Beyond the Herbwife: Feminism and the Fantasy Herbalist
Based on a presentation given at Darkover 2006

Disclaimer: I've been an herbalist, studying herbs and their history for over 25 years. I'm also a feminist and a pagan. But more than that, I'm a librarian. And if you know librarians, you know that they like fantasy, they like fiction, and they like non-fiction-- but they like the fiction and the non-fiction on separate shelves. This paper discusses the stereotype of the herbalist/healer/midwife in fantasy, and in history, and in feminist historiography. In the course of that, I'm going to be taking on some foundational mythologies of fantasy, of women's studies, and of herbalism. I'm hoping I won't offend anyone, but I hope to inspire dialog and further investigation.

I then read out the definitions of herbwoman and herbs from Diana Wynne Jones' Tough Guide to Fantasyland to show the stereotype.
So, the herbalist of fantasy has some standard attributes:
  • Exclusively female
  • Generally lives alone, in the woods or at the edge of the town
  • Raises, compounds and dispenses her own medications
  • Medications are uncannily reliable.
  • Respected and/or feared by the community
  • Some sort of tension or conflict with 'the authorities,' whether church or otherwise
  • Often practices 'older'/pagan religion; always very close to nature
  • Often a witch or other magic-worker.
  • Makes a living from her herbalism/curing
  • Strong sense of responsibility for her patients
The first two examples in fantasy literature I gave, because they really outstanding ones:
  • Keisha, in the second and third books of Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon's Owl Mage trilogy, Owlsight and Owlknight. Keisha is a young woman who has just moved out of her parents' house into a comfortable cottage provided for her because she is the village healer. She grows, compounds and dispenses her own herbal remedies, as well as trading for them; she is paid for her healing by a sort of barter-salary arrangement where food and other things are provided for her use. She is aware of the medical basis for her treatments, and she is able to do some magical healing. She won't leave her village to go to a far-off healer's college because that would leave her village without a local healer. And yes, she later comes into conflict with authorities over a healing intervention.
  • Juniper, in Monica Furlong's Wise Child, who is a practitioner of an earth religion, who cures by both herbal and magical means, who is a lot more educated and tolerant than her Christian neighbors. She lives on a hill outside the village, and is feared but respected by the villagers, and in conflict with the Christian priest. [Curiously, though the story seems to be set around the turn of the first millenium AD in Britain, a Church Inquisitor makes a late appearance; the Inquisition was organized in the 13th century.]
So, where did this stereotypical fantasy herbwife/healer/midwife/witch come from?
She makes her appearance in the early 1970s. There's a number of factors going on here:

1. The rise of feminism, which comes into it in several ways. There's the development of fantasy, and the development of female roles, at the same time.

2. The rise of women's interest in and participation in the fantasy reader and writership. About 35 years ago, there was a surge in women reading and writing fantasy. The tradition of women in fantasy goes back further than that, but up to about 15 years ago, the major female fantasy/sf writers could be traced by a literary geneaology back to that Grand Dame of FSF, Andre Norton. The surge of fanfic, particularly by women, also dates to that era.

Early on, there was a surge in fantasy fiction role models of the type I think of as the Artemis, running-jumping-whacking-people kind. (Artemis was a major cult figure for the early women's movement: young, athletic, free-legged and free-loving, hanging out with Daddy and doing boy stuff, unencumbered by children, house, women's work, etc.) But there were some women and girls (I think it may be called third-wave feminists) who didn't feel able to identify with this picture. These Bagginses ("We have no use for adventures here, Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!"), among which I count myself, wanted someone to identify with, someone who might actually wear a skirt and not disdain nuturing, caring activities.

An example of this non-non-traditional heroine would be Maggie Brown, of Elizabeth Scarborough's Song of Sorcery and later books. Maggie isn't an herbalist, though her grandmother is; but she is a hearthwitch of the most extreme kind; her magic can do all kinds of housewifely tasks, but to raise a cyclone, for example, she needs to tell it she wishes to whip a VERY large quantity of eggs, "right there." When I first encountered her as a teen, I was enraptured. Here was someone I could identify with.

