An Early History of Nursing

When I was a teenager I just loved needlecrafts of all kinds. Once I attended a class on “Embroidery in the Middle Ages”. Our instructor was very interesting, a little magical and a little other-worldly, like  Professor Trelawney of Harry Potter fame. She taught about the great tapestries.

“Did you know that the reason women and men wore wigs was because of nits? They couldn’t get rid of them so they shaved their heads and used wigs to hide their baldness. Do you recall the beautiful women in the tapestries who stand coyly holding an orange in their hands? That was because there was no sanitation. No one washed their clothes or their bodies, so to hide the stink they held their clove studded oranges under your nose while you talked.”

She went on, “In those days all the tailors were men and suits were very expensive. So, men began to wear lace around their necks and their cuffs because they were so much cheaper to replace as women were allowed to make lace.” It is a mostly lost art called tatting.”

Then she got a little off track, I thought, speaking of the peasants “They had no money and sewed only the clothes on their backs. Those women worked all day. They had to take care of home and hearth and each other. They were the mid-wives, and the herbalists. The men did the building and the hunting. They did the surgeries as they learned cutting, cauterizing and sewing during the wars. When they were done, the women were allowed care for the wounded.”

“But”, she said, “the men were suspicious of the women healers at the same time. The women were always very popular with the peasants who couldn’t afford a rich man’s medical care. They tried to get rid of the nurses before they cut into the men’s profits. They called them witches and had all kinds of horrible ways to kill them. Where did you think the stories of witches came from? Of course, they had to wear black robes with hoods (that probably had points) so they could meet in the woods to share their cures. All those stories about witches in those days were all made up to get rid of the woman herbalists and healers.”

The Middle Ages are very disturbing regarding the Church and the persecution of “witches” in Europe. The 17th  and 18th  centuries have lots of stories of the Salem “Witch” hunts. Then all nursing history seems to start with Florence Nightingale in Europe and shortly after her we have Clara Barton here in America. From there it goes on to show how every little advancement in our profession was “given” to us. But there is little history before those two women and what is available, is hard to find.

There is a pamphlet called “Witches, Midwives and Nurses”, a history of women healers, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English. It’s short and to the point. I highly recommend that every nurse and in fact everyone read it. I got the 2nd edition on my Kindle through Amazon and they have a printed edition. I am not getting paid for this so just read it.

One thing I’m sure of is that women are still being treated unfairly in America by the Medical System and by our lawmakers especially local governments, Congress and the Supreme Court. Perhaps this is the time to change that.


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