Panaceia's Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany

Panaceia's Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany

by Alisha Rankin

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ISBN-13: 9780226925387
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/19/2013
Series: Synthesis Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 1,199,346
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Alisha Rankin is assistant professor of history at Tufts University. She is coeditor of Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500-1800.

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Panaceia's Daughters

Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92538-7

Chapter One

Noble Empirics

In 1573, the Infanta Juana of Hapsburg, queen of Portugal, had a sensitive medical problem. As reported by her sister, the Holy Roman Empress Maria, Juana had been suffering from unbearable hemorrhoids, known euphemistically as "the golden vein." Her condition was far more serious than the term might imply: not only was the ailment causing her great pain, but because of the loss of blood and other fluids, she was also experiencing exhaustion and a diminishing of her vital forces. For help with this predicament, the Empress Maria confided her sister's problem to Anna of Saxony and asked Anna to send whatever remedies she might know to be useful for the golden vein. In her response to the empress, the only surviving document of this exchange, Anna reviewed Juana's symptoms and claimed she was loath to give advice. Her initial reluctance, she wrote, was due to the recognition that "Her Royal Majesty of Portugal is, without a doubt, surrounded by many excellent, highly trained physicians, and I should be greatly hesitant to meddle with my women's arts [Weiberkunst]." On the other hand, Anna reasoned, "many people are healed by proven medical remedies even if they do not come from highly learned physicians." In light of that fact, she claimed to feel "less shame in loyally revealing to Her Royal Majesty my knowledge and experience [Wissenschaft und Erfahrung]." The rest of her lengthy letter gave extensive, detailed, and highly practical therapeutic advice for the queen's condition.

This episode underscores the high visibility of noblewomen's perceived medical talents within broader early modern communication networks. As epistolary exchange increased in tandem with courtly traditions of gift giving, medical remedies gained an international following. Letters of medical advice, medical recipes, recipe collections, practitioners, equipment, ingredients, and medications crisscrossed Europe at an ever-increasing rate, and remedies made in Dresden could travel as far as Spain, Portugal, and England. This expansion of cultural exchange is part of the reason why noblewomen's medicine suddenly became so visible in the sixteenth century: while evidence suggests that their cures were well regarded within their immediate environs throughout the Middle Ages, their practices remained localized—and thus very difficult for the historian to uncover. With the advent of more expansive networks of knowledge, their remedies had both a much wider currency and a greater likelihood of being preserved in writing. By the mid-sixteenth century, then, noblewomen sat at the juncture of two important avenues of knowledge in early modern Germany: local communities and broader epistolary networks. While local communities—the people who provided ingredients, helped in the distilling house, and exchanged prized remedies in person—continued to play a central role in the process of making medicinal remedies, long-distance networks transformed those remedies into items of widespread interest.

What made noblewomen's remedies so valuable in these exchanges? This question brings us to two further important points embedded in Anna's letter to the empress: the emphasis on her "knowledge and experience" and the self-deprecating remarks about her own gender. Anna's belittling of her pharmaceutical skills as "women's arts," which she contrasted with the knowledge of learned physicians, was a gesture of humility that referenced a longstanding cliche regarding women and medical practice. As physicians began to establish a university-based, scholarly form of medical learning in the Middle Ages, they disparaged "empirical" practitioners who based their knowledge on evidence gained from practice alone, and women became key symbols of this unlearned, experiential knowledge. As Katharine Park has noted, in the eyes of medieval medical scholars, "women stood rhetorically for the bad old ways." The residue of this categorization survived well into the early modern period, as "old women" remained a standard fixture in physicians' diatribes against empirical practitioners. Although noblewomen were not direct targets of these invectives, they certainly were aware of the negative light in which doctors oft en portrayed women healers: in 1568, Duchess Anna Maria of Wurttemberg noted explicitly that "the doctors do not think much of women's arts [weiber kunsten]." Hence Anna of Saxony's professed reluctance to "meddle" with her "women's arts" deliberately played on the commonplace that women practiced a brand of healing that dangerously contravened scholarly medicine. It acted as an apology for her empirically based cures.

Yet Anna did not allow these self-deprecating remarks to remain the last word on her remedies. Quite to the contrary, she validated her own approach by reminding the empress that "many people are healed by proven medical remedies even if they do not come from highly learned physicians" and by highlighting her own "knowledge and experience." One can only assume that she expected this explanation to fall on sympathetic ears. Indeed, her vindication of her own experience reflected a widespread empirical medical culture at the German courts, in which medicinal remedies were traded, discussed, and evaluated on the grounds of their efficacy in practice. Moreover, the contrast Anna drew between the remedies of learned doctors and her own "women's arts" belied a much closer relationship between noblewomen and physicians: they interacted frequently with doctors, did so as physicians' superiors, and, in some cases, collaborated with physicians on cures. The longstanding connection between noblewomen and pharmacy, especially in light of their high social status, made them a trustworthy source for remedies in court circles, even among many physicians. Embedded within Anna of Saxony's rhetorical denigration of her "women's arts" was the assumption that her "knowledge and experience"—shorthand for her longstanding familiarity with medicinal remedies—were exactly the sort of advice the Empress Maria sought.

