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Women’s Role in Medicine in the Middle Ages Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 19th, 2020


There is no doubt that the modern world has almost nothing in common with one of the Middle Ages. Everything has changed and it is especially important for those areas related to maintaining an appropriate level of health and removing causes of serious diseases that may significantly decrease the quality of lives. Speaking about the particular role of women in medieval medicine and its further development, it is necessary to say that women were supposed to fulfill a wide range of important tasks even though they were not regarded as full-fledged citizens in certain places.

Therefore, the Middle Ages can be regarded as a period that was very difficult for women who were or were not related to medicine. The activity of many women in non-urban areas was related to studying curative properties of different herbs and the ways that they could be used to help different patients including women in labor. Apart from that, a lot of women were working as midwives and nurses despite limited access to important scientific works written by Greek and Roman individual researchers (Ward 2016).

In the most difficult periods in history marked with uncontrolled growth of contagious diseases, nurses were supposed to fulfill duties usually performed by surgeons and other healthcare specialists even though they might be uneducated. Also, the works were written by some famous women who helped to extend the knowledge of systems of the human body. In particular, there was a need for substantial research on women’s reproductive system due to a lack of knowledge that caused quite high maternal mortality rates. Therefore, the role that medieval women played in the further development of practices helping to save the lives of common people is difficult to overestimate.

The Role of the Achievements of Women Nurses and Doctors

To begin with, such a sphere as medicine in the Middle Ages was closely interconnected with religion and supernaturalism even though assumptions supported by scientific evidence were supposed to refute allegations related to supernatural and mysterious reasons for many diseases. Speaking about medieval Europeans and their level of medicine, it is necessary to say that it was relatively weak because there was no justified knowledge of many systems of the human body.

Due to that, many diseases and disorders that modern researchers know a lot of things about were explained by the presence of supernatural powers and creatures that could torture sick people because of their sins or inappropriate thoughts. During that period, people were likely to have a strong faith in God. At the same time, assumptions that certain expressions and rituals could help to ameliorate the health condition of patients were quite common, and a lot of people used magic rituals in their work.

Nevertheless, one supporting church denied the possibility of using magic to help sick people. Speaking about medicine in the Middle Ages, it is necessary to say that these facts about the prevalence of religious points of view and endemic belief in supernatural powers help modern researchers to better understand difficulties that women living in the Medieval Ages had to face and the reason why their position in many spheres was not equal to one of the men.

Different religions and sacred texts that were regarded as the ultimate sources of wisdom contained fragments that worked against women and significantly limited their rights. For instance, believing that Eve was created from Adam’s rib, those who were supporting Christian faith were endorsing the opinion that women existed only to fulfill the needs of men and, therefore, they could not be trusted to do such serious thing as providing treatment.

Apart from that, women were seen as creatures having a strong connection with the supernatural world, and this is why many women who tried to swim against the stream and protect their points of view were defamed of sorcery and killed; the same happened to some men trying to refute religious arguments and prove the inconsistency of world view bridging the gap between the fear of God and magical thinking. Due to these things together with the lack of education facilities for women, the opportunities for women to mark places for themselves in the history books were limited. Nevertheless, their hard work in different spheres helped the entire humanity to consider the most common mistakes related to treatment.

About the Medieval Ages and the situation with medicine, it is necessary to say that not every man could acquire education due to endemic poverty and a lack of research conducted to understand the real laws of nature instead of assumptions related to the story about the creation of the world. Religious houses were the only centers where people could learn to read and write but women living in convents were less educated. Also, it is necessary to say that medicine in early medieval Europe was quite undeveloped and people studying medicine could rely only on Roman and Greek texts kept in religious houses.

Nevertheless, as it is clear from this fact, there were a few people who could have access to that knowledge because the majority of people were illiterate and did not know foreign languages. Being deprived of the right to extend knowledge and study the first works devoted to medicine and classification of diseases, people in small towns and non-urban areas were developing their ways to cope with some ailments.

Such a form of treatment as herbal healing was quite common in these areas and its popularity was constantly growing because there was no alternative for people who could not go to hospitals. Herbal healing was a sphere that was mostly developed by women but the latter often had to keep their activities a secret because of victimization (Moh’d Rousan and Al-Uzaizi 2016, 352). Due to the lack of money, many people were visiting local wise women who knew a lot of healing herbs and understood the way that they needed to be used to ameliorate the health condition of people affected by different diseases.

The herbal healer was an occupation associated with women although a few men were using these methods to help people. As for the ways that women used to gain knowledge related to herbs and their properties, it can be said that women of different generations collected it and then devolved this knowledge to their daughters and granddaughters. Speaking about the practical usability of such knowledge, it needs to be stated that herbs often helped to ameliorate the health condition of those who had diseases involving no threat to life. Nevertheless, serious diseases such as leprosy and Black Death could not be treated with the help of herbs.

At the same time, because common people in the Middle Ages had no access to professional medical help, the development of knowledge in the sphere of herbal healing was an important achievement as well. It may be stated that women related to herbal healing were supposed to be wise and people living in neighboring villages knew them well and treated them with respect. Despite that, their activity involved many threats because of the desire of the authorities to make all people live by religious assumptions. Due to that, a lot of women related to herbal healing in the Middle Ages were accused of witchcraft and then killed.

Apart from ameliorating people’s health condition with the help of herb repertory, there was another function that local wise women were supposed to fulfill – they helped women in labor acting as midwives. Unfortunately, there were a lot of difficult cases and complications during childbirth. Due to the lack of knowledge on numerous systems of the human body, herbal healers were unable to estrange certain problems, and maternal mortality rates were quite high.

