"Be unto me as a precious ointment": Lady Grace Mildmay, Sixteenth-Century Female Practitioner

“Be unto me as a precious ointment”: Lady Grace Mildmay, Sixteenth-Century Female Practitioner

By Jennifer Wynne Hellwarth

Dynamis, Vol. 19 (1999)

Abstract: Lady Grace Mildmay’s manuscripts represent an unusual presentation of three interrelated areas of family, devotion, and medicine. By examining her autobiography, meditations, and medical papers, I draw together literary analysis and discourses of female devotional and social practices with that of medical discourses to illustrate the ways in which women practitioners may have acquired and disseminated medical knowledge, and interacted with their patients, as well as how Lady Mildnay, and presumably other landed women practitioners, formed a textual community of women who administerd medical treatment to lay people in late sixteenth-century England.

Introduction: The papers of Lady Grace Mildmay (1552-1620), which include an autobiography, meditations, and medical documents, are an extraordinary collection of manuscripts which give invaluable evidence of the long-suspected participation of women as “non-professional” practitioners of medicine in late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth century England. Her papers also give us a unique insight into the devotional experiences of a Protestant woman in the period when Protestantism was coming into its own. Lady Grace Mildmay’s papers, then, provide a complex view of the connection between what may seem to be three disparate areas of inquiry: devotional, medical, and literacy practices of a landed and elite, but not courtly, Elizabethan woman.

Drawing together social and medical history with literary analysis, I want to argue that this collection of papers, which Mildmay self-consciously organized and presented to her daughter and three granddaughters, indicates the way in which female textual communities functioned in relationship to the transmission of literacy, devotional practices, and medical knowledges. In the case of landed women like Mildmay, these three discourses were interrelated. Her papers suggest an extraordinary knowledge of what she calls “physic” (medicine), while her meditations show the ways in which this knowledge informed her devotional practice. Further, these manuscripts convene to implicate Lady Grace Mildmay’s own role in the spread of Protestantism at least to her daughter and grandchildren through her medical, maternal, and devotional practices. That is to say, her papers reveal a method of the transference of medical and devotional knowledge and practice among women seldom documented at such length. One need only observe the ways in which devotional and medical readings took place side by side in Lady Grace Mildmay’s educational routine and daily life, how images of medicine and physic are imbricated in her meditations, and how her medical papers align illness with impediments of the soul, to understand the close relationship these discourses had in her life.

Click here to read this article from Dynamis

Click here to read The Autobiography of Grace, Lady Mildmay 

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