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Wise Women and Medical Men: Obstetrics and Gynecology in the Middle Ages
By Heather L. Wrigley
The Proceedings of the 14th Annual History of Medicine Days, edited by W.A. Whitelaw (University of Calgary, 2005)
Abstract: During the middle ages, simply being female was a very hazardous proposition. Propriety prevented most male doctors from treating women for any conditions related to sexuality or reproduction. This may bave been just as well, since the treatments offered by the medieval physician were marginally effective at best, and were often spectacularly harmful. Instead, medical care of women was largely provided by midwives and ‘wise women’ (lay healers). Many of their methods were no better than those of the doctors, and some are quite shocking by today’s standards. Others are merely odd or amusing. However, a few have stood the test of time and are still in use, in various forms, by modern midwives and phyisicians.
At various times, the wise women and midwives of the middle ages were persecuted for their methods, ostracized for performing abortions, and hung or burned as witches. Ultimately, they were marginalized by the medical establishment when physicians realized that obstetrics and gynecology could increase their own profits. Through it all, however, these wise women and midwives provided an essential service to their communities, and left behind a legacy that endures to this day: that of women responding to a need and providing care for one another.