Such an area as midwifery began to develop in the Middle Ages, and there were many reasons why the primary role in its development was played by women. In fact, due to certain biases against women, many male researchers believed that a man should not take care of a woman in labor due to a few reasons. First, it was believed that taking care of women during delivery was a practice that could assault men’s dignity and this is why it was inappropriate.

Moreover, the majority of people were religious and if a man was looking at a naked woman who was not his wife, that could not be regarded as an appropriate situation based on religious values. Nevertheless, there could be certain exceptions related to such practices. To become midwives in the future, little girls needed to start gaining experience since their childhood. To do that, they were supposed to be present during the birth of their brothers, sisters, cousins, and other family members and keep track of midwives’ actions.

Speaking about midwives and their position in medieval society, it is necessary to say that they were divided into a few groups based on their qualifications and level of expertise (Dooms 2015, 161). Those midwives who were known for their skills could be trusted to help women in labor belonging to the upper class and it was regarded as a lofty and challenging task for such specialists.

Speaking about the role of women in medicine, it is necessary to state that a lack of education for women and men’s unwillingness to let women fulfill important functions related to providing treatment were the reasons why female doctors were a kind of an exception to the common rule. Due to that, the majority of women engaged in medicine in the Middle Ages were working as nurses. First, it was supposed that nurses did not necessarily have to possess an extended knowledge on the human body to provide patients with the proper care; nevertheless, due to women’s persistence and willingness to study, medical education for women was becoming more and more available (Hood 2013).

Nurses were required to fulfill a wide range of tasks aimed at ameliorating patients’ health conditions. Speaking about the development of nursing with the lapse of time, it can be stated that by the end of the Middle Ages the situation with nurses and their duties has changed. Because of increasing poverty and extended propagation of terminal illnesses, doctors and nurses were facing quite a difficult period.

That period, hospitals in Europe were overcrowded, and there was a lack of specialists who were able to help sick people. Due to that situation, many nurses were supposed to fulfill additional tasks that were usually performed by chemists and even surgeons. As can be seen, the role of women living in the Medieval Ages in maintaining the health of the population and the development of newer ways of treatment is difficult to overestimate.

Despite the facts mentioned above, it cannot be stated that the role of women in the development of medicine in the Medieval Ages was limited to fulfilling practical tasks; in fact, there were a few famous women who made a significant contribution to the theory of medicine using both their own experience and knowledge reported by the first Greek, Roman and Arabic researchers in the field. Speaking about such women, it is necessary to remember Trota of Salerno who is believed to be one of the most famous health professionals in medieval Italy (Ray 2015).

This woman lived in the 12th century and she became extremely famous due to her works devoted to gynecological disorders. As for the latter, it is necessary to state that such diseases affected a lot of women of different ages but there was a little knowledge on the reproductive system of women and the particular measures that could be taken to alleviate the pain that such disorders involved. About her personality, it can be stated that there are alternative ideas concerning her life expressed by different researchers.

Thus, some of the researchers denying women’s contribution to the development of medicine in the Middle Ages suppose that the works attributed to this person were written by a man who was a former slave. According to these researchers, since women were excluded from medical education, they also could not work on complex medical problems and were isolated from the practice. Women’s ability to provide medical care is doubtful to some because these women were both socially and politically limited from the opportunities men had during the Medieval era.

Another support for this argument is the fact that many names of the women who practiced medicine do not appear in books and archives; thus, the major part of the practice was still conducted by men, the researchers claim. It is acknowledged that women could learn from the practice performed by men, but they were only allowed to help their husbands or fathers in their business and not start their practice.

Therefore, neither the social nor the political atmosphere in Medieval cities was suitable for women if they wanted to treat others independently. Nevertheless, these claims do not seem to be consistent because gynecological diseases are described in great detail that is more likely to be known by women. In general, the works written by this woman touch upon a lot of topics that remain the most important problems related to gynecological health (Casey 2016).

Among other things, her works contain information on methods of treatment and observations connected with such disorders and conditions as an inability to have a child, dysmenorrhea, uterine hemorrhage, birth complications. Apart from that, Trota of Salerno was paying increased attention to questions related to aesthetic procedures and hygiene; in her works, there are a lot of recommendations for women who would like to restore youth and highlight remarkable features of their appearance even more.


In the end, it can be stated that contribution to medicine made by women was extremely important due to a wide range of tasks related to healthcare that they were supposed to discharge. The role of the achievements made by women who were nurses, doctors, midwives, herbal healers who marked the beginning of herbal therapy still used today, and independent researchers seems to be even more important if we take into consideration numerous challenges that these women had to address to have the right to join the medical community.


Casey, Abigail I. 2016.Magic and Medicine in a Man’s World: The Medieval Woman as both Healer and Witch.” Ncurproceedings.com. Web.

Dooms, Marc M. 2015. “Rare Diseases and Orphan Drugs: 500 Years Ago.” Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases 10(1): 161.

Hood, Lucy. 2013. Leddy & Pepper’s Conceptual Bases of Professional Nursing. Hong Kong: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Moh’d Rousan, Laith, and Sammar Faiz Al-Uzaizi. 2016. “Farmers’ Knowledge Level and Training Needs toward the Production and Conservation of Medicinal Herbal Plants in Jordan.” Journal of Medicinal Plants Research 10(24): 351-359.

Ray, Meredith K. 2015. Daughters of Alchemy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ward, Jennifer. 2016. Women in Medieval Europe: 1200-1500. New York: Routledge.

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