Rebecca Laroche, associate professor, Department of English, is the curator of an exhibit that highlights the role of women in providing healthcare in Renaissance England.
“Beyond Home Remedy: Women, Medicine and Science” opened Jan. 21 and will continue through May 30 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C., an internationally known research library that is home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection and is a primary repository for materials from 1500 to 1750.
From dressing wounds to treating colds to delivering babies, women in Renaissance England were active health care practitioners despite having never received medical degrees. In an age when doctors were expensive and hospitals a rarity, many illnesses and injuries were treated at home and the lady of the house offered the best hope for a cure.
“We have countesses and duchesses and the serving women and everyone in between. They were treating injuries, they were treating childbirth issues, they were trying to protect their families from the plague. Disease was much more prevalent than it is today, for many reasons. It was necessary for there to be a broad-based understanding of medical concepts and affordable medicine. It’s a fascinating time because it was a moment of transition,” Laroche said.
Women actively sought ways to improve their medical practice in addition to making contributions to a growing body of scientific knowledge. Lady Margaret Hoby used surgery to treat her family and members of her community. Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, published several scientific works and was also the first woman to attend a lecture at the Royal Society in London. Other women circulated treatment methods, news, and ideas through letters, published works, and their own personal collections of remedies.
Successful medical practice required correct diagnoses as well as expertise in the properties of plants and minerals to produce an effective remedy. Many medicines required extensive amounts of time and energy to make. Quantities of ingredients had to be gathered, often at a particular time of day or night, and then measured, roasted, boiled, or infused with the right components. Specialty ingredients might be purchased from an apothecary.
“Women had access to a wide range of imported goods, mineral objects, and animal products. It wasn’t limited to the herbs in their backyard. The exhibition cracks open our conventional sense of home remedies,” said Laroche.
Healing required more than luck and blind faith. Women actively collected and shared recipes, often making notes when a remedy proved particularly effective. “Beyond Home Remedy” features several of these recipe books, which were frequently handed down between generations of women and included recipes for food and household products as well as instructions for making medicines.
“The recipe books point to the idea of experiment, they’re changing the recipes, they are trying things out. That’s the foundation of science, and women were doing that,” Laroche said.
“Beyond Home Remedy” features artwork and illustrations, handwritten and printed medical recipes, natural history specimens, and instruments used by women in their treatments and cures. The exhibition includes about 100 items from the Folger collection, as well as materials from the Smithsonian and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Visitors can also view video demonstrations of how historic remedies were made.
- Martha Washington’s cookbook. A handwritten collection of recipes compiled by America’s original First Lady.
- Natural history specimens. Items like coral, bezoar stones, snakeskin, and many kinds of minerals used in homemade remedies.
- Chemistry lessons. Medical practitioner Hannah Woolley’s observations on color changes in her recipe for syrup of violets are identical to those made by her contemporary, scientist Robert Boyle, on color indicator tests, suggesting that women played an active role in early modern science.
- Tools of the trade. Midwifery manuals and treatises on childbirth were popular reference books and formed a core component of medical practice for many women.
Laroche has published several articles on early modern women’s writing in literary and medical history. Her book, “Medical Authority and Englishwomen’s Herbal Texts, 1550-1650,” was recently published by Ashgate Publishing.
For more information, including an online version of “Beyond Home Remedy: Women, Medicine, and Science,” visit www.folger.edu/remedy.
— Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library