‘Useful’ Old Women: ageing women in the dual role of patient and caregiver in early modern England, by Amie Bolissian

How did the older gentlewomen healers and caregivers of early modern England feel about providing hands on care when suffering illness and infirmity themselves? Amie Bolissian provides a historical perspective on being an ageing and infirm carer. [Content Warning: injury detail]

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Despite being disparaged as ‘quacksalvers’, or marginalised, witch-like ‘crones’ by qualified doctors, ‘old women’ played a crucial role in the care of patients at every level in Tudor and Stuart cities, towns, and villages. Most of these women were also usually suffering from some sort of illness or infirmity themselves. Why did these ailing women continue to care for the sick into their old age? Some, of course, may have needed the income for everyday subsistence. Parish records have shown that poor women with ‘nursekeeping’ experience might be pressured into caring for patients by the authorities, on pain of losing their own poor relief of money and food.[1] But what of wealthier older women, who cared for patients in their families and communities while also suffering from disease or disability? These women were entirely capable of paying for others to provide care, but they chose to persist, working on through feelings of fear, ‘grief’, pain, and discomfort. Why might this have been? Affection for an ailing relative may have played a part, and a feeling of duty towards kin and friends, but my research into diaries and letters has also revealed the particular importance of feeling ‘useful’.

An example of this can be found in the extensive writings of English gentlewoman Lady Anne Halkett (1623-1699), who suffered from extremely painful kidney stones, a chronic cough, and breathing problems but continued to care for the sick up until months before her death aged seventy-six. Former courtier and staunch royalist, Halkett was schooled in medicine and surgery by her mother – Jane Drummond Murray, previous governess to King Charles I’s children – and treated patients for most of her life. This included stints during the civil war, and within her community in Fife, Scotland, where she lived with her husband until he died at age sixty, then as a widow for a further 29 years.

 

Wax figure of Lady Anne Halkett at her desk in Abbots House, Dunfermline, Wikimedia Commons

Halkett made and distributed remedies, but her ‘meditations’ reveal that she also provided in-person care, day and night. Descriptions of her attending patients, including her own son, as she entered her seventies, show the toll that could take on her health – causing neck pain, cramps and worse. In 1696, at the age of seventy-three, she described a charitable care visit one evening but explained that, while she had little ‘paine or sickness’ at the time, after supper her painful ‘fitt of the stone… grew so much worse as I could get noe rest’. She eventually passed the stone, described as ‘a Pea & sharpe att one end’, and felt much better, but she directly linked her relapse with her caring labours.[2]

Directly after her ‘fit of the stone’, she wrote that she had declined to take in a sickly child for care because, as she put it, ‘I absolutely refused […] in the reason of my old Age & unfittnese to undertake new trouble of others when I had so mych of my owne’, referring also to her substantial debts. But then she had a change of heart. The pious Protestant wrote that she began to interpret the petition to help the child as a sign from God. ‘Perhaps’, she wrote, ‘the Lord in his Providence had sent this occation to lett mee see hee would have mee still continue to bee usefull to others.’ The word useful appears twice in this passage, and she also refers to her practice as doing God’s work.[3]

An old woman wearing a black veil; head and shoulders. Etching by or after Rembrandt van Rijn, 1631. Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

While the term ‘useful’ does not (curiously) appear in the King James Bible, the notion of being of use and in service to God was commonly expressed. ‘Useful’ as applied to a person appeared with greater and greater frequency in Protestant religious commentary over the seventeenth century. The theologian Richard Steele’s 1688 Discourse on Old Age suggested that before decrepitude set in, old age might even be considered the ‘best parcel of our Life’, because ‘our impetuous Passions being already spent, we are furnished by great experience to be very useful’.[4] Halkett may have felt that, as long as she maintained her ‘usefulness’ in her medical care-work, she might avoid entering the culturally dreaded decrepitude of extreme old age – what a contemporary diarist of hers, Lady Sarah Cowper, called the bitter ‘dreggs’ of life and what is now often referred to as ‘the fourth age’.[5]

Early English Books Online, Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary

Yet there were other routes to feeling useful for ageing women in early modern devout Protestant culture. Printed religious discourse, following the teachings of Cicero, assured the aged that, despite being infirm and unable to work as they formerly had, they could turn to studious, religious contemplation, edifying reading and writing, and a pious preparation for death – thereby avoiding ‘idleness’ which was considered a gateway shrug to sin. When describing the ideal old man, Steele recommended that ‘Aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in Faith, in Charity, in Patience’, but added, ‘The aged Women likewise, &c.’[6] As customarily found in published works, ‘old women’ were an addendum, an afterthought, a postscript, inhabiting the &c. This also occurred in texts on women’s health, where postmenopausal women past childbearing were found relegated to parentheses and consigned to caveats. On the rare occasions that old women were addressed in spiritual literature, they were urged to be exemplars for younger women. The cleric and author Thomas Becon, used the image of a mirror, claiming the ‘dutie of olde women’ was to ‘shew themselves … naturall myrrours of all godlines and honestie’.[7] To be useful, they could erase their own decrepit, post-menopausal, post-protagonist body by becoming a reflective surface representing a purely spiritual ideal for the reproductive-age women who mattered.

