Historians of European science and medicine have considered the sixteenth century a pivotal era for the formation of new attitudes toward empirical knowledge. [End Page 574] Research on this topic is often based on printed works such as the vernacular scientific tracts that circulated widely in the German lands after 1530. In contrast, Alisha Rankin’s Panaceia’s Daughters focuses on correspondence to reconstruct the important but seldom explored medical activities of noblewomen in German courts. This excellent monograph adds an important dimension to our understanding of courtly women, medicine, and explorations of nature in early modern Europe.
In two introductory chapters, Rankin addresses the intellectual milieu of courtly women’s pharmaceutical work and the genre of the medical recipe, which already had a long history in German vernacular writing. Like the artisans explored by Pamela Smith, the noblewomen’s correspondence emphasized the value of their hands-on experience. While their rhetoric often distinguished medical know-how from the theories of trained physicians, the boundary between learned and lay practitioners was not a rigid one, at least in these elite circles. Physicians served as correspondence partners and at times even promoted an elite woman’s reputation for medical expertise.
Noblewomen frequently compiled handwritten anthologies of recipes to treat ailments ranging from dysentery or gout to skin disorders. Medical recipes were considered records of skills and practices as well as lists of ingredients. Because the women purported to offer privileged knowledge to their close associates, the collections were important commodities in the patronage exchange among German courts. Claims of efficacy had long been a feature of medical recipes, but Rankin suggests that, among noblewomen, the assertion that a cure was tried, repeated, or witnessed was a personal guarantee that was anchored by the author’s social status. Hence the noblewomen’s particular brand of empiricism was influenced by the constraints and opportunities offered by their social networks.
Rankin devotes the latter part of the book to three case studies of healers. The first of these is Dorothea of Mansfeld, a widow who offered remedies to hundreds of local peasants. Apart from Dorothea’s service to the poor, her medicines provided the basis for her reputation as a pious, charitable noblewoman who merited the support of more powerful patrons. Foremost among Dorothea’s contacts was a younger correspondence partner and apprentice, Anna of Saxony, who is the subject of Rankin’s second case study. The consort of the powerful Elector August of Saxony, Anna worked at the Dresden court, which was a center of experimentation in alchemy and other areas of inquiry. In this chapter and elsewhere, Rankin describes the mechanics of remedy production in fascinating detail. Anna coordinated extensive distillation activities among her household staff and went to great lengths to secure the finest glassware available. Her letters depicted medicines as a handiwork (handt arbeit) that required training and careful attention to equipment, ingredients, and manual techniques. Anna’s medico-pharmaceutical work merged with the ideal of the Lutheran housemother, but, as Rankin suggests, Catholic notables cultivated similar values and interests as well.
Rankin turns her attention to the experience of illness in a final chapter about duchess Elizabeth of Rochlitz, the sister of Martin Luther’s prominent supporter Philip of Hesse. Elizabeth suffered from various maladies, and late in her life she fended off suspicions that she had contracted the disreputable French disease. [End Page 575] She consulted dozens of practitioners and collected recipes that were apparently for her own use. While Elizabeth relied upon academic physicians at times, she ultimately placed greater weight on remedies that addressed external symptoms rather than regimens that attempted to correct her internal humoral imbalance. Like most of her contemporaries both rich and poor, Elizabeth found direct appeals to God to be fully compatible with reliance upon earthly medicines.
We still know too little about the role of women in early modern health care at every social level. However, Rankin’s important study illuminates a therapeutic activism and invigorated medical empiricism...