Another major force behind the emergence of the idealistic herbalist-healer in fantasy was the resurgence of interest in herbs, and herbal medicine in particular.  The 'back to the land' movement and the distrust of 'establishment medicine' fueled part of this trend.

This also was somewhat related to the women's movement, as there was a strong backlash against "traditional," scientific-style medicine in the women's movement. That backlash was definitely justified; the problems with women's healthcare in that time period are amply documented in many studies and first person narratives from healthcare providers and patients of the 1960s.

In particular, male medical establishments' control over women's health was a major issue. (Though I'm not from that period, I can remember going on the Pill and my personal struggles with having to jump through the hoops of authority to control my body.) The question of herbal contraception (did/does it exist? work safely and reliably?) is one that continues to be disputed. John Riddle's Eve's Herbs argues that there were safe reliable contraceptives used 'under the radar' before the modern period; I personally don't buy his arguments, but some people do. We do know that people used contraception, of some type, off and on from the Roman, through the medieval and modern periods. Catherine of Siena, the 23rd child of her parents, railed against those who practiced it (a clear case of self-interest there!) In fantasy and science fiction, of course, there's nearly always a safe reliable contraceptive of some sort.

During the 1970s and their climate of distrust of modern medicine, interest in herbs went through a renaissance. Around the turn of the 20th century, herbs had become devalued in American and British society. There was a resurgence in interest in the 1930s and 1940s led by scholarly garden-club women such as Eleanor Rhode and Rosetta Clarkson, leading to the foundation of herbal guilds and societies. However, by the late 1960s, most people knew and cared little about herbs as garden plants, seasonings, or medicines. This began to change when the counterculture (and, to a certain extent, the American pre-bicentennial celebrators) embraced and promoted the study and growing of herbs, and the use of herbal medicine.

The old woman who lived in the woods, either as a good or bad witch, or the miraculous young woman who dispensed magical healing, were alread features of the folk and fairy tales ardently collected and dispensed by 19th century ethnologists. But in this time period, studies such as the Foxfire Books brought the 'cunning' and 'wise' men and women who practiced folk healing in remote areas-- the Ozarks, the Appalachians-- as their predecessors in remote areas of 18th and 19th century Europe had practiced folk medicine. We'll call these folk healers 'empirics,' a term that was first used in the middle ages by University-trained physicians for those who were not informed by University knowledge and theory. An example of such a folk-healer, folk-witch appears in Nancy Springer's The Hex Witch of Seldom.

Women's studies historians were attempting to retrieve the history of the daily life of women ("the world's best kept secret: Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity" as Carolyn Kizer put it in "Pro Femina"). Women as nurses, nurturers, home doctors, were traced back, by these historians, to the suppression of the empiric medical practicioners and the witches; and here is where the witches come in to our narrative.
In their pursuit of role models, of analogies, of mythic figures, feminist historians siezed upon the witch. Diane Purkiss, in her excellent The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations gives us this excellent word-picture that I think you'll recognize:
"Here is a story. Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived on the edge of a village. She lived alone, in her own house surrounded by her garden, in which she grew all manner of herbs and other healing plants. Though she was alone, she was never lonely; she had her garden and her animals for company, she took lovers when she wished, and she was always busy. The woman was a healer and midwife; she had practical knowledge taught her by her mother, and mystical knowledge derived from her closeness to nature, or from a half-submerged pagan religion. She helped women give birth, and she had healing hands; she used her knowledge of herbs and her common sense to help the sick."
Sounds like a great life, right? I'd sure jump at an existence like that.
"However, her peaceful existence was disrupted. Even though the woman was harmless, she posed a threat to the fearful. Her medical knowledge threatened the doctor. Her simple, true spiritual values threatened the superstitious nonsense of the Catholic church, as did her affirmation of the sensuous body. Her independence and freedom threatened men. So the Inquisition descended on her, and cruelly tortured her into confession to lies about the devil. She was burned alive by men who hated women, along with millions of others like her."
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? That would be our prototypical fantasy healer/herbalist.

