We are here today with Sara Ritchey, associate professor of history at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, TN, about her new book, Acts of Care: Recovering Women in Late Medieval Health, out with Cornell University Press this year, 2021.
The author of Holy Matter: Changing Perceptions of the Material World in Late Medieval Christianity (Cornell, 2014) and numerous articles, including “Caring by the Hours: the Psalter as a Source of Gendered Healthcare,” “Health, Healing, and Salvation: Hagiography as a Source of Medieval Healthcare,” “The Wound’s Presence and Bodily Absence: The Experience of God in a Fourteenth-Century Manuscript,” Dr. Ritchey discusses her profound understanding in the intersection of religious practice (writ large) and the practice of medicine (writ large) in the Medieval era.
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.
Jana Byars is the Academic Director of Netherlands: International Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender.