Medieval Ailments: Healing Others, Misogyny, and Anti-Semitism

Mackenzie Fox, Providence College


The following paper examines Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel, Ivanhoe, which was published in 1814, in terms of the social attitudes persisting during the Middle Ages when the novel takes place. Specifically, the paper analyzes Rebecca, a multi-faceted and subtly heroic character, by placing her into historical context and using the relevant social attitudes to inform her accusation as a witch. Throughout Ivanhoe, Rebecca’s perception as a witch is compounded by her identities as a medical healer, a woman, and a Jew, which accurately reflects the attitudes towards these identities that existed during the European witch hunt in the Middle Ages. Rebecca’s position as a medical healer would warrant suspicion due to her lack of formal medical training, which was caused in part by her identity as a woman, barring her from newly established medical schools. Her identity as a woman would already predispose her to accusations of witchcraft based on the perceived connection between the female reproductive system and witchcraft or the devil. Finally, as a Jew, Rebecca’s culturally distinct medical practices would condemn her as a witch, stemming from persistent anti-Semitism. Overall, Rebecca’s identity as a female medical healer correspond to the factors that fueled hysteria against witches during the Middle Ages, illustrating the extent of how history informs this aspect of Scott’s novel