But the fascinating part here is what Purkiss says next:
"Do you believe this story? Thousands of women do. It is still being retold, in full or in part, by women who are academics, but also by poets, novelists, popular historians, theologians, dramatists. It is compelling, even horrifying. However, in all essentials it is not true, or only partly true, as a history of what happened to the women called witches in the early modern period."
It's when we begin to imagine the variety of the history obscured by this idea of the herbalist, of the healer, that we can see the diversity of fantastic possibilities which that history suggests.
So, we discuss the witch because the herbalist persona, in fantasy and in herbal historiography, is irrevocably tangled iwith that of the witch, and specifically the witch of the 'burning times'.

This association of woman healer with witch is most often traced back through Ehrenreich and English's booklet, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: a history of women healers, 1973. This wasn't the first such discourse, but it's the one that gets cited continuously, and erroneously. In a discussion of the Malleus Maleficarum [Hammer of Witches] the 1486 witchfinder's manual by Sprenger and Kramer, they say, in quotes, "If a woman dare to cure without having studied, she is a witch and must die."

The trouble is, that sentence doesn't appear in the Malleus Maleficarum edition they cite. Closer examination shows that English and Ehrenreich are not specifically crediting that sentence to Sprenger and Kramer. It may be a quote that has lost its attribution, from another source; or it may simply be the author's framing of what they see as a continuing trend in the literature of the witchhunt. But the Malleus actually specifically exempts the use of herbs and other usual healing objects in healing, as not being witchcraft:
“Therefore we can answer their first argument in this way: that if natural objects are used in a simple way to produce certain effects for which they are thought to have some natural virtue, this is not unlawful. But if there are joined to this certain characters and unknown signs and vain observations, which manifestly cannot have any natural efficacy, then it is superstitious and unlawful. Wherefore S. Thomas, II, q. 96, art. 2, speaking of this matter, says that when any object is used for the purpose of causing some bodily effect, such as curing the sick, notice must be taken whether such objects appear to have any natural quality which could cause such an effect; and if so, then it is not unlawful, since it is lawful to apply natural causes to their effects.”
Also,
Again, there are some things in nature which have certain hidden powers, the reason for which man does not know; such, for example, is the lodestone, which attracts steel and many other such things, which S. Augustine mentions in the 20th book Of the City of God. And so women in order to bring about changes in the bodies of others sometimes make use of certain things, which exceed our knowledge, but this is without any aid from the devil. And because these remedies are mysterious we must not therefore ascribe them to the power of the devil as we should ascribe evil spells wrought by witches. (Part I, question 2)
Again
But natural bodies may find the benefit of certain secret but good influences. Therefore artificial bodies may receive such influence. Hence it is plain that those who perform works of healing may well perform them by means of such good influences, and this has no connexion at all with any evil power.
To this we add the fact that the majority of those who can be documented as excecuted for witchcraft don't appear to have been either midwives or healers. Whether they were in fact practicioners of some pre-Christian or alternative religion, rebels against Christianity, innocent victims, or sufferers of some delusion is unclear, and may have varied from place to place. There is some suggestion that the witch-crazes may have been associated with outbreaks of ergotism (a deadly, hallucenogenic condition caused by consuming the ergot rust that forms on improperly cured and stored rye and other grains), but since these stories don't seem to be associated with stories of fingers, toes, or noses turning black and falling off, I'm inclined to doubt them, as this is one of the major side effects of ergotism.

I'm going to take a minute to look at the various witchly activities that Sprenger & Kramer were concerned about. The first is of course causing damage to people and animals; this concept of ill-wishing or bewitching someone's body or property is a fear in most cultures. There is also the specific accusation of raising storms, hail, etc. (A good fantasy example of this is The Wind-Witch by Susan Dexter.) Casting love spells. And the specific midwife-related issues: hindering generation/conception, including causing abortions, and offering babies up to the Devil either by killing them and using their bodies in demonic rites, or by consecrating them to the Devil at birth. And lastly, removing bewitchments and other 'good magic', which could be witchcraft if the assistance of the devil was invoked, or merely heresy.

