Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Jacoba Félicie de Almania, Fourteenth-Century Parisian Doctor

Jacoba Félicie, a Medieval Medical Practitioner (verdict issued 22 November 1322)

On 11 August 1322, Jacoba Félicie was cited for illegally practicing medicine by an official of the Bishop of Paris and the proctor of the dean of the medical faculty at the University of Paris.*

The proceedings took place over the course of the next few months, the records of her case preserved in the Cartulary of the University of Paris: "Witnesses were brought . . . in the inquisition made at the instance of the masters in medicine at Paris against Jacoba Félicie and others practicing the art of medicine and surgery in Paris and the suburbs without the knowledge and authority of the said masters, to the end that they may be punished, and that the practice be forbidden them. . . ."

Manuscript illustration of 
a female healer, 14th century
(MS 544, Miscellanea Medica XVIII,
from Wellcome Collection, London)
Among those providing evidence for the prosecution of Jacoba Félicie was John of Padua, a physician and one-time surgeon to King Philip IV of France. He claimed that "penalties and prohibitions" against those practicing medicine illegally had existed for more than sixty years. 

According to his testimony, Jacoba Félicie was "ignorant of the art of medicine," not having been "approved as competent in those things which she presumed to treat." He also asserted that she was "not lettered," presumably unable to read or write.

Evidence presented by the prosecution said that Félicie had "visited many sick persons afflicted with grave illness," diagnosed them, promised to make them well again, "visited them often," and prescribed various medications for them. She charged them money for her services. And she did all this despite the fact that "she has not been approved in any official studium at Paris or elsewhere. . . ."

A number of witnesses, both men and women, offered testimony on her behalf. One man who was questioned about her said that he had been "suffering from a certain sickness in his head and ears," and that Félicie had shown him "great care" and cured him. 

Another of the witnesses, one who had been treated by many "masters in medicine," consulted Jacoba Félicie, who treated him with such "great care" that he was "completely restored to health." She hadn't made any "contract" with him about her services--instead, he "paid as he wished when he got well."

When questioned, a female witness said that she had been "seized" by a terrible fever and sought help from "many physicians." But she became so "weighed down" with her illness that "the said physicians gave her up for dead." But Félicie had cured her "of the said illness."

In Félicie's defense, her counsel also noted there were many practicing medicine on a daily basis in Paris who did not have licenses--and that the "law" being used against her had no validity, being merely a "mandate" that had been asserted but never a legally established statute. 

To the prosecution's argument that "penalties of fines and excommunication" had been levied against "ignorant and illicit" medical practioners for more than sixty years, Jacoba Félicie defended herself. She said that the law was old, that sixty years was long before she was born (according to the record, "she is young, thirty years or thereabouts"), and thus all the "ignorant women" and "inexperienced fools" the law had been aimed at were long dead. She was not one of them. 

MS 544, Miscellanea Medica XVIII,
from Wellcome Collection, London)
Moreover, her defense added, it was surely better for a woman to examine and care for female patients than a male doctor--and surely it was also better for a woman to to examine and care for a male patient who "dare not reveal" all the details of his illness to a male doctor. It was altogether a "lesser evil" to allow a woman to "exercise the office of practice" than it was to let sick patients die. 

In the end, however, the case was decided without any examination of Jacoba's expertise and experience but for an altogether different reason, one that had been argued by John of Padua: since a woman couldn't practice law, couldn't even provide evidence in a criminal case, it was obvious that she couldn't practice medicine either. This argument by analogy seems to have been what determined the case.

According to the final verdict against her, issued 22 November 1322: "Her plea that she cured many sick persons whom the aforesaid master could not cure ought not to stand, and is frivolous, since it is certain that a man approved in the aforesaid art could cure better than any woman."

And so, despite the witnesses in her defense and Jacoba Félicie's own arguments, she was found guilty, fined heavily, and threatened with excommunication if she continued to practice medicine. 

This is all we know of Jacoba Félicie--if she was about thirty years old at the time of her trial, she would have been born in the last decade of the thirteenth-century, but where is unknown. Nor is there information in the surviving documents where she might have gained her medical experience. She was never tested about her knowledge during the proceedings--nor was she ever given the chance to prove whether she was "not lettered."

Nor is it known whether she gave up practicing medicine, remaining in Paris, or moved on. 

I've linked above to the two most substantial articles about Jacoba Félicie, Pearl Kibre's "The Faculty of Medicine at Paris, Charlatanism, and Unlicensed Medical Practices in the Later Middle Ages" (1953) and Monica Green's "Getting to the Source: The Case of Jacoba Felicie . . . "  (2006). Both are excellent--Kibre's covers other cases and provides the cases made by prosecution and defense, Green’s focusing on the arguments made in Felicie’sdefense.  

You may also enjoy W. L. Minkowski's "Women Healers of the Middle Ages: Selected Aspects of Their History" (1992) for a brief overview of women as medical practitioners.

*Three other women were charged (as were two men) and condemned for practicing medicine: Johanna, identified as convert, Margarita de Ypra, identified as a surgeon, and Belota, identified as a Jew. All three women received the same penalty as Jacoba Félicie.