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A Woman’s Touch: A Brief History of Healing Hands

“Touch” from the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series representing the five senses
“Touch” from the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series representing the five senses and woven around 1500 in Flanders. Detail. Musée de Cluny—Musée national du Moyen ge, Paris. Photo by Thesupermat / CC BY-SA.

Shortly after my daughter made her debut into this world, the doctor placed her slippery body on my bare chest. It had been a rocky delivery, so my recollections are somewhat hazy, but that moment will forever be etched in my sensorial memory. Like lots of first-time moms, I had read about “skin to skin” contact as an important first bonding moment, but nothing could have prepared me for that unbelievable feeling of warmth and relief. Nearly five years have passed and I’m still in awe of how her hugs have the power to reenergize me. These days, I’m all the more conscious of her touch—and of her father’s too—and deeply grateful for both as we shelter in place together. I’ve come to realize that one of the many things I’ve been mourning since Covid-19 has changed our lives is the ability to connect with other human beings on a physical level. I miss kissing familiar cheeks and shaking new hands, and even the accidental brushes with strangers that used to annoy me. Most of all, I miss being able to hug loved ones who are far away and vulnerable, especially since I have no idea when I will see them next.

I’ve come to realize that one of the many things I’ve been mourning since Covid-19 has changed our lives is the ability to connect with other human beings on a physical level.

It’s one of life’s ironies that touch is scientifically recognized as having a positive effect on the immune system and yet can be deadly, as in our current circumstances. The vital importance of staying away from others and being mindful of where we place our hands—including our own faces—has had me thinking about the historical importance of touch in relation to healing, and more specifically of women’s role in the matter. As we hunker down, it becomes clear that in many households, women still tend to be the primary “healers” (among the myriad jobs they hold), whose duties are scarcely limited to feeling warm foreheads and applying Band-Aids. This tradition has deep roots in the west, extending to a time when becoming a doctor was impossible for women but the medical profession was not yet so complex and specialized that it couldn’t be performed by amateurs for their community at little or no cost. The case of Jacoba Felice de Almania is insightful in this respect. Tried in Paris in 1322, Jacoba was accused of various acts then considered the purview of (male) physicians, such as examining urine, feeling the pulse, and palpating the bodies of patients, despite being illiterate and lacking the proper credentials. Although several witnesses testified that they had been cured by Jacoba, the medical faculty pointed to her gender as proof of her scientific inferiority. Jacoba counterargued that her gender was an asset since an ailing woman should have the right to be examined by another woman rather than suffer the touch of a man on her feet, abdomen, and breasts. Despite her appeal to let her keep helping women preserve the secrets of their “hidden parts,” Jacoba was found guilty and banned from ever practicing medicine again.

Hans Baldung Grien, The Bewitched Groom
Hans Baldung Grien, The Bewitched Groom, around 1544. Woodcut print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The threat of a woman’s touch is implicit in Jacoba’s trial, and that fear manifested itself time and again in a variety of contexts. First published in Strasbourg in 1487, the “Hammer of Witches” was an immensely popular text that encouraged people to identify and eliminate witches, helping to fuel accusations against marginalized women, including folk healers. The text warns that witchcraft could take many forms; even a witch’s simple touch or her laying hands “curiously” on a man or beast would be enough to cause harm. What might have started out as a healing stroke could thus be cast as a destructive gesture and used as a pretext for punishment and purging.

Queen Mary I practicing the royal touch to alleviate scrofula.
Queen Mary I practicing the royal touch to alleviate scrofula. Attributed to Levina Teerlinc. Illumination from Queen Mary’s Manual for blessing cramp rings and touching for the evil, 1553–1558. Detail. Westminster Cathedral Archives.

The political dimension of touch becomes especially apparent when considering a special ritual exercised by French and English monarchs for centuries. The “royal touch” was a practice by which a ruler, having received healing powers as a divine gift, would “cure” subjects simply by laying hands on them. The primary disease targeted was scrofula, a form of tuberculosis that affects the lymph nodes and often goes into remission on its own. In England, touching for scrofula was not only a right of kings but of queens as well. Among these was Queen Mary I, who may be seen placing her hands on a kneeling patient in a miniature by court artist Levina Teerlinc. The image is part of a manuscript painted by Teerlinc that describes how the ritual was carried out by Mary’s famed father, King Henry VIII. Linking Mary’s image as a healer to a text describing her father’s practice of touching for scrofula was a way for her to cement her power by legitimizing her position and divine authority. For Mary’s half-sister and rival, Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, touching for scrofula enabled her to prove her miraculous, God-given powers even as her enemies argued that she had lost them when she was expulsed from the Catholic Church.

These days, too many people are losing loved ones without being able to say goodbye, let alone share a last embrace.

Of course, not everyone had access to a queen’s touch. For those suffering from scrofula and other skin ailments, there was a more gruesome option popular among people of humble means in 18th and 19th-century England. It involved seeking out the corpse of a freshly executed convict and placing his hand on the sufferer’s affliction for treatment. The notion that a dead person’s body held curative powers was anchored in the medical doctrines of Paracelsus and Galen, but why a criminal profile might have offered added benefit remains a matter of debate. It may have had something to do with a desire to give social transgressors one last chance at redemption.

South Netherlandish, Reliquary bust of Saint Balbina
South Netherlandish, Reliquary bust of Saint Balbina, around 1520–30. Oak, paint, gilt. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

No musings on historical body parts, touch, and healing would be complete without mention of relics. Central to the Catholic veneration of saints is the notion that the bodies of holy individuals, and even the objects they touched, are invested with special powers. In the 12th century, for example, the Benedictine Monastery of Notre-Dame de Soissons in France counted among its possessions a slipper worn by the Virgin Mary. The nuns instituted a ritual in which the patients they cared for were to kiss the holy shoe to heal their ergotism, a debilitating disease caused by eating rotten rye. While the touching of relics by laypeople did occur, it was technically forbidden, which gave rise to the creation of spectacular receptacles to hold sacred fragments. Among the most striking of these reliquaries are ones that take the shape of the busts of female saints, and which often contain a “window” through which a relic might be glimpsed. While the treasures they contained might not, the reliquaries could be touched, providing the faithful with a tactile dimension to their saintly worship.

These days, too many people are losing loved ones without being able to say goodbye, let alone share a last embrace. I think about that a lot. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been craving physical contact so much, and that I’ve been glad for any opportunity to get it, like when my daughter comes to me requesting that I heal a bumped elbow or other “booboo.” I’ve been practicing “magic” on her minor scrapes since she was barely walking, which translates to saying a “spell,” rubbing the affected area and kissing it. The other day I noticed her going through the same motions to cure her stuffed animal and mentioned that she could become a doctor or a vet someday if she likes. “There’s nothing quite like a woman’s touch,” I told her, and then cupped her chin for as long as she let me.