Page from Lady Anne Halkett’s ‘Meditations’, Image: Public Domain, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/autobiography-of-lady-anne-halkett

As a devout, literate woman with visibility, and some means (despite her debts) Anne Halkett had access to these forms of cultural identity and validation in old age. Nonetheless, despite her prodigious efforts in spiritual writing and religious practices, something about her medical ministry still called to Halkett, and made her feel that she was truly the ‘worke’ of God’s ‘owne hands’.[8] It appears her characterisation of ‘usefulness’ was far more active and embodied than that recommended by religious doctrine.

My research has shown me that there is no doubt ageing women like Halkett, and others, believed their medical care-work was hazardous to their health and emotions, but the desire to be ‘useful’ to God, those they loved, and the wider community seems to have compelled them to continue. In a cultural context which largely ignored, vilified, or ridiculed older women, unless you were the actual Queen of England (and even then… ), they may well have gained a valued identity and sense of continuing relevance from their medical roles.

Amie Bolissian is a Wellcome-funded PhD Candidate researching ageing patients in early modern England, examining medical understandings of old age and the experiences of sick older people from c.1570-1730.

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  1. See: Harkness, Deborah E., ‘A View from the Streets : Women and Medical Work in Elizabethan London: Women, Health, and Healing in Early Modern Europe’, Bulletin of the history of medicine, 82/1 (2008), 52-85, 66; Munkhoff, Richelle, ‘Poor women and parish public health in sixteenth-century London’, Renaissance studies, 28/4 (2014), 579-96, 587; Wear, Andrew, ‘Caring for the sick poor in St Bartholomew’s Exchange, 1580-1679’, Medical History; Supplement, 11 (1991), 41-60, 46. Also: Pelling, Margaret (ed.), The Common Lot : Sickness, Medical Occupations and the Urban Poor in Early Modern England (London: Longman, 1998), Ch.8: 179-202.
  2. National Library of Scotland, Halkett, Lady Anne, ‘Meditations’ NLS MSS.6489-6502 (Mid seventeenth century), MS 6501, fol.246.
  3. Halkett, Lady Anne, ‘Meditations’, MS 6501, fol.249.
  4. Steele, Richard, A discourse concerning old-age tending to the instruction…of aged persons (London, 1688), 11.
  5. Kugler, Anne, The Diary of Sarah, Lady Cowper, eds Lynn Botelho and Susannah R. Ottaway, 8 vols. (The History of Old Age in England, 1600-1800, 7; London, 2009), 87; Gilleard, Chris and Higgs, P., ‘Aging without agency: Theorizing the fourth age’, Aging & Mental Health, 14/2 (2010/03/01 2010), 121-28..
  6. Steele, Richard, A discourse, title page.
  7. Becon, Thomas, The sycke mans salve, (London: 1561), unpaginated.
  8. Halkett, Lady Anne, ‘Meditations’, MS 6501, fol.246.

“The master whished to reproduce”: The (Forced) Reproduction of Enslaved Life in the Antebellum South, 1808-1865′, by Aisha Djelid

“When my babe was born, they said it was premature. It weighed only four pounds; but God let it live. I heard the doctor say I could not survive till morning. I had often prayed for death; but now I did not want to die, unless my child could die too. Many weeks passed before I was able to leave my bed. I was a mere wreck of my former self. For a year there was scarcely a day when I was free from chills and fever. My babe also was sickly. His little limbs were often racked with pain. Dr. Flint continued his visits, to look after my health; and he did not fail to remind me that my child was an addition to his stock of slaves.”

– Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861)

Spring and Easter is a time of year that many begin to ruminate on new beginnings and the circle of life. Chicks, bunnies, and lambs are the general motif of this new life. However, for enslaved people in the pre-Civil War US South, life cycles and reproduction were a daily concern within plantation communities, with many enslavers comparing enslaved people to livestock such as cows, calves, horses, and pigs. Slaveholders actively encouraged their enslaved ‘property’ to reproduce by cajoling, threatening, and coercing them into intimate relationships. Enslavers then either sold or exploited the children born of these sexual relationships for labor, earning themselves a profit. In this way, enslaved women were both producers and reproducers of slavery, and these children also grew up to unwillingly follow in their parents’ footsteps. This was known, at the time, as ‘slave-breeding’, but will be referred to here as ‘forced reproduction.’

