Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Clarice de Rothomago, Accused of Illegally Practicing Medicine in Fourteenth-Century Paris

Clarice de Rothomago (Rouen), medical practitioner (case against her begins 17 January 1312)

In her extended history of women and the practice of medicine, Leigh Whaley notes that during the Middle Ages, "Most commonly, women practising medicine were the daughters of doctors or surgeons, and they were instructed by their fathers of a male relative." Only in exceptional circumstances--if she were living in the right place or at the right time--could a woman receive any kind of formal medical education. 

Manuscript illustration of 
a female healer, 14th century
(MS 544, Miscellanea Medica XVIII,
from Wellcome Collection, London)
If a woman did receive less formal instruction by a family member, she could present a letter "attesting" to her medical knowledge to authorities, be examined by experienced "physicians and surgeons," and receive a license. 

Such was the situation in Paris, for example, where the medical faculty of the University of Paris was eager to limit and regulate those who could practice medicine and equally intent on prosecuting those who were practicing illegally.

In the early fourteenth century, the medical faculty claimed a right to "prosecute unlicensed practitioners" based on "a regulation issued by the bishop's court at Paris" some two centuries earlier--although, as historian Pearl Kibre points out, "no text of such a pronouncement seems to have been found. There is also no apparent evidence that an organized faculty of medicine was functioning in Paris before 1200." Maybe it was meant "just a figure of speech," she says. Right. 

Nevertheless, based on this shaky reference to the existence of an ancient statute, the medical faculty pursued its goal of regulating the practice of medicine. To that end, "An edict of 1311, at the same time that it interdicts unauthorized women from practising surgery, recognizes their right to practise the art if they have undergone an examination before the regularly appointed master surgeons of the corporation of Paris." 

In addition to setting medical standards and to controling the licensing of medical practitioners, this law also granted medical faculty of the university the right to prosecute those who practiced without a medical license. 

And it is practicing medicine without a license that drew attention to Clarice de Rothomogo in 1312. She was charged with "the illegal practice of medicine." (According to Whaley, the "University of Paris was very active in prosecuting illicit medical practitioners.")

According to surviving records, Clarice received her training from her husband, Peter Faverel, who was himself described as as empeiricus, or an "empiric," that is, a medical practitioner without formal instruction or licensing. Hers was among the earliest cases prosecuted by the faculty of medicine at the university--"armed with laws of its own making," the medical faculty proceeded in their efforts to secure "enforcement."

Clarice de Rothomago's case took place over the course of several months, from 17 January 1312 until 15 June. Somehow learning of her activities, the dean of the medical faculty ordered her arrest. Her case was brought before the bishop's court--an ecclesiastical court (faculty and students of the University of Paris were clergy, infractions subject to ecclesiastical rather than civil law). She was sentenced to  excommunication.

Clarice de Rothomago appealed her sentence, but that did not serve her well--her appeal was denied, and it earned her husband, Peter Faverel a sentence of excommunication as well. The sentence further ordered that both Clarice and her husband were to be "denounced in all churches." Anyone who continued to associate with them was to receive the same treatment, excommunication.

But, as Pearl Kibre concludes, "The effectiveness of this ban of excommunication and oral denunciation, applied against Clarice and her husband, as a means of frightening off other unlicensed persons from medical practice, appears to have been slight." 

Among the women in Paris who were punished for the illegal practice of medicine after Clarice were Perronelle l'erbière, in 1319, Jeanne Clarisse, in 1322, and her servant, Agnès Avesot, who seems to have been Jeanne Clarisse's apprentice. Muriel Joy Hughes suggests that a woman charged with the illegal practice of medicine in Paris in 1331 may have been Clarice de Rothomago's daughter. She is described as "filia Clarisse qui moratur ultra pontes, que est totaliter laica" ("the daughter of Clarice who lives beyond the bridges and who is entirely secular"). And, of course one of the most well-known cases that followed Clarice's is that of Jacoba Félicie de Almania, which occurred just a decade later . . . 

Detail from 
MS 544, Miscellanea Medica XVIII,
from Wellcome Collection, London
Further ordinances about illegal medical practitioners were drawn up by the medical faculty in 1322, and a series of appeals were made directly by the faculty of the school of medicine to the pope, "humbly beseech[ing]" his assistance in their efforts--appeals were made in 1325, 1330, 1340, 1347, and 1350. (In 1340, Pope Clement VII threatened not only the illegal practicioners with excommunication, but their patients as well!)

I've linked above to some excellent resources for women medical practitioners in the fourteenth century. They span the decades: Muriel Joy Hughes's Women Healers in Medieval Life and Literature (1943), Pear Kibre's "The Faculty of Medicine at Paris, Charlatanism, and Unlicensed Medical Practices in the Later Middle Ages" in Bulletin of the History of Medicine (1953), Kate Campbell Hurd-Meade's A History of Women in Medicine, from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century (1973), and Leigh Whaley's Women and the Practice of Medical Care in Early Modern Europe, 1400-1800 (2011) Enjoy!

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