Historical essay
Oscillating and Depreciating: Early Modern Spanish Views of Unsanctioned Female Healers

Oscillating and Depreciating: Early Modern Spanish Views of Unsanctioned Female Healers

Edward Anthony Polanco

Antonio asks, “Do you believe that God will burn all of the sinners forever and ever when they die?”

Si,” replies his uncle Pedro as their old truck bumbles past a brothel where several women are hanging their laundry. While Antonio makes eye contact with one of the women hanging her clothes, he asks his uncle, “Do you think if God was a woman, she would forgive them? Like the Virgin Mary, she forgave the people who killed her son.” Pedro replies, “I don’t know, Antonio.”

The boy then asks Pedro why he and his siblings had failed to warn Antonio’s family when residents from their small town attempted to attack Ultima, a healing specialist accused of being a bruja (witch), in Antonio’s home. Antonio is particularly troubled because Ultima had recently healed one of his other uncles. Pedro explained that by staying neutral, his family had not passed judgment on anyone. Antonio countered that, by doing nothing, Pedro and his brothers had allowed Ultima’s rivals to pass judgment on her and put her life at risk.

In this scene from the film Bless me, Ultima (2012), the viewer is invited to consider that marginalized and stigmatized women in 1940s New Mexico provided desirable services at the expense of their souls.[1] This scene also underscores that the sick and their families went to great lengths to achieve health, including seeking help from those the town perceived to be nefarious or questionable individuals, such as Ultima. Perhaps in response to this ambivalence, when authorities or vigilantes sought to punish these same healers, the families and individuals they helped stood by silently.

Movie poster for Bless Me Ultima
Promotional image for the film Bless Me, Ultima. (Amazon)

Catholic disdain and intolerance for heterodox practices–remnants of New Mexico’s Spanish colonial past–drives much of the tension in Bless me, Ultima. In fact, it is in the literature of early modern Spain that we can better understand this paradox of people oscillating between seeking unsanctioned healers (untrained or unlicensed medical practitioners) and shunning them. Here, I explore two prominent Spanish plays, Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina (1499) and Miguel de Cervantes’s El Coloquio de los perros (1613), that feature unsanctioned healers. These plays show that these figures engaged in important activities that the public simultaneously coveted and feared. They also provide examples of how the public vacillated between desiring and admonishing women healers’ services. Sources such as these elucidate how the public saw the women that were persecuted and prosecuted as witches (or other related terms). These women knew how to heal the body, assist other women in childbirth, harvest and apply medicinal plants, and cure a broken heart. Yet, they were expendable when authorities or vigilantes sought “justice.”

La Celestina

The central character in Rojas’s play is Celestina, a woman with many occupations – most notably, she was a procuress (a woman who facilitated sexual relationships between men and women), a medicine peddler, and, at times, a midwife. She was described as well-known by the old and young; some labeled her “a bearded old woman…. a sorcerer, astute, keen in all of the evil that exists.”[2] Some claimed she had six vocations: “seamstress, perfumer, master of daubing and making of virgins, a bawd [procuress], and a bit of a sorceress.” Others exaggerated when stressing the diversity of her vocations: “She is a perfumer, she uses mercury, and thirty other professions. She knows a lot about herbs, she cures children, and some call her the old charm seller.”[3] Celestina’s situation speaks to the reality of many unsanctioned healers in the Spanish empire who often found themselves partaking in various trades to support themselves. These passages also suggest that she had diverse skill sets to treat the human body.

Characters in the play also described a shameful side to Celestina’s work. One man claimed that, “everything [Celestina did] was a mockery and lie.”[4] In a disillusioned state and full of anger, a woman yelled, “May you be burned, false procuress, sorceress, enemy of honesty, causer of erroneous secrets.”[5] Moreover, Celestina herself recounted how a man had attacked her by, “…insulting my honor, calling me a sorceress, procuress, false old woman, bearded, evil doer, and other ignominious names, whose titles shock infants.”[6] Thus, we see that people’s attitudes toward Celestina and her work oscillated with the situation. If people needed her help, or if they found her services beneficial, she was palatable. If they feared her or were mad at her as a person, they attacked her knowledge and the legitimacy of her work.

