Key Concepts

What is the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’?

In the early modern period, an impotent man might be prescribed boiled orchid roots. But why? Well, they resembled testicles and were consequentially believed to be useful in improving male potency. If you think this sounds weird, stay with me. Efficacy aside, prescribing this remedy makes sense… if you accept the premise of the doctrine of signatures, one of the most influential ideas in the history of medicine. But what exactly was it?

Origins, Development, and Principles of the Doctrine of Signatures

The doctrine of signatures was a way of understanding the world based on analogy and symbolic thinking. In Greek antiquity, Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BC) had described nature as ruling both the macrocosm and the microcosm. Humans mirrored in their bodies (the ‘microcosm’) the larger world around them (the ‘macrocosm’). Blood brought life to the body, just like water streams did to the land, while bones were like rocks. Hippocratic writers developed this idea, as did later Neoplatonists. If the world was composed of a network of correspondences, that gave people clues about how best to treat the body when it fell ill. (Hence the orchid root treatment mentioned above.)

Being a part of nature, the perfect remedy could be found by those who knew how to ‘read the book of nature’, that is, understand the hidden signs and clues that indicated which plants (though animal and mineral medicines were used as well) could help treat the issue, based on their shape, texture, colour, or smell. So, just like the testicle-looking orchid roots, the phallic roots of mandrake could also be indicated to treat fertility issues in men. (You can read more about early modern aphrodisiacs and fertility here.)

Connections to Medical Practices and Theories

Renaissance scholars, including Paracelsus (1493-1541) and Giambattista Della Porta (1538-1615) developed this theory in their works, describing how all natural things corresponded and dialogued through this network of hidden meanings. Renaissance writers reconciled the doctrine of signatures with Christianism: it had been God, in his wisdom and power, who had decided to fill the Earth with medicines to treat all ailments. Benevolently, he had indicated the therapeutic value of plants through their appearance, with exterior signs. It was up to humans to investigate and find out cures, through observation and experimentation.

This principle was eventually called ‘doctrine of signatures’ following the publication of The Signature of All Things in 1621, by Jakob Boehme (1575-1624), in which he articulated the belief in this network of natural beings. For people like Della Porta, who described himself as a ‘magus’, ‘natural magic’ was largely dependent on understanding these relationships and making use of them to transform nature, creating ‘wonderful and miraculous things’. The doctrine of signatures allowed people to understand the governing principles of the universe, from the minuscule hair strand to the majestic sun and the planets. Astrological medicine was closely connected to the doctrine of signatures (and I will write about ‘zodiac man’ some other time!).

Applying the doctrine of signatures to medical practice was linked to sympathetic magic as well, and the medical idea that ‘like cures like’ (similia similibus curantur) through sympathy or affinity. However, although these theoretical concepts emerged from learned writers and influenced popular practice, they were also influenced by empirical knowledge and the practice of ‘traditional’ healers. Early modern medicine was a mix of many different traditions from myriad sources, which sometimes contradicted each other, and which could be adapted to different contexts and individual cases. For Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654), who wrote in the vernacular for a wide readership, the doctrine of signatures was essential for all those hoping to take care of their health.

Moreover, the doctrine of signatures was combined with the humoral theory. The natural elements deeply affected the humours within the human body, causing imbalance and, therefore, illness. Fortunately, health could be restored using nature and her remedies: many plants were shaped like the organ or part of the body they could treat. So, if you had an eye disease, you could treat it with the aptly named plant eyebright, whose flower resembled a human eye. If the issue was jaundice, which caused the skin to turn pale and yellowish, saffron would be useful, while for brain-related problems, walnuts were indicated. For respiratory conditions affecting the lungs, the also aptly named lungwort plant would be helpful. You get the idea.

Legacy, Modern Influences, and Reassessing Folk Medicine

The doctrine of signatures might appear outlandish today. This all-encompassing, all-connected understanding of the world, exemplified by the doctrine of signatures, has arguably never been as dominant as it was during the early modern period. And even then, there were those who opposed it. By the 19th century, it was relegated to the domain of magic, with Victorian occultists creating tables of magical correspondence to map the network of symbols. However, many practitioners working outside the framework of orthodox, Western medicine, such as herbalists and homoeopaths, rely on some form of analogical thinking for their cures, indicating the long-lasting influence of the doctrine of signatures. Nicholas Culpepper’s herbal has virtually never been out of print since its publication in the mid-seventeenth century. And it is undeniable that interest in the doctrine of signatures encouraged many to study and research plants.

