A Monotheistic View of the Roles of Women


Part I of 2

During the untold centuries that polytheism held sway, women and men were essentially equal. Because the population was small and survival was difficult, most cultures accepted the fact that every person in the group had to do whatever work they were capable of to help the clan or tribe stay alive, and perhaps even grow. Those societies often pursued agriculture and animal husbandry as primary food production activities, rather than strictly being nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes.  huntress   While women were occasionally members of a hunting party, they were certainly intrinsic to growing crops and herding animals. Healing the sick and creating art for various purposes were also important tasks, and women either shared or led in both of those endeavors. Religion was certainly very important to primitive humans, and women were also leaders in that facet of life. What changed that balance, and when did it happen? There are a number of factors that diminished the roles of women in society, especially in the arts and sciences, but the primary catalyst was a major shift in religion, from polytheism to a male-dominated monotheism.

As early as the Upper Paleolithic era, some 250,000 years ago, various tools and iconography demonstrate primitive religions existed, and possibly existed up to 250,000 years before that (Campbell, 1988; Gimbutas, 1991; and Jelínek, 1975). Women served vital roles. In addition to sharing equally in the daily work, goddesses were more predominant than gods (both earth goddess/fertility symbols as well as those serving other purposes), and priestesses were just as prevalent as priests. Although no one can ever know, it is presumed that the artwork found in caves and other places depicting various aspects of the lives of early humans could have been created by women as well as men. What is known is that women were the primary healers of the clan.

Throughout various ancient cultures, medical practices were limited to prayers and incantations, and a basic use of plant materials. priestessA large number of diverse cultures, such as the Amazon and Ona of South America, the civilizations of ancient Crete and Eastern Europe, and the oldest of cultures from Sumer, have myths or artifacts from a very early time showing that women were the primary keepers of the healing and magical arts.
(Gimbutas & Campbell, 2001)

The medieval period is generally regarded as beginning in Byzantium during the very early stages of the Eastern Roman Empire, and lasting for more than a thousand years (approximately 3rd Century AD to the 15th Century). Between conquest and forming alliances, the Romans brought the new religion of Christianity to the Byzantine Empire, as well as to more far-flung areas of Europe as the Germanic and Nordic countries, and as far west as the Celtic tribes in the British Isles.

In the very beginning of the medieval period, there was still some equal footing between the sexes since the lives of ordinary Roman men and women revolved around work. Because the “sensibility” of Christian views regarding nudity had not yet impacted society, works of art, both statues and paintings, featured nudes prominently. While marriage was still pretty much expected of women and at the whims of men, women could choose to live alone and work at some sort of profession. Because of the harsh demands of life, women were seen as partners, and strength and intelligence were valued qualities in both sexes. Although their services were unofficial, women were still accepted as healers and were the primary care givers. In addition, medical research was still progressing, as healers had the ability to study the human body regarding diseases and cures. Finally, women were not mere observers of history; they made it, and presumably were allowed to paint it. However, few artists “signed” their work before the Renaissance period, especially woman, so it is difficult to know when they deserved credit for various works.

However, these early medieval values changed quickly. The perception of the qualities valued in women altered to reflect this new role of the weak, submissive, unintelligent, second-class citizen. The desirable qualities in a woman during the medieval period were such “feminine qualities” as tenderness, sweetness, beauty, chastity, purity, obedience, etc. As the qualities changed, so did their roles in society. Women were barred from the trade guilds, and could only participate in education that would be helpful in their new household once they had married. To see how these changes impacted their roles, we will first explore some of their losses in the healing arts. Later, we will look at how the monotheistic society diminished the visual arts.

“Women have always been healers. They were the unlicensed doctors and anatomists of western history. They were abortionists, nurses and counsellors. healerThey were pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs and exchanging the secrets of their uses. They were midwives, travelling from home to home and village to village. For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, and passing on experience from neighbor to neighbor and mother to daughter. They were called “wise women” by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities. Medicine is part of our heritage as women, our history, our birthright.” (Ehrenreich and English; 1998-2011)

Naturalistic, non-scientific medicine started early in Egypt and Mesopotamia (perhaps around 2500 BC) and, in the west, with Hippocrates (5th Century BC). Both Greece and Rome had “schools” of medicine, and Rome established hospitals for its soldiers. “Deriving knowledge from the medical treatises and methods of the Greeks, the Etruscans, the Egyptians, the Persians and other conquered peoples, the Romans came up with one of the best and most sophisticated medical systems of the ancient world. The science of medicine and the human body was evolving. Ancient Roman medicine was a combination of physical techniques using various tools and holistic medicine using rituals and religious belief systems.” (Prioreschi, 1991)

