When Wise Women Were Witches

Olivia Campbell
4 min readDec 16, 2020

The wiping out of women healers in medieval Europe

Old painting of a witch being tortured

“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.

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…

Olivia Campbell

New York Times bestselling author of WOMEN IN WHITE COATS. Bylines: The Atlantic, The Cut, Aeon, Smithsonian, Guardian. https://oliviacampbell.substack.com