This chapter explores two crucial aspects of noblewomen's connection to pharmacy in early modern Europe: the context in which their remedies were created and disseminated and the wider intellectual traditions within which they were embedded. A number of recent studies in the history of science and medicine have suggested that the standing of hands-on knowledge in pre-Baconian Europe was not as low as had once been assumed. Pamela Smith has pointed to the growing voice of artisans in northern Europe, who, she argues, became convinced that "their experiential knowledge was as certain as deductive knowledge." Meanwhile, Nancy Siraisi and Gianna Pomata have noted the increasing use of empirical and observational evidence among learned physicians across Europe, a phenomenon that they term "learned empiricism." Alongside the ranks of artisans and "learned empirics," a host of high-status individuals evinced a similar interest in experiential knowledge. As scholars have established, the courts presented one of the main alternatives to the university in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a site of natural inquiry, and German aristocrats became involved directly in hands-on practice in a wide variety of fields. These "noble empirics" added to the overall sense that experience, observation, and empiricism were key ways to learn more about the natural world.

A number of these noble empirics were women. Using methodologies very similar to those of the prince-practitioners, noblewomen who became known for their pharmacy eagerly sought new ways to engage with natural objects (particularly materia medica) and evaluate cures. The context of courtly practice goes only partway to explain noblewomen's involvement with pharmacy: not only did noblewomen pharmacists predate the rise in court empiricism, only a few of them resided at a court known as a center of princely practice. Nevertheless, the overall increase in the exchange of natural knowledge and information at the German courts overlapped with a greater prominence of noblewomen's remedies across early modern Europe in a manner that was not coincidental. The widespread demand for cures that had been shown to work empirically, combined with noblewomen's unassailable social rank, helped to solidify the appeal of their remedies within the networks of knowledge in which they moved.

Local Networks

Women of all walks of life made medicinal remedies in early modern Europe, from farmers' wives to patricians to artisans' spouses. Noblewomen present a special case only in the degree to which their medicine was regarded as special and in the resources they commanded. These differences should not, by any means, be downplayed: noblewomen had a number of distinct advantages that affected both how much they were able to do and how widely their remedies were circulated. One of the most basic benefits of their status was a household staff devoted solely to their needs. At most German courts, even minor ones, a noblewoman oversaw a Frauenzimmer (literally: ladies' chamber), which referred both to a literal set of rooms and to the people who staffed it. The ladies' chamber was generally run by a Hofmeister (master of the court), who was subservient to but separate from the prince's Hofmeister and responsible for all staff in the Frauenzimmer, both male and female. Under the Hofmeister stood a Hofmeisterin (mistress of the court), who oversaw the ladies-in-waiting, maids, and other female staff such as cooks and laundresses. At the court of Duke (later Elector) Moritz of Saxony and his wife Agnes in 1541, for example, Hofmeisterin Sophia of Miltitz oversaw at minimum nine ladies-in-waiting, a cook, and at least two maids; it is unlikely that this list is comprehensive. Even Elisabeth of Rochlitz, who oversaw a tiny court at Rochlitz and spent her last years in a small manor house in Schmalkalden, kept several ladies-in-waiting as well as a Hofmeister and a steward until the day she died, and Dorothea of Mansfeld had a number of servants and aristocratic helpers as well. Most noblewomen, then, were surrounded by at least a small group of people that was autonomous and beholden specifically to her.

The Frauenzimmer provided a noblewoman's most immediate source of communication about medical matters, and the Hofmeisterin and ladies-in-waiting, all members of the gentry, frequently had medical skills of their own. Sophia of Miltitz (d. 1565), for example, compiled an extensive collection of medicinal recipes during her years as Hofmeisterin to Agnes of Saxony (d. 1555), which was well regarded enough that it was copied at the court of the Palatinate in the 1570s. A great deal of medical assistance was provided by Elisabeth of Rochlitz's servants in Schmalkalden, as shown in a few tantalizing requests for payment after Elisabeth's death. In some cases, ladies-in-waiting may also have provided some help in making medicines: in Schmalkalden, distilling equipment was set up in the vicinity of their quarters. Larger court distilleries frequently fell under the noblewoman's purview as well, with a staff that reported directly to her. One of Anna of Saxony's most trusted female servants, Appolonia Neefe, ran her distillery at Annaburg, which Anna staffed with local men and women from neighboring towns. Dorothea of Mansfeld generally hired one or two lower-ranked male distillers to help her with the work of the distilling. Next to nothing is known about these "invisible technicians," to use Steven Shapin's term, but their role in carrying out the noblewoman's day-to-day medical tasks was significant. The fact that distilling houses were oft en included in the inventory of a noblewoman's estate after her death indicated the extent to which they were seen as part of her household.