Page from Celestina featuring an illustration
Page from La Celestina in Spanish. (Wikimedia Commons)

Celestina also divulged information about another practitioner that sheds more light on unsanctioned healers. Celestina noted that she worked with a woman who had been a renowned and beloved midwife for sixteen years. The Spanish Inquisition had arrested both her and Celestina multiple times. On one of these occasions, the woman was caught with small candles while obtaining dirt from crossroads, and she was accused of being a witch.[7] As a result, inquisitors placed her on a ladder in the middle of a plaza with a coroza (penitential hat) on her head.[8] Despite her encounters with authorities, the woman never stopped practicing midwifery. Celestina noted that this woman had been misunderstood and mistreated on Earth and she hoped God was repaying her in heaven.[9] Though it is unclear who accused the woman, we can assume it was a member of her community, possibly a person whom she had helped before. Nevertheless, her drive to help people as a midwife – and put food on her table – never wavered.

Readers may interpret La Celestina as a critique on contemporary Catholic persecution of unsanctioned healers. Despite the helpful services unsanctioned healers provided, they were persecuted for heterodox actions and beliefs. Like Ultima and the sex workers in Bless me, Ultima, Celestina’s friend (and by extension Celestina) operated outside of the acceptable moral boundaries set by Church authorities (and followed by the faithful) in their respective societies. While marginalized women’s services were desired, they as people were not.

El Coloquio

Similarly, in El Coloquio de los Perros, Cervantes used a dialogue between two dogs named Berganza and Cipión (witnessed by a man in the final throes of a battle with syphilis) as a rhetorical tool to opine on early modern Spanish culture, including heresy, witchcraft, and honor. Though she is not one of the main characters in El Coloquio, the play continuously makes reference to a woman known as la Camacha. Cervantes based this character on Leonor “la Camacha” Rodríguez, whom the Spanish Inquisition tried and sentenced for witchcraft in 1572.[10] In the play, Cervantes tapped into the general notion that female healers, particularly birth attendants, dangerously traversed the realms of healing, sorcery, and witchcraft.

For instance, while serving as a midwife for Montiela (la Camacha’s student), la Camacha transformed Montiela’s newborn son into a dog. She did this out of jealousy because Montiela was making noticeable gains in skill and knowledge as a bruja (witch). Montiela died in labor and Cañizares, another woman present at the birth, vowed to help the boy, now turned a dog, if she ever encountered him again. This plays on the notion, largely pushed by Catholic authorities, that jealousy and interpersonal conflicts often drove women to sorcery and witchcraft.[11] It also highlights the perceived belief that unsanctioned healers were volatile and could harm those they had agreed to help.

Cañizares eventually met Berganza, who she believed to be the boy la Camacha had turned into a dog. After a monologue in front of Berganza, Cañizares decided to enter an anointed trance before him. Berganza then dragged a bare-skinned Cañizares out into a courtyard exposing her to passersby. One person said, “This old bitch without a doubt is a witch, and she must be anointed, saints never commit such dishonest thefts, and until now between those of us that know her, she is known more as a witch than a saint.”[12] No one offered the old healer any aid and when she finally awoke she furiously chased and attacked Berganza.[13] This scene illustrates that even though Cañizares provided health care to her community, her community did not come to her aid when she was in need. Much like with Ultima and the midwife in la Celestina, Cañizares’s work as a healer did not result in her community assisting her.[14]

Some members of society always distanced themselves from unsanctioned healers and their labor. For example, while Berganza recounted his life story, Cipión (the second talking dog) declared, “La Camacha was a false trickster, and Cañizares a swindler, and Montiela dumb, malicious, and evil, and may I say this with forgiveness, if she was our mother, or at least yours, I do not want her as a mother.”[15] This was in line with a growing trend in late medieval Europe that debased women’s knowledge and privileged male learned knowledge coming from universities.[16] Cipión saw no redeeming quality in these women’s work or knowledge, though perhaps his outlook might have changed if he himself had become sick.

These pieces of literature and film should encourage us to think about how society both uses and values female knowledge, services, and labor, and how use and value did not always intersect. Furthermore, fictional pieces such as these can add context to sources written by ecclesiastical investigators, or other Church authorities, which represent an official view that is often detached from popular perceptions of “magic” and healing. El Coloquio and La Celestina serve as evidence that at least some people in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spain and its overseas colonies saw the relationships between the public and unsanctioned healers as complicated. Some did notice the hypocrisy of oscillating views towards women.


