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Unlawful Practices

"Take His Water to the Wisewoman"

When Malvolio appears to be mad in Shakespeares Twelfth Night, Fabian, one of Olivias servants, invokes the wisewoman, saying that she can determine his illness. Fabians words refer to poorer, often illiterate, women who provided remedy not for charity but as a means of income. While these women were needed because physician-care was outside the means of individuals like Fabian, physicians and other authorities often censured irregularpractice, deeming it uncharitable and misguided. They sometimes invoked the law, which allowed women and other unlicensed individuals to practice but only if they received no pay. In line with this censure were witchcraft pamphlets and trials, in which women were accused of a kind of medical practice that was at once suspect and dangerous.

Heironymous Bock. Hieronymi Tragi... Germany?, 1552 (Detail)

In order to avoid “sorceries, witchcrafte, and other inconveniencies,” a law was enacted in 1512 against any medical practice not licensed by a body of surgeons or physicians.  This law was revised in 1542 under Henry VIII to allow for unlicensed individuals, both male and female, to practice as long as they do so charitably. The reasons given are the obvious:  the needs of the poor, the knowledge of “the nature, kind, and operation of certaine herbes, rootes, and waters” held by unlicensed individuals, and the high fees (and greed) of surgeons who were prosecuting them.

Thomas Barker of Bath. Macbeth and the witches. Oil on canvas, ca. 1830.

John Cotta. The triall of witch-craft. London, 1616

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