Wonder Women of the 17th Century
Mar 10, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
In 2009 the Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel Comics for a staggering $4 billion. This record-breaking investment paid off because industry experts credit this acquisition with saving Disney’s entire movie division. To me, this serves as a testament to how much we value superheroes in our modern society. But this value isn’t exclusive to comic book lore, we consistently gravitate to ordinary people doing extraordinary things. As a timely example, during this pandemic we’ve seen an outpouring of appreciation for the heroes serving on the frontlines. As humans we’re always on the lookout for heroes and in this article I’d like to travel back to the 1600s and introduce you to a lady who is a hero in my book: Hannah Woolley.
Hannah was born in England during the 1620s. While we don’t have many details about her life, we can surmise that she wasn’t born into abundant wealth. As a teenager, she entered the workforce as a servant. So far this all sounds very ordinary, but Hannah was no ordinary young lady. She came from a long line of skilled women – women who may have been known in the community as healers. From a very young age Hannah learned at the feet of her mother and older sisters. During her tenure as a servant she put these skills to bear and learned new techniques. By all accounts her employer served as a mentor, encouraging Hannah’s curious mind. During her nearly seven years in the household, Hannah was tirelessly focused on building a catalog of herbal remedies and organizing medical procedures. You may wonder why a young lady would take such a keen interest in these matters, so it helps to understand a bit more about the times.
In the 1600s medical assistance was exclusively available to the elite class. While the first formal medical school was founded in France in the 1100s, finding a licensed physician remained nearly impossible in most European villages. There was a real need for community-based healers who could treat the ails of their neighbors. In some respects the measure of a housewife wasn’t judged by her baking, but by her curative skills. Generations of women would create, test, and document recipes meant to address all manner of afflictions. The very best of the recipes and techniques would be documented in what was known as a commonplace book. (Think of it as an encyclopedia tailored specifically to a household.) These books were precious and were guarded fiercely, being passed down through the generations. When you consider the lack of hygiene and couple that with the scarcity of doctors, it’s easy to see how these books often meant the difference between life and death. For Hannah, being raised to be a servant leader, finding new ways to help more people was the obvious career choice.
In 1646 Hannah married Jerome Woolley, a schoolmaster, and once again she bloomed where she was planted. The couple ran a small grammar school for several years, eventually opening up a school of their own in London. As a teacher and administrator she never lost sight of her calling, teaching her students the very things she learned at her mother’s knee. When we think about how passionate and outspoken Hannah was about helping her fellow neighbors, I think it’s important to bring up one other piece of context. Hannah accomplished all of this during a time when women healers were being heavily ridiculed. The medical establishment, keen to keep women from the classroom, was also eager to denounce women for finding their own methods. These women were seen as superstitious and described in unflattering terms. Of course, in our modern times, many of their approaches are being heralded as we learn more about how our natural world can inspire scientific advancements. But back in the 1600s Hannah wasn’t recognized as a pioneer. The medical community, instead of seeing commonplace books as a treasure trove of data and using them as a springboard for new ideas, dismissed them outright. To many, it would be a time to be quiet and keep your head down. But that’s not what superheroes do!
For years Hannah had been faithfully compiling recipes, documenting various medical techniques, and learning the best ways to successfully manage a household. In 1661, following her dear husband’s death, she decided to step out bravely and publish a book on the matter. Called The Ladies Directory, Hannah published it at her own expense. (Because in addition to women being barred from medical school, female authors also faced public scrutiny). Within three years the volume proved so popular it warranted a re-printing (and even found new popularity abroad) – quite a feat for a girl who started life as a servant.
Encouraged by her book’s success, she released a second title called The Cooks Guide. She dedicated the effort to her daughter and the daughter of the woman many believe to have been her first employer. With these two books Hannah had established herself as one of England’s first female writers and the publicity buoyed her medical practice. Despite the fame and fortune, Hannah remained accessible to her readers and treated everyone as her neighbor. And if the saying is true that imitation is the highest form of flattery, then many people held her in high-regard because her works were often plagiarized!
What I love best about Hannah’s story is that it proves heroes are all around us. Over the centuries who knows how many lives these women healers, like Hannah, saved. For me, these wonder women of the 17th century serve as a reminder to focus on healing. What could be more important than to care for our neighbors – especially after the year we’ve all had? So let’s be a heroic Hannah in the weeks ahead, are you with me dear readers?