What Made a 17th-Century Midwife Good at Her Job?

Percivall Willughby (1596–1685) despised the midwives of his time. In his 1670s book, Observations in Midwifery, he intended to ‘inform the ignorant common midwives’, whose brutal methods were responsible for so many deaths – according to him. Although his book wasn’t published until almost two centuries later, Willughby was writing in a period in which male practitioners were gradually taking over the role of midwives in Britain (or at least trying to). Many of his contemporaries wrote similar accounts, no doubt motivated by asserting their claim on the medical marketplace, although Willughby’s writing is particularly striking. According to him,

‘midwives will pull, stretch, or hale their [the mothers’] bodies, or use any violence to enforce the womb, in hopes of a speedier delivery. Such strugglings and doings make a difficult, painful, and long labour.’

But was any of that true? What made a 17th-century midwife good at her job? And can we trust men like Willughby?

Challenging Bias in 17th-Century Midwifery

Well, until fairly recently, most people did believe these accounts by male midwives. Traditional midwives were depicted as stereotypically ignorant, poor, superstitious, and unskilled. Perhaps the main reason for that is that the first historians of midwifery in Britain were physicians – not trained historians – who tended to take male medical practitioners of the past, such as WiIllughby, at their word. This, of course, also reflected the biases of these 19th-century writers, who struggled to see women (whether in the present or the past) as skilled and capable at what they considered ‘male activities’.

Fortunately, social historians have spent decades deconstructing this stereotype thanks to a wealth of primary sources, including records kept by the midwives themselves, their clients, and the licensing authorities. So, what made a 17th-century midwife good at her job?

Ethical Standards for 17th-Century Midwives

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to look at how midwives were licensed, which was the responsibility of the Church of England. Midwives swore oaths, which often included:

  • Making their services available to both rich and poor women (whom they often attended for free)
  • Reporting information on the father of the baby and suspected bastardy
  • Not engaging in witchcraft
  • Baptising infants who probably wouldn’t survive
  • Notifying the ecclesiastical authorities of any baptisms performed
  • Not ‘switching’ babies
  • Not procuring abortions
  • Maintaining patient confidentiality
  • Not using instruments or mutilating babies in the womb
  • Making sure that stillborn babies were buried properly
  • Cooperating with other midwives and instructing their deputies (apprentices)
  • Reporting midwives who didn’t conform to these guidelines

As you can see, these injunctions have much to do with professional ethics, both from a medical and religious perspective, but they also highlight the importance of helping fellow midwives, of cooperating in difficult deliveries as well as instructing the new generations of midwives. Midwives should be of ‘good character’ and practising Christians, active in their communities and parishes. Still, you might be thinking that none of these criteria seems to take skill into consideration.

The Path to Becoming a 17th-Century Midwife

In 17th-century Britain, most midwives practised for long periods before obtaining their licenses. They usually started as a deputy to an older, more senior midwife, in order to gain experience. They attended deliveries and helped their mentors for years before working on their own, with these informal apprenticeships lasting from four to ten years. So, when midwives applied for their licenses, it wasn’t unusual for them to have decades of experience, especially since the licensing process was so expensive, and so they might need time to save for their application fees.. Besides gaining experience through practice, midwives were usually married women or widows, often with children themselves, which only added to their empirical, ‘bodily’ knowledge about childbirth and female health. (Read about the all-female early modern world of childbirth here.)

What is perhaps most telling about these midwives and their careers was the way their clients spoke about them. You see, besides being a ‘good Christian’, swearing to their oath, and undergoing informal apprenticeships, midwives were expected at their licensing to give evidence of their skill, which normally involved their clients testifying in their favour. Many women would come forth and praise their midwives to the licensing authorities, sometimes dozens of them, describing how many times they had been delivered and how capable the midwife was. Of course, the higher these clients were on the social scale – say, a gentlewoman – the more these testimonies would weigh in the midwife’s favour. They might include passages like these:

‘…she [the midwife] is not only helpful to the rich and those that can pay her but also to the poor’.
‘…she had the blessing to be a means for the safe delivery of others whose names are here subscribed and many others…’
‘[she has] good skill, experience and success in midwifery and has safely delivered several women in childbed with good success…’

Community Esteem and Expertise of 17th-Century Midwives

So, what made a 17th-century midwife ‘good’ was a mix of their good character, skill, piety, ethics, and involvement in their communities. Although the licensing system wasn’t perfect, it ensured standards of good conduct and practice as well as ascertained practical skills through clients’ testimonies and legitimised deputy midwives’ apprenticeships. Midwives were commonly well-known and respected in their communities, by people of all social groups. Besides their clients’ accounts of their skill, midwives were often called to testify as ‘experts’ in early modern courts, such as in the case of women ‘pleading the belly’ (declaring they were pregnant to avoid execution). (You can read more about the ‘Jury of Matrons’ here.) But midwives would also testify in bastardy cases or when someone was accused of rape, which indicates how they were perceived by their communities as medical ‘experts’.

Moreover, as midwives started to publish midwifery manuals, in no small measure to assert their authority over the world of pregnancy and childbirth, which they perceived as increasingly threatened by male practitioners, some midwives became widely known. That’s the case of Jane Sharp (1641-1671), the best-selling yet mysterious English author, and Louise Bourgeois or Boursier (1563-1636), the French royal midwife. In their writings, we get a glimpse of an early modern midwife’s life; they were aware of their responsibilities and committed to caring for women as part of a sisterhood.

Resisting the Narrative: Reevaluating the Skills of 17th-Century Midwives

Despite what man-midwives like Percival Willughby wrote, 17th-century midwives were generally very skilled and experienced, as hundreds of testimonies, letters, and journals tell us (including some accounts by physicians themselves!). Most of them followed an informal apprenticeship and this all-female network allowed them to cooperate and learn from each other. It wasn’t rare for a midwife to call a colleague to help in a complicated delivery; this wasn’t seen as a failure, but rather how a midwife should proceed. Midwives weren’t poor, ignorant, and dangerous practitioners. Rather, they were known for their patience, skill, kindness, and, crucially, for their knowledge, which derived from practical experience.

Yet it is telling that this negative stereotype of midwives as ignorant and unskilled persisted. With the medicalisation of childbirth and the rise of male midwives and their tools, such as forceps, traditional midwives were gradually replaced, and male practitioners eager to cement their new role were quick to decry them. As for Victorian physicians interested in the history of medicine, they believed their predecessors’ accounts and didn’t question how capable midwives actually were and whether man-midwives might have had an economic interest in degrading them.

As a historian, it is difficult to ignore the mounting evidence of 17th-century midwives’ skill and professionalism. Personally, having met midwives and been safely delivered by one myself, it seems hard to believe their depiction of midwives as violent and brutal. Lastly – and ironically-, it is likely that much of Willughby’s knowledge about childbirth (as well as many other man-midwives’) came directly from the midwives they so disparaged in their writings, who often instructed them, such as Willughby’s own daughter. But that’s a matter for another day.


Louise Bourgeois,  Observations diverses (Paris: 1609).

Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book (London: 1671).

Percival Willughby, Observations in Midwifery (Warwick: 1863).

Further Reading:

David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: 1997).

Doreen Evenden, The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London (Cambridge: 2000)

David Harley, ‘Ignorant Midwives – a persistent stereotype’, The Society for the History of Medicine Bulletin 28 (1981), pp. 6-9.

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The ‘Queen of Hysterics’ and 19th-Century Theatrical Hysteria

Content Warning: Discussions of sexual assault and violence against women.

Everybody was talking about hysteria in late 19th-century Paris. Hysterics appeared in novels and plays; they were painted, photographed, sculpted and drawn. People crowded the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris to attend demonstrations and lectures on hysterics given by the world-renowned neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), and to gaze at his star patients. Who could resist admiring the ‘queen of hysterics’, the beautiful Blanche Wittmann (1859-1913), her face relaxed and insensible as she was pierced with needles by doctors, to demonstrate how she couldn’t feel any pain?