Houghton, G. H., photographer. (1862) Family of slaves at the Gaines’ house. Hanover County Virginia, 1862. [Hanover County, Virginia] [Photograph], Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Forced reproduction manifested itself in the emphasis on what enslavers deemed ‘healthy’ and ‘strong’ infants absorbed into slavery. A 1662 law originating in Virginia, known as partus sequitur ventrem, meant that children followed the status of the mother. So, if the mother was free, so too were her children. But if the mother was enslaved, her children inherited the same status. By reproducing, enslaved men and women increased the enslaved workforce, which was especially important after 1808 when the international slave trade ban came into force. Enslavers could no longer traffic people from West Africa, and so had to concentrate on the internal market and ‘natural growth’. Thus, enslavers coerced enslaved men and women to procreate, supervised their children’s exercise and diet in an attempt to control their growth, and raised them as laborers and commodities to be sold on the market.

Harriet Jacobs (1894)

The above quotation from Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) demonstrates the different motivations enslaved parents and enslavers had for the survival and health of children (1). Harriet worried for the wellbeing of her premature baby, praying for his recovery and growth. Dr Flint (whose real name was actually Dr James Norcom) saw Harriet’s baby not as a sick infant, but ‘an addition to his stock of slaves.’ Harriet later wrote that her children ‘grew finely’, and that Norcom often remarked to her ‘with an exulting smile, “These brats will bring me a handsome sum of money one of these days.”’ Enslavers shrewdly calculated the life of enslaved children. As they grew older, they grew more valuable, and enslaved boys and men were valued higher at market than girls and women.

However, the commodification and marketisation of ‘breeding women’ – enslaved women either at the prime of their fertile lives or who had already proven to birth multiple children – were a more complicated story. Some enslavers preferred to avoid purchasing particularly fertile women as they could not labor as productively in the fields due to their pregnant state and were reduced to what was known as a ‘half-hand’, rather than a full hand. Others, however, saw potential in fertile women, and valued women that produced lots of children as they were reproducing the workforce with their ‘natural increase’, and thus increasing the number of slaves that could be sold or exploited through labor. Thus, the value of these ‘breeding women’ at auction varied depending on whether enslavers viewed these women as the creator of potential lives and profit. In particular, slaveholding women saw value in these ‘breeding women’, and financially savvy white women purchased them with the intent to exploit their ‘future increase.’ (2)

The children born of relationships forced by slaveholders were kept under the watchful eye of their enslavers, and white men and women often took them away from their parents and into the ‘Big House’ to utilize them as domestic ‘servants’ and keep a close eye on them. Many enslavers also carried out a feeding regime by forcing the children to eat from long troughs, not unlike those they used to feed livestock. In this way, enslavers systematically controlled what and when children ate. Slaveholding women also gave the children medicine such as ‘Jerusalem Oak’ to cure parasites like worms, and forced them to run around the plantation, and engaging in races to see who the fittest was. All of this was to make sure that the children grew up to fit their specifications for the labor they intended them to carry out (3).

Many of these enslaved girls and boys were singled out as potentially productive producers and reproducers. Just as their enslavers had forced their parents to reproduce the labor force, they also forced the next generation to do so, too. Slaveholders forced mothers and fathers to witness their children experience the same violent and traumatic ordeal that they did – forced reproduction. Some enslaved men and women resisted forced reproduction through what has been termed ‘reproductive resistance’ – the use of natural contraceptives, long periods of nursing, abortions, and infanticide (4). However, those who did not choose or were unable to carry out this method of resistance witnessed their enslavers forcibly march their children down the same path they themselves were forced down. Life cycles and the reproduction of life was thus a huge part of enslaved peoples’ day-to-day lives in the early- to mid-nineteenth century (5).

(1) Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (Boston, 1861) https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html

(2) Stephanie Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (Yale University Press, 2019).

(3) Easter Wells, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 13, Oklahoma, (1936), https://www.loc.gov/item/mesn130/, p. 318.

(4) For works on reproductive resistance see: Thelma Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women Had to Go Through a Plenty”: Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women,’ Journal of Women’s History, 1 (1990)45–74; Liese M. Perrin, “Resisting Reproduction: Reconsidering Slave Contraception in the Old South,” Journal of American Studies, 35 (2001), 255–74; Emily West with Erin Shearer, ‘Fertility Control, Shared Nurturing, and Dual Exploitation: The Lives of Enslaved Mothers in the Antebellum United States’, Women’s History Review, 27(2018), 1006-1020.

(5) For more on forced reproduction see: Gregory Smithers, Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History, (University Press of Florida, 2001); Thomas Foster, Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men, (University of Georgia Press, 2019).

Aisha Djelid is a second year PhD student at the University of Reading, currently researching her thesis on forced reproduction in the Antebellum South. Her work explores the intersection of race and gender and considers how while enslaved people were raising their families, enslavers were raising them as bodies for exploitation. Aisha is also a postgraduate representative for the association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH), and co-convenor of the Reading Gender and Sexuality Research Network.