The fertility issues are especially intriguing. There is the tragi-comic aspect of witches allegedly hindering generation by stealing penises, or causing men to believe their penises disappeared.  (Kramer and Sprenger specifically appear to have collected every old chestnut of woman-bashing joke they could get their hands on-- including the one about the drowned wife being looked for upstream, because she was so contrary in everything else--, without critically having realized their humor value.) Consider:
And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird's nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report? It is to be said that it is all done by devil's work and illusion, for the senses of those who see them are deluded in the way we have said. For a certain man tells that, when he had lost his member, he approached a known witch to ask her to restore it to him. She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he liked out of the nest in which there were several members. And when he tried to take a big one, the witch said: You must not take that one; adding, because it belongs to a parish priest.
But the worry about being cursed to be unable to reproduce, either due to flagging virility, or infertility, was a very real one. Folk beliefs and/or hallucinations of the missing penis appear in other cultures In fact, in early April 2001, the BBC News reported a string of lynchings in Nigeria, caused by belief that men's penises were being stolen ( Thursday, 12 April, 2001, 18:10 GMT 19:10 UK 'Missing' penis sparks mob lynching, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/1274235.stm ) and Reuters reported a similar outbreak in 2008 ( "Penis theft panic hits city," Thu Apr 24, 2008 9:47am EDT http://www.reuters.com/article/oddlyEnoughNews/idUSN2319603620080424) where police spoke with victims: " "But when you try to tell the victims that their penises are still there, they tell you that it's become tiny or that they've become impotent."

At this time period, in fact during the two centuries after the Black Death, there was major rise in worry about fertility. While the earlier gynecological texts, such as the Trotula were sympathetic to women, there was upsurge of books like De Secretis Mulierum by the Psuedo-Albertus Magnus, in which men worried constantly lest women harm their bodies or their offspring by some strategem, and where the process of getting pregnant and producing a healthy, favorable infant was portrayed as a complex process full of pitfalls. Jacqueline Musacchi, The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy relates the story of an infertile woman who is given advice to seek a wide variety of cures from a wide variety of practitioners: her sister finds her a midwife that will make her a charm, her brother (in law?) suggests fasting and prayer, her husband takes her to physicians who suggest changes in diet and daily regimen...

As I've said before, the question of reliable contraception, and whether midwives or other practitioners dispensed it, is vexed. We do know from surviving herbals that many herbs that are today generally regarded as safe for consumption, such as thyme or marjoram, were listed as emmenagogues-- things that bring down the menses; but medieval and renaissance gynecology was very concerned with regular menstruation as a prerequisite for pregnancy. They had correctly noted that women who do not menstruate are unlikely to conceive. Still, there's every reason to believe there were practitioners who offered contraceptives and abortifaecents 'under the table', and that women shared "old wives' tales" of things dangerous in pregnancy. So for the fertility-mad Renaissance males, this was a threat.

While surviving documentation suggests that most midwives were actually not accused of witchcraft, there were accusations associated with both postpartum depression and infant death; such accusations might be against strangers, family members, old enemies, or older women brought in to care for the child, the mother and the household after a birth, similar to the 19th century month-nurses. An examination of the texts suggests a parallel with the surge accusations of medical malpractice in modern obstetrics. When a child dies, it is hard for the parents to accept; grief-stricken family may look for someone to blame, and when the death is sudden and unexpected, or the child fails to thrive, a desperate search for reasons and justifications takes place. It has to be someone's fault. Childless women or most-menopausal ones featured as threatening because of their presumed envy of the mother and child.

But for priests such as Sprenger and Kramer, midwives were a different kind of threat, a professional one. Due to the doctrine that held that unbaptized children would not be admitted into heaven, at-risk babies had to be baptized immediately. Priests did not attend birthings, so they had to tolerate having emergency baptisms performed by midwives-- a frightening delegation of a major sacrament. Texts show a great deal of concern that midwives be checked and certified as religiously sound, lest they contaminate the sacrament. This is probably where the concern about midwives consecrating children to the Devil occurs, though there's no way of telling whether some sort of anti-'Christening' ceremony did sometimes occur, with or without parental permission.

