Barbara Mujica | Georgetown


Although women had been healers and midwives since ancient times, with the establishment of the great European universities in the late Middle Ages, medicine became increasingly professionalized and limited to physicians with a medical degree. Because women were barred from the universities, they were gradually excluded from professional medicine, especially in urban areas. Yet women continued to heal “on the margins.” Records exist of women working as midwives, healers, apothecaries, nurses, and even doctors. Furthermore, married women routinely practiced rudimentary medicine in the home, and in the convent, women held important medical positions as enfermeras (infirmarians or healing sisters) and herbalists. The letters of Teresa de Avila constitute a veritable register of homeopathic therapies used in sixteenth-century Spain. Teresa’s nurse, Ana de San Bartolomé (1549-1626), provides a detailed account of her experiences as a medical practitioner in her letters and autobiographies, one of the very few sources of information available on how the healing arts were practiced in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century convents. Although convent nurses were not recognized as medical professionals, they performed essential therapeutic services. By examining Ana’s writings on medicine, we expand our knowledge of how women practiced pre-professional nursing in early modern convents.