With the development of medical knowledge, as well as chemistry, botany, and pharmacology, researchers started to identify the active compounds in plants, making a plant’s appearance irrelevant to understanding its therapeutic use. Still, we should be mindful of judging our ancestors too harshly for their ‘outlandish’ beliefs.

As Michel Foucault wrote in The Order of Things, the symbolic and analogical thinking exemplified by the doctrine of signatures was crucial in how humanity structured the world around us. And, while it developed differently depending on time and place (think of traditional Chinese medicine or Ayurveda, both of which make use of this kind of reasoning), the idea of a network connecting all parts of nature, including humans, is ultimately a profoundly human belief.


Jakob Boehme, The Signature of All Things: De Signatura Rerum (CreateSpace, 2017) (originally published in 1621).

Geronimo Cardano, De Subtilitate Libri XXI (Basel, 1554).

Giambattista Della Porta, Phytognomonica (Naples, 1588).

Paracelsus, Essential Theoretical Writings (Leiden, 2008).

Further Reading:

Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (Oxford, 1963).

Lawrence Conrad, Michael Neve, Vivian Nutton, Roy Porter and Andrew Wear, The Western Medical Tradition, 800 BC – 1800 AD (Cambridge, 1995).

Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (New York,1997).

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Key Concepts

What is the ‘Wandering Womb’?

Imagine ‘an animal inside an animal’, a thirsty creature, dragging itself in search of water, pushing aside everything that was on its way… Do you think that sounds sinister? So do I. Yet that was how the womb was imagined to behave in the past. Does that make you think of Alien? Me too.

In ancient Greece, the physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia described the uterus as a ‘living thing inside another living thing’ (or ‘an animal inside another animal’ – but that’s not really a good translation). He had clearly read the Hippocratic corpus, or, if not, Plato’s Timaeus, in which the womb was described as capable of movement inside the body, causing blockages and serious medical problems. But why? Well, the uterus was like an oven, whose main job was to make babies – keep in mind that we still say that people have a ‘bun in the oven’ when they are expecting a baby today. Anyway, when the womb/oven was empty, it could potentially overheat, and so it would move through the body looking for moisture to cool it down.

Not all medical writers agreed with this theory: the influential Soranus of Ephesus and Galen of Pergamon did not believe the womb could ‘wander’ at all. Also, there was no agreement as to how far the uterus could go. Plato believed it could move ‘through the whole body’ but the physician Herophilos argued that this was not possible: he had just ‘discovered’ the ligaments making extensive movement impossible by keeping the womb in its place. However, even if it couldn’t move that far, the effects could be wide-ranging, as the uterus could sympathetically influence other organs.

Despite all these debates, the ‘wandering womb’ continued to be a popular idea among medical writers, as the cause of many issues in the female body. To the Hippocratics, this was a central tenet of medicine, both in theory and in practice. For instance, if the uterus moved forwards, it could obstruct the menstrual flow, and cause serious pain. If it moved upwards, it could cause difficulty breathing and even headaches. These uterine movements would manifest as conditions specific to the female body, and the obstructions were often called the ‘suffocation of the mother’ (‘mother’ or ‘matrix’ were synonyms of ‘womb’).

So, what to do? Physicians advised patients on lifestyle changes, such as diet, exercise, and sleep, but they also recommended bloodletting to encourage the womb to move away from inappropriate areas, such as the liver, in its search for fluids. (Keep in mind that this idea is very dependent on the humoral theory.) Baths were also recommended, as was wrapping the body in oiled bandages to keep the uterus in place. However, the most usual treatment was ‘scent therapy’. Like an animated creature, the uterus was believed to be attracted to sweet and pleasant perfumes and repulsed by foul smells. For instance, to treat a prolapsed womb, a person could use scented herbs under their nose to attract the organ upwards, while unpleasant-smelling substances such as animal excrement would be placed near the vulva or through a pessary. This would encourage the womb to ‘flee’ the stench by going back up to its place. Fomentation and fumigation therapies were enormously popular to treat uterine ailments – and many other ‘diseases of women’, too. (You can read a little more about this here.)