Further, there was the business of charms and amulets. Though Christian prayers and laying-on of hands for healing was approved by the Christian churches and theologies (in fact, Spanish sources discuss ecclesiastical visits to evaluate and confirm church and lay faith healers who worked on specific illnesses before the 13th century-- see Jean Dangler Mediating fictions : women healers and the go-between in medieval and early modern Iberia , there were a wide range of charms and amulets not approved by the church. Looking at the Anglo-Saxon leech books (see Stephen Pollington, Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing) one can see that a number of charms, especially herbal charms-- such as that commonly known as "The Nine Herbs Charm"-- really were pre-Christian in nature, and were adapted by using Christian saints' names and Deity titles in them for later use. Some of those charms re-appear in 20th century Pennsylvania Dutch Hexcraft and Ozark medicine, too. All through history, religious doctrines fight against these sorts of charms and superstitions, considering them heretical. For the quack, charms were an easy source of ready money; for the healer, whether they were believed in or not, charms had appeal, due to the ability to calm a nervous patient and/or his/her relatives, not to mention the placebo effect. (Springer and Kramer's disapproval of charms and amulets, even Christian ones, doesn't keep them from advising them for those prosecuting witches, though.)

It's a well known paradigm in societies where there is belief in witchcraft or cursing, that some people do a brisk business in claiming to unhex those who others have allegedly bewitched. If this makes use of the patient's powers of healing by belief, or some sort of shamanism, this is often now considered not unreasonable; but Church authorities and Enlightenment scientists were united in disapproving of the practice. Sprenger and Kramer explicitly say that if witchcraft is not used to remove the bewitchment, it's only heresy and can be repented of; but they definitely disapprove of hex-removal in general.)


If we demolish the feminist ideal of the herbalist-witch-healer, we can replace it with a larger more diverse idea of healers, based on the historical record.
Even if we restrict ourselves only to female practicioners, there may not have been many, but they were fairly diverse.

Nancy Siriasi, author of Medieval & early Renaissance medicine : an introduction to knowledge and practice has this to say:
"Women as well as men practiced medicine and surgery; as with their predecessors in the Roman empire, women's practice was limited neither to obstetrical cases nor to female patients. For example, the names of 24 women described as surgeons in Naples between 1273 and 1410 are known, and references have been found to 15 women practitioners, most of them Jewish and none described as midwives, in Frankfurt between 1387 and 1497... Even in the twelfth century, however, the accomplishments of Trota and Abbess Hildegard were highly unusual. Once university faculties of medicine were established in the course of the thirteenth century, women were excluded from advanced medical education and, as a consequence, from the most prestigious and potentially lucrative variety of practice. Furthermore, it deserves to be emphasized that although women practitioners existed in many different regions of Europe between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries, they represent only a very small proportion of the total number of practitioners whose names are recorded-- according to one estimate, about 1.5 percent in France and 1.2 percent in England. It is probably that many more women may have engaged in midwifery and healing arts without leaving any trace of their activities in written records; but this in turn may imply that such women are likely to have clustered in the least prosperous sector of medical activity, or to have been part-time or intermittent practitioners." -- Siriasi, p. 27

Women surgeons often specialized in the delicate work of cutting cataracts, since it required less brute force. Women were allowed to practice as members of the apothecary guild if they were widows of guild members. Herbalists-- that is, those who gathered and sold herbs in the markets, to apothecaries and physicians-- could be of either sex.

Midwives were almost exclusively female, but their duties varied from the simple ones now associated with the doula to more complex situations. In a number of cities, the town took steps to regulate the practice of midwives directly, through panels of high-ranking or high-status women who would examine and certify midwives as competent. By the seventeenth century, a number of cities actually had guilds-- in London, apprentice midwives had to serve seven years with a senior midwife before being allowed to practice on their own.

Dame Trota, a possibly apocryphal figure, is the most famous of the women university physicians. It is said that she practiced at the University of Salerno, along with a number of other female medical scholars referred to as 'the Salernitarian Women'. A number of writings have been attributed to Trota, specifically those gathered together in the collections referred to as the _Trotula_.

Some historians claimed that all the texts in question were written by men and merely attributed to Trota; however, another extant general medical work by Trota was identified by John Benson. Monica Green advances a compelling argument that at least one of the Trotula texts was in fact written by a woman physician, though perhaps not Trota herself.

Some women were licensed as doctors or medical professionals in various states, and various writers have claimed that a few women attended medical school in period. In cases where women healers were licensed, the historians perceive a blurring between the status of physicians and licensed healers. For instance, in Naples, and in Florence, and even in Valencia (before 1329) women could be licensed as 'medica' during certain historical periods. Still, women almost never attended Universities to begin with.

