Review: Mary Chamberlain’s “Old Wives’ Tales: Their History, Remedies and Spells”

by writereaderly

mary chamberlain old wives' talesOriginally published in the early 80s, Chamberlain sets out to make the pop-academic case for the exclusion of women and their traditional knowledge from professionalised medical culture such as we know it, and she succeeds quite well indeed. I’d heard the glib summary “doctors forced wise women out of medicine and instigated surgical hegemony”, but this was the first time I read a comprehensive historical survey which proved the point. Chamberlain researches medicine in classical antiquity (Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc.) then follows the trail to then-contemporary British medical practice; a second section of the book briefly lists traditional remedies, including spells, and compares them to those authorised in the 1979 British Pharmacopoeia*. Her work is thorough, her writing adequate to the task although not beautiful, and I found the work a useful reminder of the capitalist/patriarchal systems (ooh, I dared use those words! And on a general interest blog!) and their impact on women’s oppression. I also found the point that the UK’s Poor Laws “invented” the notions of “charity” and “pauper”, whereas before the poor were integrated members of small rural communities. A useful book, recommended.

* Note for the publisher who merely reissued the original text: I think medicine has advanced just a wee bit since this book was published 30 years ago: an update of this section would have been most useful.

Where it came from: KS’s Bookshelf
Time and manner of reading: Intermittent reads on a waiting-room day, then a learn-in with my local friendly naturopath based on the Remedies section
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of/that: Feminist histories are oh so necessary yet oh so difficult to track down
Who I’d recommend it to: Those wishing to fossick beneath the roots of our current medical system
Also reading: Rabbit #4; How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch; Selected Essays by George Orwell; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; Kalila and Dimna by Ramsey Woods