Born Marie Wittmann, Blanche was a ‘difficult’ child, who came from an abusive household. She was sent as an apprentice to a furrier, who sexually assaulted her at thirteen. Her medical symptoms quickly followed, and she eventually ran away, finding work as a ‘fille de service’, or a ‘ward girl’ at another hospital, before being hired at the Salpêtrière, where she spent the rest of her life. Patients provided much of the labour needed to keep the gigantic hospital and its facilities running: the work was mandatory for patients who were able, who were paid a nominal fee for their work. Hysterics were the stars of the hospital, but they were also not considered ‘insane’; according to Charcot, they suffered from a neurological disorder, not a mental illness (a statement which has been rightly problematised) and so the hysterics enjoyed a certain level of freedom. There was even a ‘bal des folles’ – a ball of the madwomen – at the hospital, in which patients dressed up, sang and danced.

When Blanche was admitted, at eighteen years old, she suffered from convulsions, paralysis, and fainting spells. In her early days there, she was described as ordinary, although her ‘hysterogenic zones’ (points in the body which could trigger hysterical attacks) were very sensitive. During her fits, she often called out the name Blanche (possibly her sister’s name), which was why she eventually started to be called by that name. Blanche was described as beautiful, with her fair skin, big bosom, and blonde hair: a perfect example of femininity, with an ever-fragile and vulnerable female body, largely susceptible to hysteria.

Hypnotism played a central role in shaping Blanche. It wasn’t used to treat patients, but to reproduce symptoms and allow for doctors to experiment. It allowed the unpredictable, unruly female body to become ‘rational’ and predictable, following a specific order. Charcot wanted to provide a rational framework for hysterical symptoms, and he used hypnotism to create the three main phases of hysteria: lethargy, catalepsy, and somnambulism. For him, hypnosis allowed doctors to study hysteria and isolate symptoms. Furthermore, he considered those more susceptible to hypnosis to likely be hysterics themselves (which was highly contested at the time). Blanche was at the centre of all these theoretical discussions.

Through endless demonstrations (they sometimes lasted hours), Blanche held gravity-defying poses for long periods of time, was flashed with bright lights, was hypnotised, received electrical stimuli, was pricked with needles, was deceived by doctors, and had her body manipulated in virtually all ways one can imagine. When she arrived at the Salpêtrière, the young Marie presented a variety of difficult-to-diagnose symptoms but, years later, as Blanche, she was the perfect hysteric, whose symptoms flawlessly illustrated Charcot’s teachings. She was shaped slowly by her life at the hospital, where her name was changed as she was, by the social and medical milieu she inhabited. She was transformed from an ‘ordinary’ hysteric into an ‘exemplary’ one through practice and repetition of enacting her symptoms: her talent and beauty made her the ‘ideal’ hysteric, and the literal star of the show.

Attending these demonstrations at the Salpêtrière was fashionable (socialites sat side by side with politicians, physicians, and artists – not to mention Sigmund Freud), but it was also fascinating, as people could see ‘Charcot’s hysterics’ act out the symptoms of hysteria. Arguably, these sessions were even more about theatre than they were about medicine. Charcot’s goal wasn’t to treat his patients, but rather to isolate and reproduce symptoms in a specific order, to classify the chaotic, making his patients living incarnations of the illness. His focus was on hysteria itself, not people like Blanche.

Although she was a medical celebrity, a ‘diva’ in contemporary terms, Blanche’s relationship with her doctors, and especially Charcot, was uneasy. Hysterics were believed to be overly sexual and deceitful, exaggerating their symptoms and blatantly lying to others. Additionally, theirs was a necessarily unbalanced relationship: the wealthy and educated male doctors held almost absolute power over the poor, uneducated female patients. And it is chilling how casually sexual relationships between them were brushed aside in the records, as though not worthy of mention. Not to mention how many of these ‘experiments’ were violent or cruel.

After Charcot’s death in 1893, hysteria as it had been created (and the ‘medical divas’ it had shaped) was in decline. His followers disbanded, his theories were largely abandoned, and his patients lost their star status. Interestingly, Blanche never suffered another hysterical attack after Charcot’s death, nor any other symptoms. She continued at the Salpêtrière but as an employee, not a patient. Blanche was interested in photography, and so she worked as an assistant at the photography laboratory for a while, before working as a radiology technician. She refused to talk about her past as the ‘queen of hysterics’. Sadly, Blanche developed radiology-induced cancer, and spent her final years in pain, suffering a series of amputations to her limbs, until she finally died.