It's certainly true that male physicians, University-trained, tried to get control over all other medical practitioners; but everything I've read of modern scholarship suggests the struggle was a labor issue rather than a religious one. As university-trained physicians became more common, Colleges of Physicans used their influence with their wealthy patrons and with town aldermen to get laws passed giving them supervision over what they called 'empirics,' non-scholarly medical practioners. Over time, they gained control and oversight over guilds of surgeons, apothecaries, and even midwives in cities, and tried legislate away those they couldn't control.

Curiously enough, physicians in those days used techniques we generally would see as holistic and/or unscientific: working from the theory of humors, they tended to prescribe diet and activity changes as well as bloodletting and purges; they also used astrology as a diagnostic and prescriptive tool. However, it's not a good idea to make too much of this, as some empirics used those techniques and theories as well, though treatment based directly on symptoms was also used. In fact, such theories were part of every person's medical knowledge. Everyone used herbs in their diet and for various home remedies, just as we use over the counter medicines today.

It's hard to tell how many empirics there were practicing at any given time, as most medical treatment was either given by relatives, employer's families, or other personal relations, and medical treatment was rarely a full-time job even for those who practiced outside their families. For women in particular, that obscures any records we may have of their practice, as they would appear as so and so's wife, daughter or widow in his tax assessments or legal papers, but their separate side businesses (spinster, brewster, webster, midwife) might not be mentioned in tax or legal papers.

This greater diversity of practitioners is reflected in children's books such as those by Karen Cushman (The Midwife's Apprentice and Matilda Bone).

The preceding information on women physicians, midwives and empirics in general, shouldn't be taken to say that the Colleges of Physicians were not trying to get women out of the medical profession. They were, though not steadily. But I would still characterize the problem as a trade dispute first, and misogynistic second.

There is, for instance, the singular case of Jacoba Felice, brought to court in Paris on charges of practicing, successfully, as a physician. The argument of the Faculty of Medicine of Paris was that she could not practice not because she was a quack, or untrained, but because she was a woman. However, the charges brought against her were specifically on the grounds of not being licensed, not of being a woman:

"That, in these actions, she has often exercised and continues to exercise a medical practice in Paris and its suburbs, that she has practiced and practices it from day to day, although she has not been approved in any official school in Paris or elsewhere, and that she does this without the license of the chancellor of the church of Paris and of the said dean and masters."

(However, I have found no credible evidence that Felice was burned for practicing medicine, as one Canadian journal author claims.)

Even in places where the Colleges of Physicians regulated the activities of 'empirics,' women empirics were often allowed to practice on women, due to the argument that many women would be embarrassed to talk about their illnesses or be examined by a male medical professional. Also as a result, midwifery flourished well into and through the 18th century, since male professionals were generally banished from the birthing-room until the advent of special birthing equipment.

"A memorial of Eleanor Willughby, a seventeenth century midwife," Adrian Wilsong, in Women, science and medicine 1500-1700: mothers and sisters of the Royal Society , describes a country midwife who practiced in concert with her physician father, and at one point smuggled him into her cases to examine the patient. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A midwife's tale : the life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary, 1785-1812 speaks of the process by which physicians began to take over the midwives' practice in the early 19th century.

Even when medicine began to be more scientific and less literary/philosophical -- so that a physician's education didn't have to discuss whether the human female had a single or double-horned uterus -- male physicians usually had been trained with little practical experience in birthing. What they did have was metal implements, specifically forceps, which were used to assist in difficult births. (In the hands of a rough or inexperienced professional, however, those forceps could do great damage to mother and baby alike.) In fact, 17th and 18th century physicians could, and did, do something similar to partial-birth abortions to save women's lives when the child could not be extracted (since there was no reliable or really survivable Cesarean section operation). Still, in rural areas, midwives practiced in concert with doctors into the early 20th century.

People often backwards-generalize the division between a symptomatic or disease-focused 'scientific' medicine and an alternative 'holistic' or 'whole person medicine' seen in today's culture to the middle ages. To be completely blunt, this is bunk.

