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Early Medicine

Minor Subject 113 in Part II Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS)
Specified Subject 11 in Part II of the History Tripos

Part II students' guide: BBS options

Paper managers: Lauren Kassell, Emma Spary

All lectures are held in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

Michaelmas Term
Medieval Science and Medicine
Gabriele Ferrario (4), Gabriella Zuccolin (4)
Tue 12noon (weeks 1–8)
Early Modern Medicine
Lauren Kassell (5), Dániel Margócsy (4), Emma Spary (3)
Fri 12noon (weeks 1–8)
Casebooks Class
Lauren Kassell (1)
Tue 10am–12noon (week 7: 22 November)
Lent Term
Early Modern Medicine
Fri 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Instruments, Books and Collections
Liba Taub (2), Seb Falk (2), Emma Perkins (1), Dániel Margócsy (1)
Optional for History Tripos students
Tue 12noon (weeks 1–6)

This paper covers medical knowledge and practices in the medieval and early modern periods. Themes include tradition, innovation and the transmission of knowledge; the value of reason and experience; patient-practitioner relationships; gender and medicine; pluralism and the marketplace; understandings of the body and disease; medicine, magic and religion.

Aims and learning outcomes

  • to acquaint students with fundamental issues in the historiography of medicine before 1750;
  • to introduce students to the western tradition of medical ideas and practices in the medieval and early modern worlds;
  • to provide students with an understanding of the continuities and changes in the social and cultural institutions in which medicine and healing were embedded from antiquity to the enlightenment;
  • to encourage students to explore notions of the patient-practitioner relationship, the medical marketplace, theoretical and practical knowledge, and definitions of disease.


Medieval Science and Medicine
Gabriele Ferrario, Gabriella Zuccolin (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

In the Mediterranean world Graeco-Roman medicine constituted a shared heritage of learning based on the writings attributed to Hippocrates and Galen. While surviving in fragmentary form in the west this heritage was received in its fullest form and assimilated by the societies of the Islamicate world. In turn Islamic medicine was translated and received in the Latin west in successive waves from the 11th to the 13th centuries. New ways of teaching medicine were developed in the universities, but the basis of medical practice in east and west, and the functioning of the medical marketplace, were remarkably consistent. Topics include scholastic medicine and surgery, diagnosis and prognosis, leprosy, and the experience of being ill in the Middle Ages.

Early Modern Medicine
Lauren Kassell, Dániel Margócsy, Emma Spary (12 lectures, Michaelmas & Lent Terms)

These lectures provide an overview of medicine in early modern Europe (1500–1750). We will examine ways in which Greek and Arab medicine, anatomy and natural philosophy were foundational to medical theory and practices, and how these ancient and medieval views came under attack. Central themes of the course include change and continuity in theories of the body and disease, practices of maintaining health and healing, experiences of patients, and in the broad spectrum of practitioners available. We will study how different practitioners were trained and how they interacted both with each other and their patients. During this period important discoveries were made in anatomical theatres, in alchemical laboratories, in the New World and under microscopes, and we consider their influence on medical theory and practice. In addition to drawing upon learned and vernacular medical, religious and literary texts, we will consider what contemporary visual and material culture can teach us about the history of early modern medicine.

Casebooks Class
Lauren Kassell (1 class, Michaelmas Term)

Between 1596 and 1634 Simon Forman and Richard Napier recorded 80,000 astrological consultations. This is one of the largest surviving sets of medical records in history. While the majority of the cases are about medical questions, matters of health and well-being, personal affairs, romantic interests, worldly affairs, and the occult sciences are also represented. This is a rich resource for the history of dynamics between patients and practitioners and experiences of illness and healing. The Casebooks Project presents a digital edition of Forman's and Napier's records, an image archive of the original manuscripts, and innovative facilities for searching and sorting the corpus. This class introduces these 400-year-old manuscripts and tutors students in using digital humanities to understand them. This is an optional class. It is open to all students and is not formally assessed.

Instruments, Books and Collections
Liba Taub, Seb Falk, Emma Perkins, Dániel Margócsy (6 lectures, Lent Term)

As authors in their own right, it is hardly surprising that historians spend much of their research time in the study of texts. This course of lectures makes the case for the study of the material objects of early scientific and medical culture: the tools used by natural philosophers, astronomers, physicians and others, in their investigation of nature, health and disease. What is a scientific (or medical) instrument? What kind of histories do instruments have, and how can we study them? How was a book produced in the first two hundred years of printing? Does it make a difference to understanding how texts are read to take account of the materiality of books? Did the invention of printing transform the study of nature and the body? What is the relationship between the history of instruments and the history of the book?

Preliminary reading

For online tasters, see The Recipes Project.

For introductions to the subject, see:

  • Porter, Roy, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (London: HarperCollins, 1997)
  • Siraisi, Nancy, Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990)
  • Elmer, Peter (ed), The Healing Arts: Health, Disease and Society in Europe, 1500–1800 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004)

For studies of particular periods, places and practitioners, see:

  • Cook, Harold, Trials of an Ordinary Doctor: Joannes Groenevelt in 17th-Century London (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994)
  • Duden, Barbara, The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor's Patients in 18th-Century Germany, translated by Thomas Dunlap (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991)
  • Fissell, Mary, Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
  • French, Roger, Medicine Before Science: The Rational and Learned Doctor from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • MacDonald, Michael, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety and Healing in 17th-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)
  • Park, Katharine, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation and the Origins of Human Dissection (New York: Zone Books, 2006)
  • Pelling, Margaret, The Common Lot: Sickness, Medical Occupations and the Urban Poor in Early Modern England (London: Longman, 1998)
  • Pomata, Gianna, Contracting a Cure: Patients, Healers and the Law in Early Modern Bologna (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998)
  • Siraisi, Nancy, The Clock and the Mirror: Girolamo Cardano and Renaissance Medicine (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997)

For further reading, see:

  • Manzoni, Alessandro, The Betrothed (1827)
  • Pears, Iain, An Instance of the Fingerpost (London: Jonathan Cape, 1997)
  • Tomalin, Claire, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (London: Viking, 2002)

Resources for Early Medicine on Moodle