Friday, May 11, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

Since, in its long history, the word chthonian can relate not only to the underworld but also to the hidden and by extension forgotten, I’d like to take this post aside and bring up an all too often forgotten part of our shared history.

Thanks to the extreme and aggressive efforts of a male medical elite in Europe, women who practiced any kind of medicine are relegated in historical texts to either the status of midwife or, more pejoratively (just as those medical men would have liked it), old wife or “wise” woman.  Both of which basically boil down to witch.  But certain dark corners of history are being illuminated, and we’ve those angry, well educated men to thank for the memory of one Jacoba Felice, the woman doctor of 14th century Paris.

Jacoba, who is sometimes called Jacqueline and whose last name is sometimes spelled Felicie, was born in or near Paris some time around 1280.  Probably through empirical practice, learning at the elbow of her mother or father, she became a renowned physician within the city.  She was sought after not necessarily by the poor, although what little record we have of her mentions that she turned no one away, but by people who could afford to pay a doctor which meant at the very least those of the burgeoning guild class.

It was in 1322 that Jacoba’s name – though spelled differently at various points – became part of the public record.  In this year, according to Elisabeth Brooke in her book Medicine Women, charges were brought against her by the former surgeon to the King of France, John of Padua.  John, or Jean as he is named in the filing, accused Jacoba not of practicing medicine as a woman, necessarily, but of being an unlicensed practitioner.

According to the Charter of the University of Paris, no person could legally practice medicine without a license issued by the same august body.  The law had been in effect for close to 60 years when Jacoba was accused and it probably goes without saying that almost without exception only male graduates of the University held licenses.

Jacoba’s hearing is recorded in the Charter, and a number of Parisians filed through the doors of the University to give testimony on Jacoba’s behalf.  These people said that they had heard of Jacoba and her successful cures through family members or friends.  There is no mention in the testimony of the defendant hanging out a shingle or advertising in any way.  It seems that Madame Felice’s good name as a healer went before her.

People spoke of her feeling their pulses and examining them thoroughly.  Jean St. Omer testified that Jacoba had visited him repeatedly throughout a grave illness, never asking for payment prior to a cure.  He affirmed that she had done more for him, and with far less demand on his purse, than any licensed physician.

Yveau Tueleu told a similar tale of going from physician to physician with no relief from a persistent fever until she was seen by Jacoba, who made her well with the aid of a “clear drink”.  Another woman got to the heart of what must have made female physicians like Jacoba so popular among women:

It is better and more seemly that a wise woman learned in the art should visit the sick woman and inquire into the secrets of her nature… than a man should do so…  And a woman… would allow herself to die rather than reveal the secrets of her infirmities to a man.

Despite the high praise heaped upon Jacoba by her patients, the court found – almost predictable – in favor of Jean of Padua.  They upheld not only the licensing issue, but chose to bring gender into their decision as well:

Her plea that she cured many sick persons whom the aforesaid masters could not cure, ought not to stand and is frivolous, since it is certain that a man approved in the aforesaid art could cure the sick better than any woman.

With this, the case was turned over to the parochial authorities and Jacoba Felice was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.  Though in this day and age that sounds almost laughable, it would have been the equivalent of banishment from the very center of a medieval person’s community and a loss of all possibility of salvation.  In the world view of both Jacoba and her neighbors, her soul was doomed to eternity in the chthonian pit of Hell.

What became of Jacoba Felice, who was probably around 42 years old at the time of her trial, is unknown.  I like to think that she continued, at the very least, to take care of a family who loved her and that, in such circumstances, she passed on into something better than what her judges had hoped to leave her to. 

Header: French manuscript showing men and women during harvest c 12th century via Wikimedia 


Timmy! said...

I think the saddest aspect of this story is that this attitude is still prevalent in many parts of the world, Pauline.

Pauline said...

There's no question that this attitude so pervaded the orthodoxy of medicine that it may be another century before we see it die out (which, in all fairness, it may never do).