Due to the military societies of both of those powerful cultures, the roles of women began to diminish in general. However, the decreasing role caused by large, organized military forces was not as important to women as the “God-man” diminishment in their power to pursue the arts and sciences, much more so in medicine than in art. After all, this coincided with an abrupt halt to virtually all medical research in the Roman Empire, which did not change until the 16th Century: “It is commonly agreed that scientific medicine started with Vesalius (1514-1564)” (Prioreschi, 1991). What happened during that period that caused such a lapse in the advancement of medicine? And why was it suddenly jump-started once again?

anatomy“For eight long centuries, from the fifth to the thirteenth, the other-worldly, anti-medical stance of the Church had stood in the way of the development of medicine as a respectable profession. Then, in the 13th century, there was a revival of learning, touched off by contact with the Arab world. Medical schools appeared in the universities, and more and more young men of means sought medical training. The church imposed strict controls on the new profession, and allowed it to develop only within the terms set by Catholic doctrine. University-trained physicians were not permitted to practice without calling in a priest to aid and advise them, or to treat a patient who refused confession. By the fourteenth century their practice was in demand among the wealthy, as long as they continued to take pains to show that their attentions to the body did not jeopardize the soul. In fact, accounts of their medical training make it seem more likely that they jeopardized the body.” (Ehrenreich and English; 1998-2011)

In the 5th Century, the entire Roman Empire was in political and religious upheaval. Emperors rose to power and were deposed or killed within a year, and the three primary religions-paganism, Judaism and Christianity-vied in equally bloody battles for supremacy. Then in the 6th Century AD, the Emperor Constantine sought to reunite the empire. He embraced Christianity-an offshoot of the highly patriarchal Jewish religion-while incorporating many of the accepted pagan traditions.

Upon Constantine’s death, the Roman Empire degenerated once more into the many warring factions he had briefly reunited. While that highly militaristic version of the Empire may have fallen, it gave birth to a new Phoenix: the Holy Roman Empire, which gradually regained most of all the old territory, but was now controlled by religion and supported by the still powerful military force, in combination driving the new kingdom of heaven.

However, even as the Christian religion was overcoming both paganism and Judaism as the primary monotheism, a new religion was rising in the east that would soon challenge it for the loyalty of the faithful, and utterly establish the patriarchal society to the complete subjugation of women. Muhammad ibn Abdullah, born in 570 AD in the Arabian city of Mecca, began preaching his new religion at around the age of forty-three. The Qur’an gives credit to all of the Jewish patriarchs/prophets (including Jesus) as inspiring Muhammad to found Islam, an ultra-fundamentalist, ultra-patriarchal religion that took on many of the conservative tenets of Judaism. In the 6th and 7th centuries, Muslim armies conquered the Sassanid (Persian) Empire and most of the Byzantine territories, or Eastern Roman Empire. In the former Eastern Empire, women no longer had any societal positions.

As the Catholic Church became dominant in the west throughout the dying days of the Roman Empire, the patriarchal culture also subsumed all equality, and women’s roles became very limited. Mary was elevated to an ethereal saint, Magdalena was portrayed as a repentant whore, and all women (other than a few of the nobility who wielded power indirectly) became subservient to males. Where early medieval art had celebrated both sexes and allowed for many temporal works, later western art became virtually dedicated to a celebration of religious motifs with male-dominated scenes, showing women only in weak or corrupting roles (especially Eve).

One means of controlling females was to formally restrict education. While certain teachers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, et alia) had conducted “classes”, thessocratese were primarily for small groups of children of the wealthy and politically powerful families. While boys gathered most of the benefit of these famous educators, many wealthy families also had their daughters receive instruction. Virtually the only formal centers of education up until this time were the churches, whether that meant the temples of various gods or goddesses, the newer Jewish temple classes, or the informal “churches” (the gatherings of believers) that were springing up under Christianity. However, eventually the abbacies were not available for women to go to for an education, and the abbots were placed in charge. No more training was given to women in the sciences (especially medicine) or the arts, and even nuns became very second-class clergy. When the Catholic Church began to yield under the pressure of a demand for the advanced medical treatments of the Arab physicians, it still ensured that women were even more excluded from acquiring such knowledge.

doctors“At this time, the role of women as healers was threatened as a result of two roughly parallel developments. The first was the evolution of European universities and their professional schools that, for the most part, systematically excluded women as students, thereby creating a legal male domination of the practice of medicine. Ineligible as healers, women waged a lengthy battle to maintain their right to care for the sick and injured. The second development was the campaign – promoted by the Church and supported by both clerical and civil authorities – to brand women healers as witches. The Church may have perceived these women, with their special, often esoteric healing skills, as a threat to its supremacy in the lives of its parishioners. The result was the persecution of unknown numbers of mostly peasant women.” (Minkowski, 1992)

When the Roman Empire fell and various monarchs battled to gain control across Europe, the Catholic Church was the only unified force. In these turbulent times, one hand washed the other: the Vatican assured the masses that the monarchs ruled “by divine will” (no matter how often the crown changed hands …), and the monarchs ensured the wealth and supremacy of the Vatican. The power of the Church was so great during this period that even kings dared not defy the Vatican on “peril of their mortal souls”. Thus, the entire male structure-political and religious-used every means at their disposal to keep the women under their heavy thumbs. Perhaps thus policy helped to mollify the masses of men, who were subject to every whim of the nobility and the clergy, by giving them a clear superiority over women. This especially went for any woman who dared to challenge a profession set aside for men, and most especially medicine.