Later, when the womb started to be depicted as wet and spongy, writers adapted their descriptions, but the idea of the ‘wandering womb’ persisted, not only in many medical texts but in popular literature, domestic recipe books, plays and ballads. Fumigating therapies were still printed in midwifery manuals way into the 18th century, suggesting coriander and cinnamon be used to encourage uterine movement down to facilitate childbirth. Sniffing spices like pepper was recommended to make a person sneeze, facilitating the delivery of the placenta, as the womb ‘descended’.

The ‘wandering womb’ survived in medical literature, coexisting with contradictory theories and new finds. But this creative interpretation of the workings of the female body was about to take another sinister twist. The threat of the ‘wandering womb’ was increasingly used as a way for men to exert power over women. For starters, frequent sexual activity and pregnancies were encouraged as ways of avoiding ‘diseases of women’. Moreover, in Edward Jorden’s 1603 The Suffocation of the Mother, uterine disorders (‘hysteria’, from the Greek hystera, ‘womb’) were used to explain mysterious circumstances. The ‘wandering’ of the womb could cause hysteria, which was connected to witchcraft. This is a complex topic, which I will explore at another time. For now, suffice it to say that, even though ‘hysteria’ was described as having Hippocratic origins and being a millenary condition, that is hardly true.

Connecting the increasingly popular label of ‘hysterical’ to Hippocrates added legitimacy to it. It made the new diagnosis of disruptive people more authoritative, especially at a time of social and religious upheaval. The phenomenon of ‘hysterics’ was largely created by (usually male) doctors. Yet, at its core, there was the haunting Greek image of ‘an animal within an animal’, a parasite within us who could control us and cause havoc inside, at its will. Crucially, there was the underlying belief that wombs made women irrational: if for the Hippocratics, the womb caused physical symptoms, later doctors believed it to cause psychological dysfunctions. But more on that later – I’m off to have some tea with my ever-thirsty, wonderful womb.


Hippocrates, Diseases of Women, edited and translated by Paul Potter, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

Edward Jorden, A Brief Discourse of a Disease Called the Suffocation of the Mother (London: John Windet, 1603)

Plato, Timaeus (London: Trubner, 1937).

Further Reading:

Jacques Jouanna, Hippocrates (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1999).

Helen King, Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece (New York: Routledge, 1998).

Helen King et al., Hysteria Beyond Freud, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

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Key Concepts

What are the ‘Non-Naturals’?

When I was growing up, I was told to avoid cold showers if I was having my period. I was also not supposed to leave the house with my hair wet unless it was summer. When we travelled to the mountains, my maternal grandmother would ‘fill her lungs with forest air’. She claimed to feel instantly healthier.

We all heard similar things, but the origin of this advice is often unclear. Going beyond family anecdotes, there’s the vast world of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), from which much of this knowledge derives. Born in no small measure from a deeply felt disappointment at orthodox medicine, this discussion is often framed as an opposition between traditional and empirical knowledge and a medicalised, intervention-based, hospital-centred model of care. So, alternative medicine often focuses on lifestyle: diet, exercise, sleep, and overall well-being are taken into consideration.

Paradoxically, this feels old and new at the same time. For instance, the adoption of a more plant-based diet can be seen as a trendy choice by some today, while for others it is linked to a long tradition of accumulation of knowledge, often by marginalised communities (think of Buddhist monks, for instance).

As always, I am struck by how studying the history of medicine can help us navigate the present. But this is a (very) big topic, and I want to concentrate on the idea of ‘non-naturals’ in the past. So, first things first. If we think of a 16th-century person interested in buying a book about domestic medicine at their local fair, they would usually be able to choose between two big groups: books with recipes for common ailments, and regimens for a healthy life. The first group was usually about treating a specific problem, while the latter was about preventing disease in the first place.

From Hippocrates in the 5th century BCE to the 18th century, the main framework through which Europeans understood medicine was the humoral theory.  People had four humours (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile), and it was believed that their imbalance was responsible for illness. But humours were of course not the only factors in explaining health (or the lack thereof). If recipes were aimed at treating the sick body, regimens were guides to conserve health. Treatment and prevention were two sides of the same coin: medicine was not only a healing art but the art of preserving health.

