Midwives and Medical Texts: Women’s Healing Practices in the Crown of Aragón, 1300-1600
By Alice Conner Harman
Bachelor of Arts Thesis, The College of William and Mary, 2009
Introduction: In the winter of 1374, Guillemona de Togores suffered from a recurring illness that sapped her strength and took away her appetite. A lady in waiting at the court of the Catalan-Aragonese queen in Barcelona when she became ill, Guillemona moved into the house of her friend Sereneta de Tous to recuperate. Although she wished to remain at court, her friends convinced her she should take up residence in a private home to recover properly. Although the Queen paid for multiple physicians to examine Gillemona, her friend Sereneta’s care and her ordinary household were judged to be better suited to her recovery. Sereneta was especially helpful in convincing Guillemona to eat pears, securing a favorite food of Guillemona’s when she was particularly afflicted with a loss of appetite. Food was one of the “non-naturals” that were regulated using humoral theory to control and heal the body. After her recovery, Guillemona sent a letter to Sereneta’s husband to assure him she was healthy and to thank him and his wife. “She [Sereneta] has done for me as much as if I had been her mother,” she wrote .
Guillemona’s story illustrates the difficulty of assessing women’s medical practice in the Crown of Aragón in the late medieval and early modern periods. Although physicians – official male healers – are called to treat her illness, she is also assisted by a friend who is never labeled a healer. When Guillemona wants to describe the care her friend has given her, she does not say that Sereneta was an excellent nurse but rather calls her a daughter. The healing that Sereneta offers Guillemona is not discussed in what we would consider healing terms today, nor is Sereneta ever explicitly called a healer. The relationship between Sereneta and Guillemona is described instead as being what a daughter would naturally do for her mother, even though the two are unrelated.
Throughout the kingdom of Aragón, women who performed healing actions were only periodically titled midwives and very rarely called doctors. They were even more infrequently licensed or counted in censuses in such a way that we can reliably estimate the number of female healers. These “average” Aragonese women performed the least studied yet most common health interventions during this period because their services were widely available, inexpensive and customary. For this reason I am largely excluding Moorish and Jewish women from this discussion, who because of Aragonese laws limiting their practice to within their respective communities did not take part in the same range of activities as Christian women, although their participation in certain types of healing is preserved in a fascinating but limited historical record.