Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Tribute to Female healers

I'm delighted to welcome Gayle Wilson, another of the Regency Silk & Scandal authors, to Historical Romance UK.
Gayle's book, Claiming the Forbidden Bride is the fourth in the series and tells the story of returning soldier Rhys Morgan and his encounter with Romany beauty Nadya Argentari, her tribe's healer. I was fascinated by the Romany lore Gayle had researched for the book and here is her insight into the world of a female healer.


From prehistoric times man has used substances derived from plants to treat or prevent disease. It is possible that the impetus to do so originally came from watching animals, some of whom seem to know instinctively which flora should be eaten in order to alleviate their ailments. The plants they choose at such times are invariably rich in phytochemicals, now recognized to possess antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties.

Ancient civilizations including those of Egypt, China, and India were well aware of the healing properties of plants and other natural substances such as honey and garlic and used them to treat illnesses and to heal wounds. This valuable knowledge was passed down in both the writings of physicians like Hippocrates as well as in the oral traditions of so-called natural healers.

Although female healers were frequently targeted by the Inquisition as practicing witchcraft, much of their wisdom survived into the modern era. Perhaps the best known examples of plants used by these healers as well as by modern, conventional medicine are foxglove, from which the heart regulator digitalis is derived; willow bark, the original source of the analgesic, fever-reducing, and anti-inflammatory miracle drug aspirin; and the opium poppy, which produces both morphine and codeine.

In Claiming the Forbidden Bride, the Romany heroine Nadya Argentari was trained in such medicinals by her grandmother, and her knowledge of herbal remedies plays a major role in the story. Rhys Morgan, the hero, suffers a recurrence of the malaria he contracted during his military service on the Iberian Peninsula. Nadya successfully treats him with a tea made from bark and castigates the English medical community of the time for persisting in the use of other less effective treatments—such as bleeding, purging or blistering—for the disease.

The fact that the bark of the South American cinchona tree, which contains alkaloid quinine, has the ability to cure malaria was well known in much of the world by the early 19th century, but the antimalarial was not widely used in England. The bark does not cure fevers other than malaria, so doctors dismissed its healing properties altogether. Also, the fact that the Catholic Church, and particularly the Jesuits, touted the bark’s effectiveness worked against its acceptance in Protestant England, as did the teachings of the Greek physician Galen, then considered the ultimate source of medical knowledge by many European doctors.

The nomadic Rom would almost certainly have encountered cinchona bark, which had been imported into Europe as early as the 17th century. Nadya’s grandmother, who was the drabarni or wise woman before her, would undoubtedly have been familiar with the effectiveness of the so-called Peruvian bark against malaria and would surely have passed that knowledge down to her granddaughter.

By featuring these two fictional healers in my novel, I hope in some small way to have paid homage to the tradition of natural medicines and to the women who helped preserve the herbal knowledge of the ancients, even in the face of persecution and scorn from their “educated” peers. We all owe them a great debt.

Thak you for the insight, Gayle! The illustration is by WH Pyne and shows a group of early 19thc Romanies by their camp fire.

Louise Allen

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Elizabeth Hawksley said...

What an interesting post, Louise.

I did some reasearch into the Romany lifestyle for 'The Belvedere Tower'. I found George Borrow's books 'Lavengro' (1851) and 'The Romany Rye' (1857) really useful.

Borrow's account of his wanderings as a young man with the Romany Ambrose Smith and his family, are, perhaps, somewhat over-dramatized, but they give a good picture of what it must have been like to be a gypsy in the 19th century.

I'm sure Gayle must have come across them, too.

10:48 AM  
Blogger kate tremayne said...

It is great to see a post about a heroine who reveres the ancient knowledge of the old healing ways. Gayle has great empathy and knowledge of this intriguing subject.
In the Loveday series Senara, Adam Loveday's wife, learnt her healing from her gypsy grandmother and she also honoured the anciet laws of respecting nature as well as providing remedies to cure the ailments of the poor unable to afford the services of apothecary or physician.

The wise-woman or cunning woman as they were often known faced enormous persecution for their knowledge and many were prosecuted as witches for their skills with herbs.

Such a background for Senara provided a wealth of plotlines for her to overcome persecution and ignorant prejudice. It is a fascinating subject and the depth of Gayle's research truly honours and acknowledges the debt to society and sacrifice these women endured.

CLAIMING THE FORBIDDEN BRIDE is now top of my reading list. I love the title as well. Every success to you Gayle.

10:30 AM  
Anonymous Margaret McPhee said...

Thanks for such a fascinating article, Gayle.

I think most antimalarials today are still quinine based (despite the increased spread of resistance), so Nadya certainly knew a thing or two.

In my lab days I worked with researchers developing antiparasitics from plant extracts, so even today we depend heavily on remedies derived from nature.

Claiming the Forbidden Bride really is a super story and I know some pharmacologists and parasitologists who will enjoy reading it!!

4:25 PM  

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