In Acts of Care, Sara Ritchey recovers women's healthcare work by identifying previously overlooked tools of care: healing prayers, birthing indulgences, medical blessings, liturgical images, and penitential practices. Ritchey demonstrates that women in premodern Europe were both deeply engaged with and highly knowledgeable about health, the body, and therapeutic practices, but their critical role in medieval healthcare has been obscured because scholars have erroneously regarded the evidence of their activities as religious rather than medical.
The sources for identifying the scope of medieval women's health knowledge and healthcare practice, Ritchey argues, are not found in academic medical treatises. Rather, she follows fragile traces detectable in liturgy, miracles, poetry, hagiographic narratives, meditations, sacred objects, and the daily behaviors that constituted the world, as well as in testaments and land transactions from hospitals and leprosaria established and staffed by beguines and Cistercian nuns.
Through its surprising use of alternate sources, Acts of Care reconstructs the vital caregiving practices of religious women in the southern Low Countries, reconnecting women's therapeutic authority into the everyday world of late medieval healthcare.
Thanks to generous funding from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the ebook editions of this book are available as Open Access (OA) volumes from Cornell Open (cornellpress.cornell.edu/cornell-open) and other Open Access repositories.
Introduction: To Heed the Trace Part I: Therapeutic Narratives
1. Translating Care: The Circulation of Healing Stories
2. Bedside Comforts: The Social Organization of Care Part II: Therapeutic Knowledge
3. Empirical Bodies: Competing Theories of Therapeutic Authority Part III: Therapeutic Practice
4. Rhythmic Medicine: The Psalter as a Therapeutic Technology in Beguine Communities
5. Salutary Words: Saints' Lives as Efficacious Texts in Cistercian Women's Abbeys
Sara Ritchey is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and author of Holy Matter.
Acts of Care forces historians to reconsider what is understood as premodern medicine, to unthink in biomedical terms, and to avoid projecting our understanding of medical science onto the premodern past. Instead of looking at authoritative discourses, Ritchey explores other narratives recounting acts and practices.
Her fresh and nuanced reading of sources like hagiographies and psalters is a tremendous methodological contribution that will be influential for scholars working on topics beyond the scope of Ritchey's subject matter. For all these reasons, Ritchey's book deserves a wide readership among those interested in the history of medicine, religious women and gender.
~Social History of Medicine
I hope to have suggested how resourceful and persuasive [Acts of Care is] in joining fragments to make a whole, in recovering lost worlds of women's caregiving. [This book demonstrates] once again that in medieval Europe, women's agency was much more considerable than has long been assumed or asserted.
~Journal of the American Academy of Religion
By examining sources more often viewed spiritually as part of—and, indeed, central to—the medical archive, Ritchey offers a nuanced and innovative study of women's caregiving work in the Middle Ages. A necessary intervention into the premodern medical humanities, the history of religion, and gender studies, this book provides a clearly written, skillfully researched, and captivating study of medieval women's health care practices.
~Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies