Witches, old wives’ tales and our history of not listening to women

She haunts our fairytales, our tales of warning and our paperback mysteries. She lives at the edge of society, on the margins of civilisation and the foreboding forest, at the meeting point of the wild and untamed. She knows the difference between the mushrooms that are delicious and the mushrooms that are deadly. She is turned to in secrecy and at great risk by desperate women seeking to harness their bodily power, aiding or hindering fertility. Her knowledge renders her an outcast and there hangs about her a sense of danger – for why else is she always single (a spinster!), childless (barren!), uninterested in male attraction (hideously ugly!). A knowledgeable woman – woman who knows things – is a frightening thing indeed.

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Garlic for colds. Peppermint for indigestion. Ginger for nausea. Unless I turned to the medically qualified internet, I could not be sure whether these actually work or if they’re an old wives’ tale, and yet I still add these natural remedies to my pharmaceutical panoply. Part of my scepticism comes from herbal preparations being the domain of the charlatan. Once, feeling very vulnerable, I had a very expensive trip to a naturopath where I emerged laden with all sorts of evil-smelling potions to assist weight loss. It was expensive and it worked, but I still felt as though I’d been sold a version of the emperor’s new clothes. Mostly, I think my agnosticism about anything herbal comes from the idea that it’s somehow not scientific. Not tested. Not respected. Don’t medicines come in packets and cost money? And when I scrape back some of these assumptions, what remains are duelling images of a woman in a sagging house between the village and the forest offering ginger tea, and the clinical environment of the lab coat and the degrees and the stringent research and the globally‑monestised system of pharmaceuticals. And I realise that I don’t think the woman of my imagination has real health knowledge.

This utterly hypothetical deductive analysis caused me to wonder how much knowledge we have lost – or at least, undervalued – through ignoring women’s wisdom, through assuming the advice is inherently unsound and untested, through confining old wives’ tales to whispers between generations in the corners of domestic worlds rather than something accorded a spotlight, funding, publication and circulation. What have we lost by not giving the realm of women’s learned knowledge a real chance? To be scrutinised and debated and improved? For women healers to have space and primacy to learn and teach and be believed? The 21st century specialist medical field of surgery, after all, evolved from butchery. We scoff at what has been believed, tried and tested; recommended as “medicine”; developed and matured as a field (medicinal cocaine and cigarettes, anyone?), but understanding these ridiculous beliefs is important in the historical development of medical knowledge. Yet it seems we’ve never allowed the feminine domains of knowledge to advance beyond the derisively-termed ‘alternative’ field. After all, wouldn’t the decades of qualitative case studies obtained by the women of the herbs, the centuries of stories of women as primary caretakers of the ill and injured, be an interesting starting point for more institutionalised research?

In European history, women traditionally served as the healers – their expanded social role compared with contemporary gender norms always causing some concern. But as the feudal era dissolved, the large-scale institutionalisation, protection and control of knowledge began. Churches and the nascent university system worked to own and define sources of knowledge. And, as these were the institutions of men, women healers were cast out of this structure, and derided as heretical, as witches. Centuries later, I’m still falling for this propaganda campaign.

I pause here to make myself utterly clear. Medicine is awesome. It’s keeping me alive! I use a lot of medicine! In the context of this piece I’m terribly uninterested – really – in the efficacy of these herbs. The point I’m trying to make, the story I’m trying to uncover, is how historically we have undervalued and largely sidelined women’s wisdom – not only in this field but in many others. I wonder, what could we know, in this case about herbs and witches’ warnings, if we’d given women’s ideas the same opportunity for development and maturity as a dude’s ideas? And what have we lost by belittling women’s knowledge as too simplistic, too unscientific?

Historians have found strong connections between gossip and accusations of witchcraft: women who developed and shared knowledge – social and medicinal – were slandered as gossips and burned as witches (gossip being seen as the linguistic equivalent to witchcraft), such was the masculine fear of this feminine knowledge. This epistemological dismissal of women’s knowledge continues today. Communication amongst women is often derided as idle chatter, speculation and gossip. Untrustworthy. Unreliable. But what is feminine prattle to the outer‑world is our encyclopaedia. Glenn Close, recently speaking about Hollywood’s reckoning with systemic sexual assault, said, “…Gossip is what women do to keep themselves out of danger.” It is also what women do to learn and to teach.

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There’s another side to this story. There’s that evergreen Punch cartoon, tagged with the caption ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.’ Throughout history, bits of women’s wisdom have found themselves a male patron to carry them into the mainstream, shedding any doubt that it was ever found wanting.

Paracelsus, a Swiss physician considered one of the pioneers of the Renaissance’s medical revolution, wrote in the early 16th century, “The universities do not teach all things so a doctor must seek out old wives, gipsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them.” These lessons from the margins of society, carried into the fold by a more respectable source, could be included in the lexicon of scientific research and development. And this knowledge, from old wives and witches, ensured Paracelsus his place as one of the most influential medical thinkers of the early modern era. Now imagine if the women whose ideas have been appropriated were themselves given further space for experimentation and exploration? In this age of encouraging women’s participation in STEM, it’s ironic that we’ve really held a place in this academic chronicle for millennia.

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I can find one silver lining; one really awesome social element to this. The wisdom of witches and old wives might not have had access to the means of widespread distribution or been enshrined in learned tomes next to their names. It might not be famed or respected. Yet, this knowledge endures. Women’s knowledge endures. From herbal remedies to how to survive in a man’s world, women’s whispers have survived through a resilient oral history of the domestic world, passed from woman to woman down generations – a surprisingly strong intellectual chain. Recipes, remedies, warnings. Just like we quietly pass on to one another which men to avoid, or how to be safe, or how to cope with the complexities of our bodies. Lessons borne from survival and experience. So while I urge for a re-examination of feminine traditions of intellectual discovery, at the very, very least, we women can comfort ourselves with our secret oral history: while they’ve not been listening, we’ve been learning.

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

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