So, how would a 16th-century person go about preventing illness? Besides keeping humours in balance (with bloodletting and similar methods), they needed to be mindful of the six ‘non-natural’ things which determined health: food/drink, exercise/rest, air, sleep, evacuation, and emotions. Described by Hippocrates and further developed by Galen in the second century CE, guidelines about the non-naturals abounded in medieval and early modern medical texts, especially regimens of health, authored by physicians. But what did they say? And how do they relate to my grandmother breathing in the pine-scented forest air?

1. Food and Drink

In the same way that people had individual constitutions, so did foods and beverages, which could be hot, cold, dry, or wet. These qualities should be taken into consideration when choosing and preparing foods and drinks. For instance, wine was believed to ‘heat’ the body, which is why it should be drunk in moderation, especially by those who had a choleric or sanguine temperament. Pregnant or nursing people should water their wine down to diminish its heat. It was believed that the stomach was responsible for concocting food before it would be distributed in the body by the blood. Because they influenced the digestive process, some foods such as raw vegetables were believed to prepare the stomach for a meal, while others would be more suited to ‘closing’ the stomach afterwards. (Have you ever wondered why the French finish a meal with cheese? That’s why.)

2. Exercise and Rest

Exercise improved bodily functions: for instance, it heated the body, promoting digestion. It opened the pores, allowing waste to leave the body through sweat. For Galen, exercise should be vigorous, accompanied by accelerated breathing. But later physicians cautioned people to be moderate and to adapt exercise to their individual needs. They could be active (such as walking) or passive (such as being transported in a carriage). Those who could not partake in strenuous activities could resort to baths or massages, which would attain similar health results. Sounds much nicer to me than jogging – and closer to a spa day!

3. Air

The air was a common cause of concern for 16th-century people. Was it cold or hot? Humid or dry? Depending on the person’s constitution, age, gender, and the season of the year, the air could have different effects. For Avicenna, the 11th-century Persian physician who so greatly influenced Western medicine, the air should be temperate: light, bright, moving gently, and smelling sweet. Corrupted air was deemed to cause plague, for instance. People were advised to purify the air with fire and scented herbs. Physicians often prescribed a change of location to their patients, in the hope that illness could be cured in a place where the air was different. The brain was thought to be particularly vulnerable to it – have you ever noticed when you visit a museum how people in the past always seem to be wearing headwear or hats in the paintings? Besides fashion, the concern with air directly influenced architecture. An ideal Italian villa in the Renaissance would have been high up to enjoy the breeze and the sun, but not too exposed to inclement winds. And don’t even think about building your dream house next to a sewer – but who would, if given the choice?

4. Sleep

Regimens of health directed people about how, for how long, and when one should sleep to maximise their health. The main concern was with digestion, as it was believed that sleep was caused by the vapours rising from the food in the stomach to the brain as it was digested. Daytime naps were not advised, as they wouldn’t be long enough for digestion to be complete. Plus, they could cause laziness. As wealthier parts of the population started to nap in the 17th century, it was thought that a wooden chair would be ideal: not too comfortable was the goal. Sleeping on your back was not advised, as these vapours could get blocked in the brain. Elevating your head and sleeping on one side would be better for digestion as well as protecting the brain. Ideally, you should switch sides every couple of hours… But I’m not sure how often people followed this advice after a rich mutton stew and wine!

5. Evacuation

Within the humoral understanding of the body, corrupt or excessive humours often needed to be purged, and impurities, expelled. The regular purging of the body was seen as essential to maintaining one’s health: bloodletting, inducing vomit, provoking sweat, as well as stimulating retained menstruation were all important parts of preventing illness – and not just treatments for it. Superfluous fluids might cause blockages if not removed from the body, and these ‘excrements’ went beyond urine and faeces. My grandmother (the paternal one this time) believed we should brush our hair vigorously, especially before bed. That would make sense to our hypothetical 16th-century person buying a book at the local fair. Combs were essential in removing the ‘excrements of the head’, and combing one’s hair was not just about vanity, but about preventing brain issues by making sure that what needed to be expelled from the body didn’t cause any obstructions. Think of barbers and their connection to medicine (especially barber surgeons). They took care of people’s hair, beards, nails, ears, teeth, and skin, mainly for hygienic purposes. They even had separate comb sets for beards and hair – you wouldn’t want any cross-contamination with your head’s excrements!

