Women or Healers?: Household Practices and the Categories of Health Care in Late Medieval Iberia


Assessments of medieval health care used to focus on practitioners holding some sort of occupational label, resulting in a meager representation of women. This article intends to illustrate how women's significant contribution to healthcare can be mapped out by looking at the domestic space that is largely left outside the histories of medieval medicine. First, it explores the language that names women's activities to maintain health and alleviate illness, showing how words identifying women's capacities to heal come from everyday actions and belong to the semantic domain of women and mothers. The caring meanings ascribed to the words women, mothers, midwives, and nurses in the Iberian mother tongues conflate and describe a continuum of practice whose origin is the household, from where it expands to the community. Second, it discusses the importance of women's ordinary domestic care within the theoretical frame of the six non-naturals, particularly feeding and nourishing, as well as presenting the household as an open and flexible space providing health care beyond the family. Third, by considering recipes as privileged evidence, it attempts to piece together a preliminary textual history of women's household knowledges that for centuries had been circumscribed to the domain of the oral. It identifies the written contexts where women's recipes appear through a long timespan, attesting changes in women's literate practices that give rise to new genres that illuminate a sphere previously opaque to the historical record.