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Wise women

Throughout the ancient and medieval periods, ordinary people in Europe who could not afford the services of a university-trained physician turned to popular healers. These were often so-called ‘wise’ women who possessed knowledge, passed down through generations, of traditional or folk medicine. They dealt with all kinds of illnesses and medical conditions, including childbirth and, in some cases, abortion - though their knowledge and skills were by no means restricted to women’s health. Their methods of diagnosis and treatment were based on the belief that all human life was linked to the rest of creation and that this was made clear in the doctrine of signatures. However, wise women also used many practical herbal remedies, drawing on plants and the rest of the natural environment, which they knew well.

Wise women and their medicines were often scoffed at by professionally trained doctors, nearly always male, who were anxious to protect their professional status. However, more recently the herbal remedies of folk medicine have been found to include many naturally occurring ingredients that are medically useful. The concept of signatures on which they relied also underpins modern practices in homeopathy, a prominent branch of alternative medicine.

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A Wear, Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1500 – 1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)