If you are a nurse, you are a witch.
Wait whaaaa? Yes, witches it’s true. And if you are scared away by this statement, hear a sister out.
In honor of Halloween (or Samhain), I wanted to share the REAL history of nurses-the history you probably weren’t taught. You’ve heard of the Salem Witch Trials, you’ve been taught that witches danced with the devil and you probably have a mental picture of a woman with some kind of pointy hat, long nose with a broom in hand when you think of a witch, right?
This was so not necessarily the case. The title “nurse” actually came from the Salem Witch Trials and I spill all the gory details in the following blog post. And for the women who were burned at the stake with this sort of misrepresentation, I am sorry this happened to you.
The truth is, the women that we now remember as witches were, well, just women. They were midwives, nurses, healers, physicians, pharmacists, mothers, sisters, women. And, while that may seem far-fetched (there had to be a reason these women were burned to death, right?!), its sadly true.
And, I also want to be clear that I know that the subject of witches can be touchy because a lot of people have a lot of opinions rooted in their belief systems. I learned that this can be particularly uncomfortable for certain members of religious groups last year when I offered Harry Potter themed essential oil blends for Halloween (the comments I received, Come on! It’s a great story!) Know this, I am merely stating facts from history and have no tie to whether this shows religion in a good light or a bad light. History is what it is and all we can do is learn from it.
A little back story.
The original definition of the word “witch” actually meant “wise one”. And moving forward in this text, I will be referring to witches as the “wise”. Wise women were typically lay healers serving the peasant population (Ehrenreich, et al., 2010). “Women healers were people’s doctors, and their medicine was part of a people’s subculture” (Ehrenreich, et al., 2010). They were essentially the first nurses and midwives we had. They were nurturing and had innate gifts of understanding herbal remedies and healing modalities. They were the ones that were sought out to help those in need. In fact, some of the medicines that the wise used are still used to this day.
What Went Wrong?
The downfall of the wise woman was a political and religious battle. This is a complex recipe of ideas and I will focus on three of them. The first being that the church in power at the time (Protestant and Catholic) understood that those with healing abilities had the control over who would live and who would die, who is fertile and who is sterile, who is “mad” and who is sane (Ehrenreich, et al., 2010). According to history, the idea that a Woman or a group of Women had this much control and power seemed to be too much of a threat to the institution.
There was also the struggle with sex and the church. It was understood by religious people that Women were innately evil just by the lust that they would stir up in men. This point became glaringly true when just having female sexuality was one of the crimes fit for being burned at the stake. Yes, you read that right-Just for being a woman.
The third component of the downfall of the wise woman (and women in general) was the rise of conspiracy theories. The church accused the women of conspiracy and in turn created conspiracy to support those accusations.
Add being a woman with being a healer and some juicy conspiracy theories and you have yourself a date with some fire.
The ruling class (religious leaders and men) created a campaign of terror directed against the female peasant population. The extent of this “witch craze”, as it is referred to, is jarring. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries there were thousands upon thousands of executions in Germany, Italy, France, England, and the United States (Ehrenreich, et al., 2010). There was an actual book written by Reverends Kramer and Sprenger (the “beloved sons” of Pope Innocent VIII), about how to organize, conduct, and campaign a lynching for wise ones (Ehrenreich, et al., 2010). And, the actual trial of the wise woman was performed by the priest.
The Crimes of Witches
This section might just be the most maddening to me. The five crimes that would warrant a burning at the stake include;
- Female sexuality– this includes lustful thoughts that a man might have from looking at a woman.
- Being organized-Women in communities were a threat
- Possessing magical powers affecting health-of harming
- Possessing magical powers affecting health-of healing
- Possessing medical and obstetrical skills.
I can’t help but think of all those women who were helping their communities by healing, treating, and supporting them and were punished by death for it. A leading English witch hunter put it: “…and in the same number, we reckon all good Witches, which do no hurt but good, which do no spoil and destroy, but save and deliver…It were a thousand times better for land if all Witches, but especially the blessing Witch, might suffer death” (Ehrenreich, et al., 2010). So, basically, if you were a woman who was blessing others by helping them heal, you were the worst kind of witch. The logic on that one is lost on me. The conspiracy against the wise women from the church was incredibly threatening. According to Reverends Kramer and Sprenger’s book, “No one does more harm to the Catholic Church than midwives”. This hatred for Women within the church is what eventually led to rise of the male dominated medical system, but that story is for another day.
If you are a nurse, you are a witch. There, I said it…again. And, here is the story to support it. Rebecca Nurse was a 71-year housewife in Massachusetts in the late 1600’s. She was famously accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death in what we now know as the Salem Witch Trials. It was nearly 20 years after her death that her name was cleared of all accusations…accusations of what? She was a woman, a housewife, a mother, a grandmother. In that one sentence alone, she was guilty of 3 crimes. As provider’s, healers and (mostly) women, we now carry her name- Nurse.
I was conditioned to believe that to be associated with the word “witch” was a bad thing, a very bad thing. It meant that you were associating with the devil. As I learn about the real history, the history of the people, I can’t help but look at that word in a brighter light. Wise. To be called wise is a compliment, it is something to be sought. I, myself, have spent 22 years of my life in school to be “wise”. I have also spent over 20 years being a nurse, a wise nurse. Without progression of thoughts, belief, and a real examination of our current state, I would be burned at the stake. And if you are a Woman, nurse, midwife, pharmacist, nurturer, mother, sister, Grandmother reading this? You would too.
Happy Halloween and Samhain, Witches!
In good health,
Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives & Nurses: a History of Women Healers. 2010, http://www.amazon.com/Witches-Midwives-Nurses-Contemporary-Classics/dp/1558616616.