6. Emotions

The Greeks called them ‘passions’, the ‘accidents of the soul’. Today, we might talk of mental health instead. A person’s emotional life was thought to greatly affect their health. This was mainly because these fluctuations influenced the heart, responsible for heating the body through heat. Emotions would have a direct effect on the body’s temperature and, as we have seen, the balance between hot/cold and wet/dry was central in the humoral understanding of the body. So, physicians advised their patients to be careful with the passions most likely to disturb their humoral balance: someone of a choleric temperament should be careful with anger or hate, as they would make the body drier and hotter. The key was moderation, as a sudden emotional change could trigger disease or even death. Remember all the stories of people dying from a broken heart in literature? The non-naturals are behind that idea.

The non-naturals are a vast topic, in the same way that the humoral theory is. Understandings of both varied greatly across time and space, and this text can only hope to give the briefest introduction to this subject. Whole books can be (and have been) written about each of the non-naturals. I hope that the fun examples I chose helped to illustrate the logic behind this way of thinking about how what we would today call ‘lifestyle’ affects the body and health. My grandmothers might have been a bit off with their advice. But they were the heirs to a long tradition of trying to be as healthy as possible and to live a long life – and isn’t that what we all want?


Avicenna, A Treatise on the Canon of Medicine of Avicenna (London: Luzat, 1930).

Castore Durante, Il Tesoro della Sanità (Venice: Andrea Muschio, 1586).

Rodrigo Fonseca, Del Conservare la Sanità (Florence: Semartelli, 1603).

Galen, De sanitate tuenda: A Translation of Galen’s Hygiene (Springfield: Thomas, 1951).

Hippocrates, Airs, Waters, Places (London: W. Heinemann, 1923).

Bartolomeo Paschetti, Del Conservar la Sanità (Genoa: Giuseppe Pavoni, 1602).

Further Reading:

Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey, Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

David Gentilcore, Food and Health in Early Modern Europe: Diet, Medicine and Society (1450-1800) (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

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Key Concepts

What is the Humoral Theory?

‘He was trying to gather up the scarlet threads of life and to weave them into a pattern; to find his way through the sanguine labyrinth of passion through which he was wandering’
(The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde)

Humours are everywhere. People can react cholerically to an insult, music can make us melancholic, time with friends can lift our spirits, and we can be in good or bad humour. This is not surprising. The humoral theory has a long history, beginning with the Greek Hippocratic writers in the fifth century BC, being reinterpreted by the Roman physician Galen in the second century AD. Humorism survived thanks to its translations into Latin in the medieval period and started to be taught in the newly founded universities. Later, the humoral theory was incorporated into vernacular medical texts in the early modern period. It remained the primary way to conceptualise medicine and the body until well into the nineteenth century.

For over two millennia, humorism (or humoralism) was the framework within which people thought about and practised medicine, especially in the West. It is the backdrop for most of our discussions about the history of medicine and gender, which is why it is such an important topic. So, what were the humours?

The humours were fluids or spirits (humon in Greek means fluid) concocted in the stomach in the heat of the digestion, which circulated in the body. There were four humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile (choler), and black bile (melancholy). All bodies contained the four humours but in different proportions, which could vary according to gender, age, and the season of the year. Each person had a different combination of humours, which determined their temperament, personality, and physical health: humorism saw the mind and body as deeply connected. This is why we still have adjectives such as melancholic, choleric, sanguine, and phlegmatic to describe people.

The humours were associated with the natural world, such as seasons and elements, but they also corresponded to a life stage and a specific organ. This web of connections was the basis for how illnesses would be treated. Foods deemed hot, such as spices and red meat, could be used to treat an excess of phlegm or melancholy, heating the body. (For the same reason, they could act as aphrodisiacs.) On the other hand, cucumber and melon would be appropriate to counteract an excess of yellow bile. Physicians could also advise patients to change their location, going somewhere where the weather was more suited to treat their condition.