Hysteria has a long history, from the ‘wandering womb’ in ancient Greece to contemporary discourse: female politicians are often described as ‘hysterics’ by their detractors. In the 19th century, it was an illness linked to unruly womanhood, to women who did not conform to strictly limited gender roles, in one way or another. It was in some ways a female response to a stifling patriarchal society: women who suffered from hysteria often felt paralysed.

It is impossible to know to what degree Blanche’s illness was physically or socially determined, or whether her symptoms were somatic or psychosomatic. She wasn’t exactly a fraud, nor was she just a passive recipient of Charcot’s actions. It is also problematic to try to diagnose her retrospectively, a usually frowned-upon idea for historians of medicine. What we do know is just how influential Blanche’s demonstrations were: would we have Madame Bovary without people like her, or Freudian psychoanalysis as we know it? Blanche’s case illustrates how the physical body and the culture of a specific time and place can transform medical symptoms, influencing the way illnesses are understood: cultures shape bodies, which respond and adapt. But Blanche’s story is also a tale of a young woman who had few options, and who had to be resourceful to survive. She might have been described as not particularly intelligent, but I find that hard to believe.


Jean-Marie Charcot, ‘Sur les divers états nerveux déterminés par l’hypnotisation chez les hystériques’,Comptes Rendues hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des Sciences 94 (1882): 403-405.

Albert Londe, La photographie médicale: application aux sciences médicales et physiologiques (Paris, 1893).

Désiré Magloire Bourneville and Paul-Marie-Léon Regnard, Iconographie Photographique de la Salpetriere (Service de M. Charcot) (Paris, 1878).

Further Reading:

Georges Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière (Boston, 2004T).

Per Olov Enquist, The Story of Blanche and Marie (London, 2007).

Asti Hustvedt, Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris (London, 2011).

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‘Holy Anorexia’: The Fascinating Connection between Religious Women and Fasting


Discussion of bodily harm and eating disorders.

Social media might make it seem like fasting (and especially intermittent fasting) is something new. But fasting – voluntary or not – has arguably existed for as long as humans have. People have abstained from food throughout history for many different reasons, not least of which scarcity of nourishment (think of hunter-gatherers during a harsh winter). But the main reason for voluntarily fasting has been religion – just think of the Islamic Ramadan or the Christian Lent. An extreme version of religious fasting has been called ‘holy anorexia’ (anorexia mirabilis), and it was not a rare occurrence among medieval saintly women. The most famous example is perhaps St Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), who died from the rigorous practice. Her ecstatic visions were often centred around food and starvation as a way of embodying her love for Christ. She was known for eating nothing but the holy wafer (the eucharist), despite the pleas of her religious community, including her confessor. But where did this trend come from? And why was it much more prevalent among female saints?

The term ‘anorexia’ comes from the Greek an (lack of) and orexia (appetite), encompassing a range of practices with various meanings. For medieval Christians, abstaining from bodily pleasures to achieve a higher spirituality was considered a noble goal; many religious orders took poverty vows, and by the 12th century, celibacy had become a universal requirement for priests. Religious fasting could bring people closer to God, and conversely, gluttony was considered sinful. Moreover, in a period in which food was not as plentiful as it is today, indulging in the sensual pleasure of overeating was often frowned upon, whereas refusing to eat for religious reasons was praised. Fasting became increasingly revered from the 13th century on, with the beginning of this trend perhaps best illustrated by an episode in which Christ appeared to St Margaret of Cortona (d. 1297) in a vision, telling her that ‘Christians cannot be perfect unless they restrain their appetites from vices, for without abstinence from food and drink, the war of the flesh will never end’.

‘Holy anorexia’ was a social, religious, and psychological phenomenon, which reached its peak in the 15th century, when hundreds of saintly women were recorded as having survived on little or no food, according to some contemporary writers. Most cases were recorded in the Italian peninsula, with plenty of examples both before and after that period (you can check out a wonderful summary in pictures here); still, the 15th-century numbers the most cases of anorectic mystics. Because so many women in this period undertook extreme fasting, some historians have likened their anorexia mirabilis to the contemporary anorexia nervosa. But we should be careful with anachronisms: medieval people understood their bodies in a very different way than 21st-century people do. Yet many of these saints are still revered by Catholics today, as a symbol of piety and devotion.