One of the shining exceptions was Hildegard von Bingen (c. 1098 – 1179), who was a prolific writer, composer, philosopher, and poly-mathematician. While her contemporary, Ende of Spain, stuck to illustrations and did not rise above the rank of nun, Von Bingen rose high in Catholic ranks. She wrote a text on the natural sciences, Physica, as well as Causae et Curae. “She was well known for her healing powers involving practical application of tinctures, herbs, and precious stones. In both texts, Hildegard describes the natural world around her, including the cosmos, animals, plants, stones, and minerals. She combined these elements with a theological notion ultimately derived from Genesis: all things put on earth are for the use of humans. She is particularly interested in the healing properties of plants, animals, and stones, though she also questions God’s effect on man’s health.” (Wikipedia, 2011) Why was von Bingen allowed to create such diverse works, and not be prosecuted as a witch? Partly because she did not openly practice medicine, but rather studied it much as a research scientist might. Primarily, however, it is because she was a famous Christian mystic, a visionary who was later canonized as a saint. A German Benedictine abbess, she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg in 1150 and Eibingen in 1165.

As an important member of the Church, one who worked well within the confines of Catholic dogma, von Bingen was honored by the Vatican. For women who were not within the boundaries of a nunnery, however, such work would have been a totally different matter.

“The establishment of medicine as a profession, requiring university training, made it easy to bar women legally from practice. With few exceptions, the universities were closed to women (even to upper class women who could afford them), and licensing laws were established to prohibit all but university-trained doctors from practice. It was impossible to enforce the licensing laws consistently since there was only a handful of university-trained doctors compared to the great mass of lay healers. But the laws could be used selectively. Their first target was not the peasant healer, but the better off, literate woman healer who competed for the same urban clientele as that of the university-trained doctors.

“Take, for example, the case of Jacoba Felicie, brought to trial in 1322 by the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris, on charges of illegal practice. Jacoba was literate and had received some unspecified “special training” in medicine. That her patients were well off is evident from the fact that (as they testified in court) they had consulted well-known university-trained physicians before turning to her. The primary accusations brought against her were that she would cure her patient of internal illness and wounds or of external abscesses. She would visit the sick assiduously and continue to examine the urine in the manner of physicians, feel the pulse, and touch the body and limbs.” (Ehrenreich and English; 1998-2011)

Six witnesses affirmed that Felicie had cured them, even after numerous doctors had given up, and one patient declared that she was wiser in the art of surgery and medicine than any master physician or surgeon in Paris. Regardless, Felicie was barred from practicing medicine on peril of imprisonment or her life. (Ehrenreich and English; 1998-2011)

A much more controversial figure is Trotula de Ruggiero. The Schola Medica Solernitana, or Salerno School of Medicine, was a famous combination of medical knowledge and treatment gathered from throughout the known world, and it flourished between the 10th and 13th centuries. It is believed that Trotula de Ruggerio lived sometime in the 11th or 13th century, and that she occupied the chair of medicine at the School of Salerno. Some scholars dispute that de Ruggerio was a woman, or that such a person even existed. Even though the school was established from the dispensary of a monastery founded in the 9th Century and remained a close collaboration between the clergy and secular physicians, it is rumored that many women were trained as physicians and some became professors of medicine (Bois, 1996). In that age, and in that setting, such an occurrence would have indeed been miraculous.trotula

The story has it that de Ruggerio was the author of many medical works, the most notable being Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum (The Diseases of Women), also known as Trotula Major. She allegedly wrote it to educate male physicians about the female body. The book comprises sixty-three chapters and gives information about menses, conception, pregnancy, and childbirth, as well as general diseases and their treatments. As the Church forbade direct study of the human body, it is quite reasonable that such knowledge could have come from a woman, although the information might also have come from the Arab, Greek, or other foreign physicians who flocked to Solerno and taught in their native languages. Another influential book, De Aegritudinum Curatione, is credited to Trotula de Ruggerio.

Tomorrow: Part 2

I would like to give credit to my sister, Ursula Funk, who helped with the research.


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