Even a little study of the methods and studies of physicans in the medieval and early modern period (pre-Vesalius, for instance), shows that they used holistic, whole-body, mind/body theories such as the theory of humors, astrology, and Galen's writings about the bowels (what foods and activities were contrictive, and what laxative) and strove for moderation in their patients' lives. Such theories let to activities such as bloodletting, cupping (applying hot cups to the skin to bring blood and lymph toward the surface), sweating, and emetic, purgative and/or laxative treatments to expel contents of the stomach and bowel from one end of the digestive tract or the other.

Medieval and early modern empirics, or folk medicine practitioners, used combinations of holistic, symptomatic, and symbolic medicine-- but their medicine was almost never *more* holistic than that of the physicians. Even the simplest scan through the recorded documents shows this. Though Culpeper's English Physician is in places 'holistic' by modern medical standards, it was the document of an empiric-- a non-guild-recognized apothecary -- writing based on the usual treatments described by the physicians of his day. But other authors, such as Gerard, who writes of what the common folk do with this herb and that, or even, to reach back to ancient history, Pliny, don't describe holistic medicine. Pliny, in fact, is famous for having written down any superstition or folk belief that people would describe to him, and one sometimes wonders whether his informants for the Natural History succumbed to the temptation to pull his leg about certain beliefs.

There was, it is true, a 17th and 18th century fad for belief in the Doctrine of Signatures, which holds that substances display their medicinal uses by some distinguishing feature. However, the first appearance of the Doctrine of Signatures is in Pliny, and it was taught and discussed in universities as a way of organizing knowledge, so many educated men, philosophers, and physicians of the middle ages and Renaissance knew of and subscribed to it. The last hurrah of the theory was probably in William Coles' Art of Simpling, whose use of the theory was hotly contested.

I am often told that we can have no idea how medieval women, or in fact any peasant empirics, used herbs, since they practiced only in secret, and never wrote anything down. (Thus, of course, the Lore mentioned by Diana Wynne Jones.) This is convenient, as one can thus make any claim one desires and it cannot be refuted by the documentary evidence.

However, it seems unlikely to be true, as references to home-made remedies appear in documents relating to the less prosperous, and we also see references in botanical and medical writings of the period to things the authors learned from peasants, old women, folklore, and etc. Furthermore, there is a certain intersection between those uses for herbs recorded on the extant herbals and texts, and uses recorded by ethnographers in the 19th and 20th centuries, and claimed now as the rightful herbal lore. To me, at least, it seems plausible that the ancient crafts of the herbalists (to blatantly twist poor Budge to my uses) as used in the middle ages do not remain entirely undocumented.

One curious exception is that of Willow bark, a source of salicylic acid. One can hardly turn around or stub one's toe in a fantasy novel without being offered willow-bark tea. (For reasons unknown, fantasy willow-bark tea, unlike its modern NSAID equivalents in real life, can be drunk as much as needed without stomach effects or increasing bleeding in wounds.) While the Egyptians and Hippocrates appear to have suggested willow bark for pain, it drops out of the written medicinal record after that, until 1763, when Reverend Edmund Stone tried powdered willow bark for fevers and arthritis. Allegedly, it was the theory of humors that led him to do so, since willows grow in the same damp low-lying places that are associated with fevers and arthritis. Oddly enough, however, meadowsweet, another source of salicin, is mentioned by medieval and early modern herbalists for fevers, though other herbs of varying usefulness such as camomile and mints were prescribed for fevers and agues in written works.

The herbal history fantasy group are prone to claim that herbs as medications were 'driven underground' by the Christian Church and/or the Medical Establishment during the middle ages and Renaissance.

Nancy Siraisi, in Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice, p. 141, discusses the types of medication in the medieval physician's arsenal:
Of the three instruments of medicine, medication was the principal form of active intervention by which physicians sought to combat disease. The choice of appropriate medicinal substances and their compounding in proper proportions were central areas of medical knowledge. The foundation of medieval European pharmacy -- as of traditional herbal medicine in other societies-- was the attribution of medicinal powers to commonly available substances, usually plants and often those that might also be used in cooking. Sharp taste, pungent aroma, and unusual texture as well as readily perceptible action of some kind (for example, as a laxative or opiate) were all properties that might lead to the classification of a plant as medicinal. Unquestionably, consistent use of of certain common European plants as medicines began in antiquity and had a continuous history thereafter. But in western Europe, even in the early Middle Ages, this simple "kitchen-garden" medicine was never purely empirical, local, folkloric and handed down by oral tradition-- although these characteristics must surely have been present to some extent -- but seems always also to have contained elements derived from Greek medicine by way of written sources. From the early Middle Ages to the high Renaissance, medicinal recipes were the commonest form of medical writing.

