New Voices Talk Series - Summer 2024

Food, Plants, Remedies and Healing Practices: Women’s Ideas in the History of Medicine


The Summer Term Talk Series 2024, organised by  Jil Muller, Deputy of the Center for the History of Women Philosophers and Scientists, and in cooperation with Dr. Fabrizio Bigotti, director of the Center for the Study of Medicine and the Body in the Renaissance, is dedicated to Women’s Ideas in the History of Medicine.

The first talk will take place on Wednesday, 08.05, at 4.30 pm (CTE).

Everyone is welcome to attend.

To register and to receive the zoom invitation, please send an email to





The whole program:

08.05: Dr. Giulia Guidara (Giunta Centrale per gli Studi Storici, Roma): From Body to Soul: Mental Disorders in Hildegard of Bingen’s Cause et cure

The Cause et cure of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) is both a cosmological text and a medical handbook. This double aspects, so to speak, of the work is not surprising: in medieval Europe human beings and nature are deeply interconnected. As the title Cause et cure suggests, most of the work focuses on the causes and natural treatment of several diseases. Hildegard’s idea of disease is very different from the present one: sickness always derives from a physiological change of the body. The reference framework is the humoral theory, according to which the four humors, or bodily fluids, (i.e. blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) affect temperament, physical qualities and health. However, some diseases described in the Cause et cure mainly affect mood and behaviour and, in this regard, they can be assimilated to the modern concept of mental disorders. Indeed, the DSM-5 of the American Psychiatric Association (that is the reference book for mental health and brain-related conditions) defines mental disorder as a behavioural or psychological syndrome or pattern, which is characterized by an important disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behaviour. My lecture will analyse the passages of Cause et cure devoted to diseases that affect mood and behaviour, with a special focus on their causes and their possible treatment. This allows to highlight both Hildegard’s ideas on the relationship between soul and body, and medieval concept of mental illness.


29.05: Jana Schreiber (University of Marburg): Anna Margaretha Wiedemann – A healing woman and her patients in early modern Frankfurt

In 1670, a conflict between Frankfurt surgeons and the healer Anna Margaretha Wiedemann broke out. The surviving sources offer deep insights into the practice of women healers in the early modern period, who treated their patients, competing with male doctors and barbers. In addition to statements by Wiedemann and the surgeons, there are numerous testimonies from patients, which shed light on the coping strategies used by the community to deal with diseases. They also show the expectations and duties that were set and fulfilled by patients, their social environment and the healers.

The lecture will address the following questions:

How did the relationship between healers, patients and their social environment take form? What knowledge and forms of medical treatment were used by the practitioners? How were disease and health defined and differentiated by the protagonists?


19.06: Dr. Justin Begley (University of Basel) and Dr. Benjamin Goldberg (University of South Florida, USA): Margaret Cavendish and the Medical Establishment

This talk explores how the seventeenth-century philosopher Margaret Cavendish interacted with the medical world of her time. We examine a set of historiographical issues arising from a manuscript collection of her and William’s medical recipes, MS Pw V90, preserved in the archives of the University of Nottingham. Our transcription and analysis of this manuscript (The Medical World of Margaret Cavendish, Palgrave-MacMillan: 2023) challenges the common view that Cavendish opposed traditional Galenic medicine as well as the Scholastic tradition. In grappling with her views on professional medicine, we also investigate whether Cavendish faced any discrimination or mistreatment from her doctors because of her gender, as some have suggested, focusing on her relationship to one of her physicians in particular, the prominent doctor Théodore de Mayerne. Along the way, we highlight the medical achievements (mainly in the recipe field) of other noblewomen in Cavendish’s network.


26.06: Madeleine Sheahan (Yale University): Seasonality and Slaughter: Sourcing Animal-Ingredients in Seventeenth-Century Household Medicine

Springtime was an industrious season of the 17th century household. In a period of domestic production and proactivity, household medical practitioners worked to prevent illness and preserve health. The perceived environmental subjectivity of the body encouraged practitioners to prepare stocks of medicine for a host of ailments believed to arise from changing climatic, ecological, and astrological conditions, as well as shifts in human activity, labour, and diet. At the same time as the changing environment threated the health of the body, springtime opened new possibilities to sources natural ingredients for the making of remedies. Of note was the provisioning of pregnant and juvenile animals, made readily available by the changing season and desired for their perceived medical efficacy. Turning to these seasonal aspects of domestic medical care, this talk provides an analysis of animal sourcing and processing techniques recommended in a series of seventeenth-century English manuscripts recipes authored by women. In highlighting the interconnected issues of seasonality, medical provisioning, and animal utility, it illuminates a domestic epistemology of animal use and value, as well as the local, environmental specificity of household medicine in the seventeenth century.


10.07: Dr. Amalia Cerrito (University of Trento): Female seeds, powers, and bodies: Albert the Great and the vegetal sexuality

The 13th-century Dominican master Albert the Great extensively discusses vegetal sexuality. While animals reproduce through the mating of female and male individuals, plants lack a sexual distinction, reproducing through seeds that contain all necessary conditions for plant generation. Furthermore, the primary paternal and maternal functions, such as fertilization, generative material provision, and nourishment during development, do not involve individuals of the same plant species. External causal agencies perform these functions, like the Sun and the soil (traditionally regarded as the “father and mother of plants”). Despite the evident differences in animal and plant generation, Albert uses concepts such as “male and female”, “motherhood and fatherhood”, to explain vegetal sexuality. He is convinced that “male and female” and “motherhood and fatherhood” manifest in nature to varying degrees, ranging from the most perfect nature, i.e., human beings, to the less perfect, i.e., plants. Applying these categories to plants, he develops an explanatory model that aims to identify causal roles and powers of male and female, fatherhood and motherhood, in proportion to plant generation, using a comparative approach modeled on animal generation. In Albert’s view, plants lack sexually differentiated bodies not due to a factual absence of “male and female” attributes, powers, and causation outright, but rather as a consequence of their ontological status not due to a factual absence of “male and female” attributes, powers, and causation outright, but rather as a consequence of their ontological status. Plants express masculinitas and femininitas proportionally to their nature. The examination of plant generation provides an opportunity to elucidate these concepts, defining the essential aspects and causal roles of male and female functions and features. In this lecture, I will focus on how Albert employs concepts such as the female “body”, “seed”, and “power”, in his investigation on vegetal sexuality. By developing the analogy between the uterus/terra/mater (uterus/soil/mother), he adapts the Galenic humoral-complexion theory to the soil and identifies maternal and feminine properties and powers even in the simplest living body —namely, that of plants.




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