HumourBloodPhlegmCholer (yellow bile)Melancholy (black bile)
Life StageChildhoodOld AgeYouthMaturity
Personality Traits Brave
Astrological BodyJupiterMoonMarsSaturn

The delicate balance of humours determined a person’s natural good health; therefore, illness was contra-natural, often resulting from a humoral imbalance. Besides changes in their diet and environment, physicians could prescribe herbal remedies to counteract their patient’s condition. Moreover, if a humoral excess or lack caused illness, physicians recommended treatments such as enemas, emetics, purging, and bloodletting to restore the lost balance. Besides that, they gave patients specific advice about diet, exercise, and sleep, which might help rebalance their humours. Some of these medicines might shock us today – the use of leeches to treat haemorrhoids comes to mind! – but they mainly consisted of empirical knowledge adapted to fit the humoral understanding of the body.

For instance, menstruation was deemed essential for women of fertile age, as it was the body’s natural purgation. This is why amenorrhea (the lack of menstruation) was usually considered a serious medical concern, as blood would accumulate in their bodies and cause illness. Herbal remedies to stimulate uterine contractions and provoke menstruation were ubiquitous in medical texts: saffron, parsley, pennyroyal, cinnamon, cyclamen, and mugworts were some of the ingredients in these formulas. 

Humorism changed through the centuries, combining local influences and merging traditions. However, for centuries, the four humours’ paradigm was orthodoxy among physicians, surgeons, midwives, and patients alike. It was challenged at times, such as by the rise of chemical medicine and Paracelsianism in the sixteenth century. Still, it remained central to how the body was understood in premodern times. It was a deterministic system: people might treat illnesses but not change their physical and psychological makeup.

Humours do not survive only in our language. Humorism underpinned how the body was understood, both in physiological and psychological terms, for centuries, until the germ theory of disease supplanted it. Humours went beyond the medical domain, shaping how we think about the body and surviving perhaps most clearly in the arts and literature. For instance, as Shakespeare’s Richard II asked people to achieve a bloodless resolution to their conflict, he referenced physicians’ bloodletting practices. This play on words between purging excessive blood and a bloody fight would have been clear to Shakespeare’s contemporaries:

Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me;
Let’s purge this choler without letting blood:
This we prescribe, though no physician;
Deep malice makes too deep incision;
Forget, forgive; conclude and be agreed
(Richard II, Shakespeare)

After the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, a new mechanical understanding of the body, conceptualised as a machine composed of parts that could be disassembled, replaced the humoral system. The germ theory became the primary way to understand diseases, made possible by technological advances and more precise microscopes in no small measure. However, we have also seen a return to a more holistic understanding of the body over the last fifty years. Medical practitioners and patients alike have started to explore alternative medical models inspired by traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, which consider individuality and understand the body as a whole. This is not a return to humorism as it used to be centuries ago; still, it is striking how Hippocratic doctors would approve of this paradigm change.


Galen, De Temperamentis. Translated by P. N. Singer and Philip J. van der Eijk (Cambridge: 2018).

Hippocrates and Heracleitus. Nature of Man, Regimen in Health, Humours, and Others. Translated by W. H. S. Jones (Cambridge, MA: 1931).

Jacques Jouanna, Hippocrates (London: 1999).

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What is Gender History?

In the 1920s, Virginia Woolf famously described how the history of women was unknown: ‘It has been common knowledge for ages that women exist, bear children, have no beards, and seldom go bald, but save in these respects […] we know little of them and have little evidence upon which to base our conclusions.’ Woolf was writing shortly after women were granted the vote in the UK (1918), after an arduous campaign by the suffragettes. This first feminist wave, associated with the political women’s suffrage movement, did not prompt historians to investigate women’s history (with a few exceptions).

In the 1960s, however, a combination of feminism’s ‘second wave’ (characterised by the women’s liberation movement) and internal changes in the discipline (which I describe in more detail here) meant that women were gradually considered a worthy subject of historical study. Feminist scholars fought to establish women’s studies courses in universities in Europe and the USA in the 1970s. Feminist activists moved from the question of whether it was possible to write a history of women to the assertion that any history that did not include them was necessarily an incomplete one. Fuelled by both intellectual and political goals, these feminist researchers started to write history in new ways – which often contradicted the way history had traditionally been written.

This questioning of how we conceptualise history was inevitable, as feminist scholars did not want ‘women’s history’ to simply be an additional field of study. Instead, this field would profoundly change how we think of historical narratives in general. To integrate new voices and perspectives, historians’ analytical structures and tools themselves had to be rethought. History was already going through many internal changes as a discipline (as I explain in What is Cultural History?). Heavily influenced by anthropology, historians considered new objects of study, such as lower classes, often excluded from the historical narrative. Women were a great example of the ones left behind in the study of history.

By thinking of womanhood and the role women played in the past, historians questioned categories, influenced by earlier philosophy, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s work. If ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ (or a man, for that matter), then we must study how we construct our sexual and gender categories. In other words, as feminist scholars started to deconstruct femininity and its history, it was unavoidable that the same would be done to masculinity.

Furthermore, with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and especially with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the fight for gay rights gained momentum and became part of the mainstream. Queer studies progressively gained space in universities, combining academic and political goals, as women’s studies had earlier. At the same time, feminist historians who had established these ‘women’s studies’ courses in academia gradually realised that their aims to change the way we conceptualise history had not been fully realised. ‘Women’s history’ was still a sub-field of history, apart from the more traditional, male-dominated ways of writing history.

However, the move from ‘women’s history’ to a broader ‘gender history’, though it might have seemed natural to some, did not happen without resistance. Some feminists feared that turning to how we conceptualise gender, in general, might mean the abandonment of the political project of ‘women’s history’ and the dismantlement of what they had built.

(There is an interesting parallel with how feminists are divided today where trans rights are concerned. Some feminists believe we should fully embrace trans liberation and include all LGBT+ minorities in the feminist project. In contrast, others fear the ‘erasure’ of women and the loss of rights feminists have fought so hard to gain. I believe that feminism and true equality should benefit all of us: that is why inclusive and intersectional feminism seems to me the only way forward.)

In any case, ‘gender history’ had been an inherent part of ‘women’s history’ from its beginnings: it provided context to women’s experiences in the past and situated feminism along with other contemporary fights for human rights (based on race and sexual orientation, for instance). The 1980s shift from ‘women’s’ to ‘gender’ history had many effects on how we think of history: by deconstructing the category of ‘woman’, scholars opened the debate to include many other aspects of the human experience and identity. They showed how most of the categories we tend to believe of as eternal and atemporal are historically constructed.

Finally, this shift towards inclusiveness gave the study of gender more impact in academia. By leaving the ‘intellectual ghetto’ of women’s studies, historians of gender were able to influence historical narratives more deeply. Historians of any subject would have to consider the gendered construction of their objects of study – whether they were military, political, or artistic. As cultural history gained popularity, historians also started to confront the tensions between social reality and representation in the past. The idea of socially constructed categories exemplified by sex/gender became a prime example of how to balance this tension. So, as cultural history gained prominence, it did so arguably using many of the theoretical and methodological frameworks created and developed by feminist scholars. The same could be said about poststructuralism.

In a way, then, we could argue that feminist historians’ political and intellectual goals were reached as the field itself became broader to other perspectives. Outside of academia, there are also many feminisms today. But maybe we can learn something from the internal changes history underwent in the last decades. An inclusive kind of feminism might be able to impact our society deeper than a narrower one. Plus, it is a more empathetic way of understanding the human experience.

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What is Cultural History?

‘For me, the sources from the past, primary or secondary, are not a prison. They are a magic thread that links me to people long since dead and with situations that have crumbled to dust. The sources set off my reflection and imagination, I stay in dialogue with them, and I love this. This liaison with the past is the heart of my vocation as a historian. The sources leave a space for speculation […] But I must always identify my speculations as such for my readers, and show them the bases for believing a certain thing is possible, probable, or contingent.’

Natalie Zemon Davis, A Passion for History: Conversations with Denis Crouzet

Cultural history is not just the history of culture – whether we think of culture in a strict sense (high culture exemplified by the arts, music, theatre etc.) or in a broader sense, such as everyday social rituals (think of the English queuing!). As cultural historian Natalie Z. Davis wrote, there is always an interpretive space between historical sources in the past and the historian in the present. How we fill that space – whether from an economic, political, social, or cultural angle – determines what kind of historians we are.

Cultural history has been ‘trendy’ for some decades now, and I think it is one of the most fascinating ways to think about the past. But what is it? Everything – all objects, subjects, times, and places, can be analysed through a cultural lens. The methods of study cultural historians use make our analysis ‘cultural’, such as a concern with the symbolic and how we interpret it, as well as representation and how we create meaning.