In addition to the support of the Frauenzimmer, noblewomen residing at princely courts also drew on court physicians and apothecaries, with whom they oft en developed close working relationships. Anna of Saxony was in constant contact with the physician Johann Neefe, who helped provide the medical care for her children, and with the apothecary Johann unter der Linden, who ran her court pharmacy at Annaburg. She also, as will be discussed later, communicated with many other physicians connected to her husband's court. Dorothea of Mansfeld highly impressed the physician Philip Michael Novenianus during his stay at Mansfeld (as exhibited by the laudatory dedication of his book), and Eleonora of Wurttemberg had close contact with the court physician Johann Conrad Ratz. Court physicians and apothecaries were valuable not only for the informal informational exchanges they might provide locally but also for their spouses. Anna of Saxony's most trusted female servants, whom she frequently charged with carrying out medical tasks, tended to be the wives or widows of court medical practitioners, as in the case of Appolonia and Johann Neefe—a topic that will be explored in detail in chapter 4. Physicians' daughters could also fulfill important medical functions: as we saw in the introduction, Sybille of Wurttemberg chose Helena Ruckher, the daughter of physician Johannes Magenbuch, to run the court pharmacy in Stuttgart.

In a recent study, Deborah Harkness has demonstrated the complicated webs of interaction that existed between individuals interested in scientific and medical pursuits in Elizabethan London. Through a careful mapping of these intellectual communities, she has noted the prevalence of "distinct neighborhoods of science" that housed clusters of medical practitioners, instrument makers, distillers, and gardeners. For noblewomen interested in medicine, urban networks of this sort were out of reach. Instead, as suggested above, they tended to rely on medical professionals such as court physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries; the wives and widows of these individuals; and other servants for varying levels of assistance and information. However, they certainly had some contact with individuals outside of their estates, particularly those who provided materia medica. Offhand references in Elisabeth's and Dorothea's documents suggest that they received at least some of their ingredients from local herb sellers and herb gatherers, while Anna's letters include more tangible evidence of such interactions. In October of 1566, for example, she paid the Dresden forester Nickel Muller 2 gulden for bins of "roots and leaves" he had sent her and requested that he "collect and dig up ... a carrying basket each" of angelica root, polypody root, swallow-wort, and masterwort. She also sent requests to town councils and tax collectors around Saxony every May, in which she asked them to have somebody pluck all the blue and white violets they could find and send the "flowers, without the roots and leaves" for her distilled violet water. For the most basic tasks of making medicines, then, local contacts provided essential assistance—and noblewomen, given their status, had the ability to command their help.

Epistolary Communities

These local networks overlapped with and fed into more far-flung sources of informational exchange, which grew alongside the increasing importance of court epistolary customs. A well-bred lady was expected to keep in frequent contact with relatives and friendly princely houses to assure continued goodwill within the atmosphere of aggression and constantly changing alliances that characterized Reformation Germany. Letters and gift s were typically sent out in celebration of the New Year and to congratulate upon the birth or marriage of a child, while condolences accompanied a death. Many letters were entirely formulaic, with flowery, formal language but no discernible purpose beyond affirming established friendship and support, as in the following letter from Anna of Saxony to her cousin, Elisabeth of Brandenburg:

Friendly, dear aunt, sister, and relative. We are truly happy to hear from Your Dearest's letter that she and her beloved lord husband and daughters are still in good bodily health. And we hereby notify Your Dearest that we and ours are also still in tolerable [health], God be praised. May the merciful Lord continue to keep us both in his grace. And we are sisterly well inclined and willing to do Your Dearest's friendly bidding at all times. Datum Dresden, May 3, Anno 72.

The report on the health of Anna's family was the only piece of information given in this letter; all other elements were pure formality. Most letters sent from one noblewoman to another contained these same formalities, but many also conveyed crucial information on politics, religion, daily life, and, of course, medicine and pharmacy.

Epistolary exchange was fostered by the politically inspired marriages that typically occurred between friendly principalities. When Anna of Saxony moved from Denmark to Dresden at age sixteen to marry the young Duke August of Saxony, she wrote and received letters from her mother, father, and brother, all of whom evinced an interest in medical matters. Dorothea Susanna, sister of Elector Ludwig VI of the Palatinate, continued to send medicinal recipes to her brothers after her marriage to Duke Johann Wilhelm of Saxony-Weimar. Three daughters of Duke Christoph of Wurttemberg married sons of Landgrave Philip of Hesse, setting up a close relationship between the territories; they shared medical recipes with their mother in Wurttemberg as well as their sister Eleonora, who married into the princely house of Anhalt. Saxony attempted to tie itself politically to the Palatinate in 1570 by marrying Anna's daughter Elisabeth to a brother of Ludwig VI; not coincidentally, at least fifteen of the Palatinate's recipe collections exhibit strong ties to Saxony. As Katrin Keller has argued, these politically inspired marriages among the powerful princely families in the Holy Roman Empire afforded women their own networks of communication, within which they generally operated as independent individuals.


Excerpted from Panaceia's Daughters by ALISHA RANKIN Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Early Modern Pharmaceutical Weights and Measures
Archive Abbreviations
Note on Translations

Introduction: Pharmacy for Princesses

Part I. Contexts
1. Noble Empirics
2. Art Written Down

Part II. Case Studies
3. Dorothea of Mansfeld: A Mirror and Example for Rich and Poor
4. Anna of Saxony and Her Medical “Handiwork”
5. Elisabeth of Rochlitz and the Experience of Illness



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