For religious women, food was one of the few ways in which they could control the world around them; through renouncing ordinary food, they turned themselves to the divine nourishment of Christ. By embracing the suffering of the passion and letting go of their physicality, saintly women could paradoxically control their bodies. They could get closer to the divine, understand the pain of Christ, and elevate themselves above the people around them. Significantly, with excessive weight loss, many of these women stopped menstruating (amenorrhoea) and, while the primary goal of fasting was not reducing fertility, it was an unintended consequence. For religious, unmarried women, this may not have directly impacted their lives: they weren’t meant to become pregnant anyway. Still, in a period in which motherhood was almost synonymous with womanhood, this ‘un-sexing’ could arguably help them transcend the constraints of the human body and matter itself, illustrating medieval asceticism’s focus on the immortal soul.

It is not a coincidence that other religious women of the period, such as Joan of Arc, were known both for not menstruating and for arduous fasting (You can read more about blood and ‘un-sexing’ here.) Transcending the body (and especially the female body) through self-starvation was even more apparent in the case of St Liberata, also known as Wilgefortis (from virgo fortis, strong virgin). Her extreme fasting resulted in the development of facial hair (lanugo), and she has been adopted by some in the queer community as a transgender saint. Her father, the king of Portugal, wished her to marry, while Wilgefortis intended to devote her life to Christ. The story goes that, through fasting, she stopped menstruating and grew a beard, making her less attractive to potential suitors. Her father had her crucified. Not surprisingly, this 14th-century story became the basis for Wilgefortis’ popular devotion for more than two centuries, during the height of ‘holy anorexia’.

Still, the question remains: why was this more widespread among religious women? Fasting wasn’t exclusive to women, but there are far fewer male saints remembered for anorexia mirabilis. Cultures of piety varied across time and place, but female religiosity was perhaps best illustrated through the relationship to food. For religious men, on the other hand, it was giving up power, wealth, and sex that constituted the main path to the divine, through chastity and poverty. Women and men chose different symbols with which to express their devotion to Christ, depending on religious doctrine as well as expected societal gender roles. In patriarchal Catholicism, men were dominant: renouncing this dominance was best illustrated by letting go of power over others (exemplified by sex and wealth). For women, it was renouncing their roles as wives and mothers that indicated a shift from the worldly to the divine. To do so, these female mystics adhered to strict ascetic practices, which included self-flagellation and interrupted sleep as well as extreme fasting, to experience Jesus’ bodily suffering on the cross: while they renounced their own bodies and sexuality, they identified with the body (and the humanity) of Christ.

Throughout the centuries, many saintly and mystical women became known for religious fasting. Notable examples, besides the ones mentioned above, include Elizabeth of Hungary (d. 1231), Clare of Assisi (d. 1253), Margery Kempe (d. 1438), and Teresa of Avila (1582). They were exceptional people: their practices were not typical of most religious women, let alone ordinary women. These saints were praised as models for others because of their incredible discipline, sacrifice, piety, and devotion. When reading the accounts of their lives, we should be careful not to impose contemporary diagnoses or labels on people who lived in the past. We should also question the sources that recount their miraculous feats.

Yet, regardless of the specific details surrounding someone like Catherine of Siena’s fasting, these stories give us a glimpse into what late medieval people found inspiring and admirable. They also hint at women’s responses to life under the socio-political constraints of medieval Catholicism, in which control over their bodies had to be negotiated. These tales highlight a human longing for a connection with the divine, which ‘holy anorectics’ sought to achieve by renouncing from food, which ultimately also symbolised their nurturing and maternal roles in a patriarchal society. Finally, ‘holy anorexia’ and fasting were framed as virtuous and, the people who practised them, as examples of piety. With so many social media influencers today extolling the benefits of fasting, it might be helpful to look back and question our reasons for adhering to these practices, and how that shapes the way we understand our own bodies.


The Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin, Catherine of Siena: Dictated by Her, While in a State of Ecstasy, to Her Secretaries, and Completed in the Year of Our Lord 1370; Together with an Account of Her Death by an Eye-Witness (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1907).

Fra Giunta Bevegnati, The Life and Miracles of Saint Margaret of Cortona (1247–1297),(Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 2012).

Further Reading:

Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

Rudolph M. Bell, Holy Anorexia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

Ilse E. Friesen, The Female Crucifix: Images of St. Wilgefortis Since the Middle Ages (Waterloo, CA: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001).

