When Wise Women Were Witches

The wiping out of women healers in medieval Europe

“Do you heal sick persons?” the imposing interrogator asked the frail, aging woman.

“Yes, sir,” replied Gostanza da Libbiano, a 60-year-old nun who practiced as a midwife and healer in Tuscany, Italy. It was 1594 and Gostanza was on trial for witchcraft.

“With what kind of medicines?” he barked.

“By picking betony up and washing it like salad and crushing it into a mortar to get its juice, and to give it to my patients for 3, 4, and 5 days, telling them that the more they drunk it, the better it was,” she responded.

Villagers had accused Gostanza of causing the death of several babies. While she admitted to administering ointments to the women during labor, she denied trying to kill the babies. The betony plant has long oval leaves with wrinkled edges; the tops of its tall stalks burst with crowded clusters of tubular purple flowers. The ancient Greeks revered the plant as more important than clothing and used it to treat 47 different illnesses.

The Franciscan inquisitor sentenced Gostanza to torture on the ropes. After being hung by the arms, Gostanza confessed to practicing witchcraft on several patients. She talked of relationships with demons and sucking children’s blood. She said it all started after a devil called Polletto abducted her and took her to infernal sabbaths.

Slated to be burned at the stake, the Florentine inquisitor took pity on her and asked if her confessions were true or if she was just trying to get the torture to stop. Gostanza told him she had made it all up. She was briefly imprisoned and then told to move to another town and swear she would stop practicing medicine. She’d gotten off easier than most.

Old painting of witches being burned at the stake and held in stocks.
Old painting of witches being burned at the stake and held in stocks.

The medieval Church disagreed that wise women were doing God’s work. Churches were opening universities, professionalizing medicine to be practiced by book-learned men, so they needed to wipe out the competition.

It started off relatively innocently: government-imposed fines and threats of imprisonment or excommunication if caught practicing medicine without a license. When that wasn’t enough to scare them out of their livelihoods, the Catholic and Lutheran churches took things a step further. Between 1400 and 1700, their campaign to eradicate lay healers saw more than 100,000 women in Europe burned at the stake after they were declared to be witches. As Gostanza shows, even nuns weren’t safe from their wrath.

Woodcut of four people flanking a demon.
Woodcut of four people flanking a demon.

Wise women who practiced folk medicine and midwifery were natural targets of suspicion: often spinsters or widows, peasants who needed to work for a living, lady loners sidelined by society, but they played an important cultural role. And some understood their expertise. They were often right to be skeptical of the skills of these newly professionalized physicians. Universities didn’t teach much more than Christian theology, philosophy, and Hippocratic theories. So unlike their university-trained professional male counterparts, lay women practitioners could offer both knowledge and experience.

Famous English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon (born in 1561) found “empirics and old women more happy many times in their cures than learned physicians.” Celebrated philosopher Thomas Hobbes (born in 1588) concurred, noting he’d “rather have the advice or take physic from an experienced old woman that had been at many sick people’s bedsides, than from the learnedst but unexperienced physician.”

Still, wise women could be as feared as they were revered.

“Though lacking a university education and despite the suspicions attached to witchcraft, women still preferred other women to assist them during labor, not only because their experience in the field was considered more trustworthy, but especially because these women were deemed fundamental members of every community,” explained medical historian Donatella Lippi.

Since little was known about the science behind why remedies worked or didn’t, it’s understandable that there was believed to be a supernatural element to healing throughout much of history, across cultures. But it was likely wise women’s deep knowledge of how to grow, prepare, and administer herbal remedies — passed down from parent to child over generations — rather than an intimate connection with gods or devils, that helped women be successful healers.

When we wonder why there aren’t more women physicians recorded in history books, it’s important to remember that there was a time when practicing medicine as a woman could get you killed, that women risked their lives to heal their neighbors.

Further reading:

Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English.

Gostanza da Libbiano (Italian film, 2000)

“Women Healers of the Middle Ages: Selected Aspects of Their History,” American Journal of Public Health, February 1992.

“How Medieval Churches Used Witch Hunts to Gain More Followers,” By Becky Little, History.com, Sept. 1, 2018.

More about me:

Pre-order my book: Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine, out March 2, 2021 from HarperCollins/Park Row Books.

Journalist & author on women, science, history, arts. Bylines: The Cut, Aeon, Smithsonian, Guardian, SciAm, WaPo. WOMEN IN WHITE COATS 2021 from HarperCollins.

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