Women's Medical Secrets

by Renee Hanemann (Vanderbilt University)

Queen Elizabeth I, the queen of England and Ireland in the late 16th century, was a public participant in what was usually considered women's secret, private household medical practice. She helped to create broader public recognition of women's medical knowledge with the publication of "Closset of Secrets." The "secrets" contained in the text were extensive, covering numerous aspects of women's health and beauty. In a segment entitled "The Child Bearer's Cabinet," the text exposed monthly medical instructions for pregnant women, including nutritional information and advice for avoiding imaginary and psychological traumas which might affect the fetus. Additionally, the segment contained post-birth medical instructions, both for the newborn child and the new mother. The main purpose of this selection was to ensure that women of the royal court (among other readers) would make no mistakes in childbearing due to their own ignorance. Thus the queen used her position as queen to educate other women.

Another segment of Elizabeth's "Closset" concerned the Black Plague and Smallpox. Epidemics in London created widespread fear and panic, calling for new medical knowledge. The selection "Treatise Concerning the Plague and the Pox" focused on presenting cures for both illnesses through the use of home remedies and recipes that could ward off contagions and keep the population healthy. In this way, Elizabeth I used her public position to draw connections between the queen's duty to share knowledge and protect her people, and the housewife's duty to use household wisdom to cure her family.

Arnold, Ken. Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

Evans, Robert John Weston. Curiosity and Wonder from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

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  1. Wow, sounds really interesting. How do you even know all those secrets about past historical figures. Who would've thought that Queen Elizabeth would have anything to do with advice on pregnancy.

  2. Elizabeth I never ceases to amaze me. Just when you think you have a handle on her myriad accomplishments, something else pops up. Was there anything she did take an interest in? Truly remarkable woman.

  3. I agree with Cynthia. This is another reason to admire Queen Elizabeth I. :)


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