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‘Follow what I say’: Isabella Cortese and Early Modern Female Alchemists

How would you go about learning alchemy? Well, I would start by making a list of alchemists whose work I should read. Then, I would do a lot of reading. That might seem unimaginative – and it is – but, for centuries, that’s how people learned alchemy. Of course, they would eventually go to their laboratories or kitchens and try things out in practice. But reading was essential. So, it was a break with tradition when alchemist Isabella Cortese wrote in her book that

If you wish to follow the alchemical art, and practise it, you must stop studying the works of Geber, Ramon [Lull], Arnaldo [de Villanova], and other philosophers, because they said nothing truthful in their works except through images and puzzles.’
I Secreti della Signora Isabella Cortese, Venice, 1561

But let’s back up a bit. Who was Isabella Cortese? Well, the short answer is… We don’t know. Not really, anyway. One of the best-selling recipe books of the early modern period was attributed to her, but it is (very) likely that she was a fictitious character created by the publisher Giovanni Bariletto. In her book, Cortese described herself as a noblewoman who spent decades travelling and studying alchemy, gathering the recipes (‘secrets’) published in the collection. She argued against book learning: alchemy had to be learnt in practice. And that could be done at home: women should embrace ‘kitchen alchemy’.

Unfortunately, we have few clues about her besides what’s written in her book. Trust me, I’ve been looking for her in archives and libraries for almost a decade now, which is why I am convinced she was an invention. Yet, she was clearly inspired by great women alchemists of her day, such as Caterina Sforza and Isabella d’Este (might her name come from this Isabella?). It’s also intriguing that her last name, Cortese, is an anagram for ‘secreto’ in Italian. But ‘cortese’ also evokes nobility and wealth – it literally translates as ‘courtly’. Furthermore, the recipes were addressed to ‘every great lady’, highlighting how the work was gendered.

The book itself contained medical, alchemical, cosmetic, and veterinary recipes. In the early modern period, there was much overlap between these spheres, and books like Cortese’s had recipes for virtually anything. It might seem striking to us that formulas to treat baldness or remove stains from clothes appeared side by side with ways to prolong life (the elixir famously known as the ‘philosopher’s stone’) or to turn base metals into gold. Yet that was typical of recipe books of this period: what connected the recipes was the focus on practical instructions rather than theoretical explanations. Cortese was interested in how to make phenomena occur, not so much ‘why’ they happened.

Her collection also included many recipes about reproduction and the female body, such as advice on pregnancy and menstruation, hinting again at a female readership. Among the hundreds of recipes, there were many cosmetic formulas, which were chiefly prepared and used by women, even queens such as Elizabeth I. This is a typical entry:

Beauty Water for the Face: Take lemons and dried beans and combine them in white wine; add honey, egg, and goat’s milk, and distil it all together; and this water will make the face beautiful.
I Secreti della Signora Isabella Cortese

These recipes could be produced at home, in a domestic alchemical laboratory – in other words, a well-equipped kitchen. Therefore, this unique recipe book was doubly gendered: it was attributed to a woman and addressed to female readers. And what did Cortese tell them?

Cortese urged readers to stop reading the great alchemical masters of the past. Who should aspirant alchemists follow, then? As she wrote in the book’s dedication to her brother:

I ask you [dearest brother] not to waste your time with these books by philosophers but follow what I write for you, and do not omit or diminish anything, but do instead what I tell you and write [for you], and follow my instructions below.
I Secreti della Signora Isabella Cortese

Cortese’s brother – and her readers – were not to deviate from her orders. So, if at a first glance it may seem that Cortese is breaking with tradition by suggesting that alchemical adepts experiment by themselves, a more attentive reading shows that she is replacing one kind of authority with another: study gave place to experience. Instead of great men, who taught through theory, readers should follow great ladies, such as herself, who would teach them through practice. Her ‘new alchemy’ was an everyday pursuit open to everyone, regardless of their sex. Cortese invited lay women to directly engage in alchemy as her apprentices: ‘every great lady’ could be an alchemist, from their own kitchen.


Isabella Cortese, I Secreti della Signora Isabella Cortese (Venice: 1565).

Further Reading:

William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

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