Medieval women used informal social networks to share health problems and medical advice – just as we do today

In the medieval period, medical science was still dominated by the ancient writings of Hippocrates from the fifth century and Galen of Pergamon from the second century. Research has shown that women were increasingly being taken seriously as healers and as bearers of wisdom about women’s bodies and health. But despite this, men were preferred while women faced restrictions.

Informal networks developed in response, as a way for women to practise medicine in secret – and pass on their medical wisdom outside the male bastions.

The Distaff Gospels, first published in France around 1480, is a collection of “gospels” around pregnancy, childbirth and health. It was created during secretive meetings of French women who had gathered with their drop spindles and distaffs to spin flax.

These women, who were mostly from the regions of Flanders and Picardy, agreed to meet over the long nights between Christmas and early February to gather the wisdom of their ancestors and pass it on to the women who came after them. The meetings are believed to have been organised by a local villager who selected six older women, each chairing one night, who would recount their advice on a range of topics such as pregnancy, childbirth and marriage.

A scribe was appointed to record the advice, which had previously only been preserved through the oral story tradition of peasant women. What is most fascinating is that although the text is mediated by a male scribe, The Distaff Gospels presents the often-silent voices of the lower working-class women. One such gospel advises:

Young women should never be given hares’ heads to eat, for fear they might think about it later, once they are married, especially while they are pregnant; in that case, for sure, their children would have split lips.

‘Deviant women’

The advice is structured in the way it was shared – stories told to each other while spinning. The women discuss folk wisdom related to their domestic lives, and one of the main sections is about pregnancy and reproductive health.

While researching the history of pregnancy tests for my book, (M)otherhood, I came across this advice offered in The Distaff Gospels:

My friends, if you want to know if a woman is pregnant, you must ask her to pee in a basin and then put a latch or a key in it, but it is better to use a latch – leave this latch in the basin with the urine for three or four hours. Then throw the urine away and remove the latch. If you see the impression of the latch on the basin, be sure that the woman is pregnant. If not, she is not pregnant.

Writing about The Distaff Gospels, historians Kathleen Garay and Madeleine Jeay tell us that these texts were written in a mocking fashion, and the scribe describes the women as idiotic, lascivious and even dangerous.

Many of the women healers presiding over these gatherings were thought to be witches or sexually deviant. Nevertheless, through these informal health networks, these women found a way of vesting control and power over themselves, to claim some semblance of autonomy over their own bodies.


For the full article by Professor Pragya Agarwal visit the Conversation.