      1. The film is based on the seminal novel by Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya, first published in 1972.
      2. The Spanish reads, “una vieja Barbuda…. hechicera, astuta, sagaz en cuantas maldades ay.” Fernando de Rojas, La Celestina, ed. Dorothy S. Severin in collaboration with Maite Cabello (Madrid: Cátedra, 1987), 103. The Spanish reads, “labrandera, perfumera, maestro de fazer afeytes e de fazer virgos, alcahueta e un poquito hechizera.” Rojas, Severin, and Cabello, La Celestina, 110. For an explanation on afeite, see Sebastián de Covarrubias Orozco, Tesoro de la lengua castellana, o española (Madrid: por Luis Sanchez, 1611), 33 and John Stevens, A New Spanish and English Dictionary (George Sawbridge, 1706), 12. For more information on literature that featured women that were alacahuetas, see Eva Lara Alberola, Hechiceras y brujas en la literatura española de los Siglos de Oro (Universitat de València, 2011), 97.
      3. The original Spanish reads, “señora, perfuma toca, haze solimán (mercury) e otros treinta officios. Conoce mucho en yervas, cura ninos e aun algunos la llaman la vieja lapidaria.” Rojas, Severin, and Cabello, La Celestina, 152. Based on Edith Snook’s work on women and beauty in early Modern England, I am interpreting “hace soliman” as working with cosmetics that contained mercury. Snook notes that mercury was a substance that was only sanctioned for men; when women used the material, it was seen as transgressive. Edith Snook, Women, Beauty and Power in Early Modern England: A Feminist Literary History (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2011), 31-33.
      4. “…todo era burla e mentira.” Rojas, Severin, and Cabello, La Celestina, 113.
      5. The original Spanish reads, “Quemada seas, alcahueta falsa, hechizera, enemiga de onestad, causadora de secretos yerros.” Rojas, Severin, and Cabello, La Celestina, 162.
      6. “…agravando mi osadia, llamandome hechizera, alcahueta, veija falsa, barbuda, malhecora e otros muchos inominiosos nombres, con cuyos titulus asombran a los niños de cuna.” Rojas, Severin, and Cabello, La Celestina, 182.
      7. It is unclear who accused the woman of witchcraft.
      8. Though the text used passive voice it is implied that the Inquisition sentenced the midwife, and lay authorities executed the sentence.
      9. Rojas, Severin, and Cabello, La Celestina, 198-200.
      10. Rafael Gracia Boix, Brujas y hechiceras de Andalucía (Real Academia de Ciencias, Bellas Letras y Nobles Artes de Córdoba, 1991), 185
      11. For examples, see Christopher S. Mackay, The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum (Cambridge University Press, 2009); Martin Antoine Del Rio, Investigations Into Magic (Manchester University Press, 2000); and Francesco Maria Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum (Book Tree, 2004).
      12. The original Spanish reads, “esta puta vieja sin duda debe de ser bruja, y debe de estar untada, que nunca los santos hacen tan deshonesto arrobos, y hasta ahora, entre los que la concemos, mas fama tiene de bruja que de santa.” Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Juan Bautista Avalle-Arce, Novelas ejemplares 2 (Madrid: Castalia, 2010), 317.
      13. Cervantes Saavedra and Avalle-Arce, Novelas ejemplares 2, 318-19.
      14. In the film, the family who Ultima is living with protects her from a mob from the town of El Puerto. Nevertheless, some people who she had healed turned a blind eye.
      15. The Spanish text reads, “Así, que la Camacha fue burladora falsa, y la Cañizares embustera, y la Montiela tonta, maliciosa y bellaca, con perdon sea dicho, si acaso es nuestra madre, de entrambos tuya, que yo no la quiero tener por madre.” Cervantes Saavedra and Avalle-Arce, Novelas ejemplares 2, 321.
      16. Monica H. Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-Modern Gynaecology (Oxford University Press, 2008); Montserrat Cabré, “Women or Healers?: Household Practices and the Categories of Health Care in Late Medieval Iberia,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 82, no. 1 (2008): 18-51.

Featured image caption: Illustration from a manuscript of La Celestina. (Courtesy Fernando de Rojas/Biblioteca Histórica de la Universidad Complutense de Madrid | Wikimedia Commons)

Edward Anthony Polanco is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA.