In the days before communities were served through the NHS with a local doctor or even before that with a doctor who had to be paid for his services there existed ‘Wise-Women’ otherwise known as folk-healers, or what we would call early midwives.
These women became synonymous with ‘witches’ and many suffered after the renaissance through the persecution of witchcraft. This in part was justified by their use of lucky or healing charms, amulets and crosses made of Rowan, to ward off evil. Ironic really as they used natural, God-given cures that they should have been accused of dancing with the devil.
“…she never was a witch. She never traded potions, poisons, or spells; she was just a wise woman who knew how to survive off the land. She believed in a god, whether it was the God or a greater spirit, or a mother of all the earth, but her instincts were acute.” Mary Underwood in ‘Secrets’
However, ‘Wise-Women’ deserve a place of their own in history. They aided their communities since the Middle Ages and could often be held in some regard and notoriety. Which is perhaps why they were so heavily hunted by radicals in the Reformation. When their ‘patient’ died opinion could turn against them quickly. Mary Underwood describes her grandmother’s life in Ireland to her daughter Imogen:
“She lived in a small cottage with a peat fire. It was not as comfy as this one, but I loved it. She was full of tales, and she knew how to read the seasons, use the plants, see beyond the obvious and I so wanted to be like her. The local folk used her potions, asked about what they should do – she was wise and kind. She even knew her letters and taught me as I have taught you.” Secrets
Medicine, in its early development took place in cities and towns and was purely the province of men. The term ‘doctor’ was not used for people who healed outside of universities until the 19th century.
In the rural parts of the UK, healing was down to these ‘wise-women’. They were people who would create remedies from things in the local landscape: plants, animals, water and minerals such as salt.
Hence, vicar’s wife Ruth Arrow’s comments, that lingered with her son Micah:
“Micah’s mother had forbidden him to ever go near the Underwoods, the ‘wise woman’ who used plants to heal. They were considered ungodly ways…”
Traditionally the cures were passed down from mother to daughter and the results shared with the local community.
As scientific knowledge of the human body was very limited, these cures sometimes became known as charms or spells. Terminology that later became very dangerous for these women.
Even when being a ‘doctor’ became a paid job, in the rural areas the citizens would still turn to the local ‘wise-woman’. She could be paid through a barter system and was trusted – until something went wrong!
These practises continued into the rural areas until into the twentieth century and the advent of the NHS to varying degrees. The practitioners ran the risk of being turned upon by those they treated. This could mean being isolated or being physically attacked.
Just as in today’s homeopathic treatments, many of the old ‘cures’ would be able to help common ailments, particularly when diets were much more limited than they are today.