Documenting Women’s History and Making History of Her Own

Through her research on early modern Europe, Alisha Rankin is shedding light on little known medical practices, often led by women

An image of Neuenstein Castle.

Photo: Alisha Rankin

The year was 2006, and after ascending a winding stone staircase in a renaissance castle in Neuenstein, Germany (right), Alisha Rankin began sorting through a treasure trove of archival material from the early modern period to learn more about how noblewomen worked as healers in the 1500s. 

This may sound like the beginning of a work of historical fiction, but it’s not—and the moment marked one stop along a journey through small German archives Rankin visited to complete research for her first book on noblewomen healers of the time.

Rankin is a professor of history, with a focus on early modern Europe, the history of science and medicine, women’s history, and the history of the body and sexuality. Her work has been published in multiple languages in journals such as Renaissance Studies and Dresdner Kunstblätter.

Her research trip to Neuenstein informed the writing of her first book, Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany, and led her to write her second book, The Poison Trials, after a librarian shared “strange” materials that documented a condemned criminal being given poison to test an antidote. 

The Poison Trials would go on to earn the Roland H. Bainton Book Prize (2022), and Panaceia’s Daughters earned the Gerald Strauss Prize (2014). Rankin is currently exploring topics for her third book and potential articles she will write this spring. 

If it weren’t for a happy accident in her first year at Wellesley College, though, Rankin may not have discovered her passion for history, specifically women’s history. 

“I kept going to English classes and then switching to history classes because that was the kind of writing I enjoyed,” Rankin, a historical fiction fan herself, said of her original plan to major in English. After taking a course in medieval history, the professor urged her to continue studying history, where she found joy in the methodology of the research.

“One of my favorite things about early history is that the sources are limited, so you really have to think, and problem solve,” Rankin said. 

Puzzle Pieces

After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in history and German studies, which included a study abroad year in Germany where she became fluent in the language, Rankin knew she wanted to pursue graduate research in women’s history while earning her Ph.D. at Harvard University. But “finding sources on women’s history is one of the big puzzles in the field,” she said. 

“If you’re interested in women’s history, especially from the Middle Ages, it’s much harder to find their preserved documents,” Rankin said, “because they tended to be preserved for men rather than women.”

“Licensed physicians were all men, licensed apothecaries were all men with few exceptions—such as widows of apothecaries,” Rankin noted. “Professionals in the medicine space tended to be men except for midwives, which was the one female medical profession. But the responsibility for medical care of the household, which could include hundreds of people working for the noble family, was usually seen as belonging to the mother of the house. The woman tended to be responsible for the inner workings of the household, whereas the man was responsible for anything to do with the outside, such as working in the fields or negotiating money.”

With the support of her Ph.D. advisor, Katharine Park, and after taking a medieval Latin class with her during which she researched medical recipes for a project, Rankin began looking into medicinal recipes written by women. 

Her research led her to discover an article on Elisabeth of Rochlitz, the eventual subject of a chapter of Panaceia’s Daughters. The article, written by German historian Robert Jütte, was the first puzzle piece to fall into place.

“Elizabeth not only has preserved recipes, but a collection of letters as well,” Rankin said. Jütte told her no one had looked at her recipe collection for their research, and that it was accessible in the Hessian State Archives in the city of Marburg, Germany north of Frankfurt. Rankin was, at the time, conducting a year of research in Germany after winning two Ph.D. fellowships, one each from the Mellon Foundation and Wellesley College. 

Her success researching Elisabeth of Rochlitz led her to write letters to archives throughout Germany, including the manuscript archive at the University of Heidelberg, which possesses around 300 preserved recipe collections. Those, plus approximately 25,000 letters of correspondence in Dresden sent to or from Anna of Saxony were large pieces of the puzzle, but before digital archives, Rankin’s research involved a lot of physical digging.

“I had to take a hopscotch approach since it was the early 2000s,” she said. “I would travel to one archive, find some information, then travel again and find a bit more.”

Analyzing the Archives

The letters Rankin discovered provided context for the types of remedies that noblewomen, who typically oversaw large households, would have created and distilled. 

“Oftentimes the preserved recipes won’t include attribution, but the letters will often say, ‘I’m writing to you for a great remedy for a certain ailment. Can you share your recipe?’” Rankin said.  

Anna of Saxony, who died at 53 in 1585, kept her personal recipes close and would only reply with the medicines. Other women, like Dorothea of Mansfeld, who lived to age 85 (1493-1578), were more open to sharing both medicines and intellectual property. Dorothea was known to care for the poor in the surrounding German countryside, as well as those who were part of her household. 

An engraving of Dorothea of Mansfeld, right, and her husband, Count Ernst von Mansfeld.

An engraving of Dorothea of Mansfeld, right, and her husband, Count Ernst von Mansfeld. Engraving: Courtesy of the British Museum

“She lived in a castle in the tiny, tiny town of Mansfeld and she had a distillation house set up in her garden,” Rankin described. “It seemed to function as something of an infirmary during times of epidemic disease.” 

Dorothea perfected her recipe for aqua vitae, or water of life, in her distillation house. The remedy was thought to fight disease and was typically distilled from wine. Through her research, Rankin found that Dorothea worked on it until she was at least 82 years old. 

“More than any other woman in this book, she portrayed healing as her raison d'être, and there is reason to suspect that the image of the noblewoman healer in the later sixteenth century was greatly influenced by her example,” Rankin wrote. 

More than 400 years after Dorothea’s death, vestiges of the idea that women are responsible for providing healing and medical care remain today.

“It’s all a part of the hidden labor of women that is very much still a topic today,” Rankin said. “None of the women who I looked at are known at all in history. It provides a lesson in history, that we tend to focus on the great men and not the vast quantities of female labor that goes into a lot of what the men are doing.” 

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