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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


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

Part II students' guide: BBS options

Paper manager: Dániel Margócsy

Lectures are held in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

Michaelmas Term
Early Medicine: An Introduction
Philippa Carter (1), Dániel Margócsy (1), Emma Spary (2)
Fri 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Traditions of Knowledge and Healing
Philippa Carter (4)
Tue 12noon (weeks 5–8)
Lent Term
Topics in the Social History of Medicine
Philippa Carter (3), Emma Spary (1)
Fri 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Global Natures in the Age of Exploration
Dániel Margócsy (4)
Tue 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Islamic and Chinese Medicine
Mary Brazelton (2), Dror Weil (2)
Fri 12noon (weeks 5–8)
Early Modern and Enlightenment Medicine and Natural History
Emma Spary (4)
Tue 12noon (weeks 5–8)

Why did people learn about human sexuality well into the 19th century from a book titled Aristotle's Masterpiece? What are the connections between medicine and enslavement? Do we need pictures to learn what the human body looks like? What as the reception of Galen in India? What is Enlightenment? How traditional is Chinese Traditional Medicine? And how should we write a medical history of worms? These are some of the questions that this paper asks.

The Early Medicine paper considers medical knowledge and healing practices before 1800, and it covers a wide geographical space, focusing on a number of different societies. We examine how physicians, healing women, midwives and men and women from a variety of backgrounds thought about life and death, the natural world and the human body. We study what methods, media and instruments they used to study these phenomena. We also examine the institutions, practices and networks of healing and knowledge production.

We examine continuities and discontinuities in the history of medicine to learn how people over two millennia hoped to understand and transform the human and natural world. We critically examine what it means to study early medicine from a global perspective, with examples ranging from early Ming China through Mughal India to colonial Latin America. Last, but not least, we pay special attention to the question of how historical knowledge is produced. How do historians evaluate archival and printed sources, and how can one write a history of material objects, such as 18th-century obstetric models or exotic snakes bottled in a jar?


Aims and learning outcomes

  • to encourage students to explore the medical ideas and practices of the ancient, medieval and early modern periods including:
    • medicine and pharmaceutics
    • healing, the preservation of health, and the processes of dying
    • vernacular modes of knowledge production
    • concepts of the body
    • sexual and racial diversity;
  • to acquaint students with some of the fundamental themes in the interpretation of pre-modern medicine, including a consideration of:
    • sites and institutions of learning
    • the social and geographical constraints of healing and knowledge production
    • literacy, material culture, and communicating knowledge
    • the transmission of practices and knowledges across cultures
    • interactions between customers, patients, and producers in medical and scientific marketplaces
    • classifications of medical knowledge
    • evidence, interpretation and historiography;
  • to encourage students to engage critically with evidence, textual, visual and material;
  • to encourage students to explore the continuity and changes of scientific and medical institutions, methods, and ideas across cultures and time periods.



Early Medicine: An Introduction

Philippa Carter, Dániel Margócsy, Emma Spary (4 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

These lectures provide an overview of European medicine before 1800. We will examine ways in which medical encounters and healing took place in a variety of sites. We will also examine how Greek and Arab medicine, anatomy and natural philosophy were foundational to learned medical theory and practices, and how these ancient and medieval views came under attack. The lectures address the political, social and spatial structuring of medical provision to address the political structures underlying healthcare in the period. We will study how different practitioners were trained and how they interacted both with each other and their patients.

Traditions of Knowledge and Healing

Philippa Carter (4 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

These lectures explore some of the key systems of thought and belief which underpinned the practice of medicine in Europe and its colonies before c. 1800. We will focus on the models which helped early modern people to manage and make sense of their bodies, their environments, and their experiences of illness. Each lecture offers an introduction to one or more explanatory frameworks: humoralism, theories of disease transmission, astrology, and belief in spirits. Traversing the centuries between c. 1400 and 1800, we will consider how, when, and why these traditions of knowledge and healing overlapped, competed, diverged, and (in some cases) died out.

Topics in the Social History of Medicine

Philippa Carter, Emma Spary (4 lectures, Lent Term)

These lectures examine how to write a social history of medicine that includes both learned and vernacular traditions and professional and domestic settings. It examines how medicine was practised in early modern households, with a special focus on issues of gender and sexual reproduction. We also reflect on the practices of historical research. We critically evaluate what biases printed, archival, visual and material sources of evidence bring to the study of the past, and what interpretive techniques need to be applied to the study of such sources. We discuss how different sources are available for the study of elite, learned, vernacular and/or medical practices in the period.

Global Natures in the Age of Exploration

Dániel Margócsy (4 lectures, Lent Term)

These lectures examine the construction of nature in early modern global encounters. We study how ideas about health, the human body and nature emerged during the (often forced) encounters of different traditions of knowledge-making across the Atlantic and Indian Ocean world. We discuss different models of encounter, medical and scientific studies of race, the emergence of colonial medicine and the role of commerce and empire.

Islamic and Chinese Medicine

Mary Brazelton, Dror Weil (4 lectures, Lent Term)

These lectures offer an overview of medicine in the early Chinese and Islamic worlds. We will consider basic concepts of the body and disease, how efforts to treat and prevent illness arose within such a framework, and how these practices were transformed by new texts, professions and institutions over time. Central themes and case studies will emphasise the ways in which medicine in Chinese and Islamic contexts was characterised by a diversity of practices and pedagogies. We will also consider how medical practitioners in many contexts incorporated ideas, materials and texts from foreign sources.

Early Modern and Enlightenment Medicine and Natural History

Emma Spary (4 lectures, Lent Term)

These lectures and classes continue the topics introduced in the Early Medicine lectures and focus on changes in understanding in the period between 1500 and 1800. During this period important discoveries were made in pharmacies, in alchemical laboratories, in the New World and under microscopes, and we consider the influence of these discoveries on medical theory and practice. In addition to drawing upon learned and vernacular medical, religious and literary texts, we will also consider how medicine became transformed in the course of the long 18th century.


Preliminary reading

Textbooks and monographs:

Biographies and novels:

  • 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