The most reliable picture of the women-as-herbalist, and in fact of the healer-herbalist in general, in medieval history, is actually that of the lady of the house as healer, physica, concoctor of medicines and treater of injuries. Whether she be the mother, 'housekeeper,' or lady of the manor, women through the seventeenth century were expected to be nurse and Dr. Mom. From the great ladies nursing wounded knights in the romances, right through Gervase Markham's exhortation:
"...you shall understand that since the preservation and care of the family, touching their health and soundness of body, consisteth most inher diligence, it is meet that she have a physical kind of knowledge, how to administer many wholesome receipts or medicines for the good of their healths, as well as to prevent the first occasion of sickness as to take away the effects and evil of the same when it hath made a seizure on the body,"

though he does say that he does not intend to make his reader a practitioner, since knowledge of physic would be beyond her. We do have examples of that in fantasy, though the path is somewhat complex: consider the main character in Sharon Shinn's Summers at Castle Auburn.

But we are more likely to see the making of herbal remedies in fantasy as a side business for the fantasy healers. Sometimes that is perfectly in line with their roles as mythic characters -- see the Old Woman in the Swamp and the Young Sorcerer's Girl Student in Teresa Edgerton's Welsh/Arthurian Caelydonn series, or the education of Eilonwy in the Welsh-inspired Prydain Chronicles. The combination of great lady who through her holiness, some mystic power, or some other power, is shown in a lady of the manor in Edgerton's Grail and The Ring, and in history in the stories of St. Francesca Romana, a fifteenth-century wife and mother who set herself to minister to the ill through touch, prayer, ointments and liquids.

On the other hand, I sometimes wonder where the counterpart to Cadfael is in our fantasy world. Anyone familiar with the writings of Hildegard of Bingen on plants and medicines realizes that there would have been women infirmarers and abbesses who were interested in both herbal medicine and physic, as Cadfael is. The fact that Cadfael's type-- the healing monk-- is better documented and more described in history and of course in mythology is no excuse.

Often, we are told that only the use of herbs by monks kept all knowledge from being swept away, which anti-Christian or anti-Catholic writers take to mean that the monasteries or the church drove all other herbal healing underground. There's no evidence of this, and contrary evidence in the fact that Anglo-Saxon, formerly pagan, texts such as the Leech book of Bald were written down at the end of the first millenium, and that their writers struggled to reconcile their herbal and medical knowledge with that in the Latin books they had access to. Admittedly, there was a great deal of ancient medical knowledge that ended up in Arabic and/or Muslim hands and was brought back to Christian Europe during the Crusades, often with added information from Muslim practioners.

Another thing that seems to be missing in fantasy is the idea of woman gardeners or herbalists, who gathered and sold raw materials, which we can document to approximately 15th c. France, where the trade was followed by both men and women. Male gardeners, like male cooks, seem to have been the norm in noble houses, and the interest in creating one's own garden and having it laid out just so can be documented to both sexes. However, with the desire to have materials for medication and the still-room, the middle class and upper middle class women would have taken more interest in their gardens. Women were hired in gardens to do weeding, and surviving depictions of workers in the gardens show women doing difficult work. But they seem to have existed within the social structure, rather as proud and independent characters, and thus are not well-represented in fantasy so far. An unusual appearance is the green mages in Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic series, where there are natural magic practitioners who work primarily with plants, and sometimes get pressed into service for healing, rather than the other way around.

The trope of the healer/witch/herbalist has been used, overused, abused, mythologized, and turned round and round to the point that it has migrated into and sometimes been relegated to Young Adult Literature and Romance Novels. But if we throw away the fantasy of the historical witch/healer/herbalist, we find that there are a diversity of types and ideas that inspire new thought and ideas.