This all sounds a bit vague – I know. Suppose traditional history would investigate Napoleon’s military strategy for the Battle of Waterloo. In that case, cultural historians might wonder how soldiers spent their time in the camp, what games they played, how they felt about the imminent conflict, what food was eaten, how soldiers washed their bodies (or not!). We’re all talking about the Battle of Waterloo – but in very different ways.

So, here’s a bit of background: a short history of cultural history, as it were.

For centuries, what was thought of as ‘history’ amounted to a list of names and dates: kings and queens, dynasties, battles, empires forming and declining, civilisations clashing. All very epic and, in my opinion, quite dull.

Where culture in a strict sense was concerned, Germans studied cultural history (Kulturgeschichte) two centuries ago. They focused on the classics, the canon of high art, its artists, and masterpieces. Historians’ main goal was to find patterns in culture and describe the ‘spirit of the time’ (Zeitgeist), taking these extraordinary individuals as their starting point, as in Jacob Burckhardt’s study of the Italian Renaissance.

In the 1920s, social history started to gain importance, especially in France (Ecole des Annales). Historians influenced by Marxism focused on cultural encounters, which became even more central as intellectuals fleeing Nazism started to analyse the relationship between culture and society to make sense of their times in the 1930s. A social shift made non-elites the centre of the historiographical debate: ‘history from below’ was in. So, instead of Louis XIV’s biography, historians were curious about the kind of people who made the food served in royal banquets or sewed ball gowns.

Cultural anthropologists such as Claude Levi-Strauss sought to map structures within cultures, and historians continued to focus on the culture of the ‘common people’ and their cultural artefacts, such as popular printed books, in the 1960s. The history of popular culture was influenced by 19th-century folklore studies (Volkskultur) and structuralism, and ‘cultural studies’ emerged as a discipline at the crossroads of history, anthropology, linguistics, and social studies.

With the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s and the rise of women’s history, ‘new cultural history’ developed, focusing on gender. The intersectionality of today’s feminism and the rise of racial studies have shaped the ‘new cultural history’ and its political goals of decolonising historical practice and making it more inclusive. Moreover, the ‘linguistic turn’ of the 1980s meant historians were increasingly interested in how we use language to create meaning, deconstructing concepts. Philosopher Michel Foucault’s work on how categories of thought are created paved the way to a post-structuralist approach to history, in which meanings are ever-changing.

Today, cultural historians try not to generalise about the lived human experience or fit these experiences into pre-conceived categories. Instead, we question the categories that guide our thinking, deconstructing assumptions and trying to be more aware of our own historiographical blind spots.

Culture cannot be understood as simple transactions between cultural centres and peripheries, nor as social interactions between the top and bottom classes. Instead, it should be thought of as complex webs of meanings and networks of relationships, constantly evolving and reshaping themselves. While historians in the past prioritised the study of ruptures (such as big battles or dynastic shifts), cultural historians today focus on everyday life and continuities, on symbols and their changes in meaning, looking for plurality rather than unity, and finding out missing voices in the historical discourse. It is the case of queer theory and gender studies.

This is why I am personally so passionate about cultural history. In my own dialogue with historical sources, investigating the history of the body, the methodologies of cultural history allow me to combine intellectual pursuits with political goals. By rethinking how we conceptualise the world, we can (hopefully!) reshape it and make our society fairer and more inclusive.

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Key Concepts

What are Secrets of Women?

Throughout history, the womb was often thought to be a mysterious organ, which could make women ill yet create new life. Knowledge about women’s bodies and especially reproduction was thought to be hidden in the womb, ‘secret’ from prying eyes.

In the early modern period, subjects such as menstruation, conception, childbirth, and uterine ailments, were often referred to as ‘secrets of women‘. This expression had a double meaning, however. 

Not only was this knowledge ‘secret’ because it emanated from the mysterious feminine body, but also because it could be transmitted in the form of ‘secrets’. In this period, ‘secrets’ were also medical recipes for the production of remedies – such as a concoction women could drink to facilitate conception. People could have access to these formulas cheaply and in the vernacular, and books of secrets, which contained these recipes, were a best-selling genre.

Secrets of women, therefore, were at the crossroads between theory and practice, secrecy and openness, public and private. This is why we chose ‘Secrets of Women’ as the title for this website – it encompasses many interesting debates in the past and in the present.

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