Next Book Idea: A History of Women’s Knowledge

By June 18, 2014

Okay, this doesn’t really have anything to do with Mormonism, but I wanted to ride the coattails of women’s history that the blog has been doing to try to get some feedback for my next project idea.  Let me know if this has already been done.

A quote from Grevase of Tilbury (an eleventh century English scholar) sparked an idea for this new project. While investigating supernatural phenomenon, Grevase cited the authority of ?the old wives? as proof that a supernatural belief (women flying and passing through walls) was real. Grevase saw the knowledge of old women as authoritative, whereas the ?old wives? tale? later came to mean foolish beliefs. Furthermore, Grevase said the old wives were making claims to supernatural events. I want to explore the history of Western attitudes toward the socially constructed category of both women’s knowledge and women?s charisma (revelation and supernatural power) from 1100 to 1850.

Universities, which began to emerge in the thirteenth century, made women?s knowledge not only an object of ridicule, but also saw women?s knowledge as the foil to the kind of knowledge universities hoped to achieve: universal rather than local, theoretical rather than empirical, text-based rather than oral, and male rather than female. Thus throughout the study I will juxtapose the learning of the doctor (the one who possessed authoritative and sanctioned knowledge) with that of the old woman (whose knowledge was suspect and even demonized).

The antipathy toward female learning and charisma came to a head with the rise of the witch-hunts that overwhelmingly targeted women. Medicine was also at the heart of these debates as midwives and wise women offered affordable medical care in contrast to medical doctors. Midwives and healers were often the targets of the scorn of the religious establishment, yet much of Western medicine based on the humeral system that was generally ineffective and even harmful. Such a juxtaposition became stark in the case of Ignaz Semmelweis, who in 1847 noted that women who gave birth were much more likely to die in hospitals than they were at the hands of midwives, leading to his conclusion that germs were spread around hospitals, leading to the development of germ theory.

I will likely end the book in the mid-nineteenth century, as women were increasingly granted doctorates after this point, but I will propose questions about the effects these attitudes towards ?women?s knowledge? continue to have on our society.  What happened to “women’s knowledge” when women became doctors?  Are the kinds of knowledge that were placed in the caterogy of women’s knowledge worthwhile?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Steve, this sounds fantastic. I am not aware of anyone treating the denigration inherent to old wives tales in this particular way.

    Comment by Kate Holbrook — June 18, 2014 @ 11:54 am

  2. Of course your next book project spans a history of 750 years, Steve. Sounds fascinating.

    Comment by Christopher — June 18, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

  3. Thanks guys and thanks for the information Kate.

    Gotta put those reading exams to some use, right Christopher?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 18, 2014 @ 2:14 pm

  4. Very interesting. Wise women as the competition that needs to be ridiculed and defamed. This is about power.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — June 19, 2014 @ 10:09 am

  5. Indeed, Mark.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 19, 2014 @ 11:38 am

  6. Steve, I was wondering if you were planning to talk about wise women in relation to other types of disavowed and ridiculed kinds of knowledge. Your description brought to mind African healing rituals in Jamaica and the Caribbean and the literature on Voodoo.

    Comment by Amanda — June 19, 2014 @ 4:09 pm

  7. Good question, Amanda, as that is outside of my expertise. Randall Styers talks about how Europeans saw colonized people as having inferior knowledge and how the term “magic” was used by 19th century anthropologist to describe the worldview of those people. This placed them below Europeans who had advanced to higher knowledge: science and religion. My understanding is that Europeans pointed to colonized people’s persistent “witchcraft” beliefs as proof of their inferior knowledge but have you found in your studies that female African (or other people) healers were singled out as possessing a special kind of bogus knowledge?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 19, 2014 @ 6:21 pm

  8. I love it, Steve! For my dissertation, I am looking at women’s approaches to knowledge (e.g. charisma) in between the world wars. Your post here is teasing me with fascinating historical information that I don’t yet know much about. Any book recommendations?

    Comment by Liz M. — June 19, 2014 @ 6:27 pm

  9. Liz, a few would be Dyan Elliott, Proving Women: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
    Nancy Caciola. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.
    Jane Kamensky. Governing the Tongue: the Politics of Speech in Early New England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    Allison Coudert’s Religion, Science, and Magic in Early Modern Europe has a good chapter.

    But I’m not aware of a full overview of the topic. Thus my idea :).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 19, 2014 @ 8:22 pm

  10. thanks!

    Comment by Liz M. — June 19, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

  11. Steve, it’s not completely within my area of expertise either, but as I have been preparing for this witchcraft course, a few figures have shown up who are non-white, female, and demonized as witches. The most famous example is Tituba but there are others. I guess I’m wondering if certain types of knowledge/practices become gendered and racialized.

    Comment by Amanda HK — June 19, 2014 @ 8:57 pm

  12. Probably, Amanda. I’d be interested to know more too.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 21, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

  13. Amanda, have you read Karlsen’s book, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England? She found it significant that the people most likely to be accused of witchcraft were widows who stood to inherit/did inherit their late husband’s property. She argues that the colonial authorities were uncomfortable with women no longer bound to child-bearing duties or governed by husbands. They had too much independence and were therefore considered dangerous.

    Comment by Liz M. — June 25, 2014 @ 2:02 am

  14. Liz, I have. She was a professor at Michigan until she retired. She’s fantastic.

    Comment by Amanda HK — June 25, 2014 @ 9:25 am


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