same time bringing forward some of the amazing women whose stories and knowledge have been neglected. 

But don't make the mistake of thinking this blog will be regurgitation of old texts. Think of it more as a living-history blog.   I have been making herbal preparations and using them with my family for over 25 years now and a practicing clinician for over 15.  I have grown, or am currently growing, many of the plants I will mention on this blog.  I am going to talk  about my research and experiments and I am going to encourage you to do it, too.

I am not going to enable comments on this blog because I have no interest in debating dogma with herbalists who don't have a handle on history  or efficacy with historians who don't understand that integrative medicine is a thing now and that doctors quit disparaging herbal medicine when they started using it again.

If you have a question you would like me to address, e-mail me at stephany.hoffelt@goddard.edu.

[1]Goodare, Julian. “The Truth about Witches and Witch-Hunters.” The Guardian, October 30, 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/oct/30/halloween-witches-history.
[2] Hunter, Lynette. “Women and Domestic Medicine: Lady Experimenters 1570-1620.” In Women, Science and Medicine 1500-1700, edited by Hunter, Lynette and Hutton, Sarah. Gloucestershire. England: Sutton Publishing, 1997.
[3] Goodare, Julian. “Women and the Witch‐hunt in Scotland.” Social History 23, no. 3 (1998): 288–308. https://doi.org/10.1080/03071029808568039.

Further Reading