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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

Michaelmas Term
Early Medicine
Dániel Margócsy (2), Emma Spary (2)
Arts School Lecture Theatre A
Fri 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Global Natures in the Age of Exploration
Dániel Margócsy (4)
Arts School Lecture Theatre A
Tue 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Lent Term
Topics in the Social History of Medicine
Dániel Margócsy (3), Emma Spary (1)
Hopkinson Lecture Theatre
Online lecture in week 3 (4 February)
Fri 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Early Modern and Enlightenment Medicine and Natural History
Emma Spary (4)
Hopkinson Lecture Theatre
The lecture in week 2 (1 February) has been re-scheduled. It will take place on Thursday 3 February at 12noon in Arts School Lecture Theatre A.
The lecture in week 4 (15 February) will be online on Teams.
Tue 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Islamic and Chinese Medicine
Mary Brazelton (2), Dror Weil (2)
Hopkinson Lecture Theatre
Week 5 (18 February): Cancelled
Fri 12noon (weeks 5–8)
Visual and Material Culture
Sachiko Kusukawa (4)
McCrum Lecture Theatre
Tue 12noon (weeks 5–8)

This paper considers medical knowledge across different cultures and historical periods. This course is concerned with medicine in the ancient, medieval and early modern periods, including the Enlightenment, and covers a wide geographical space, focusing on a number of different cultures. Interest will centre on concepts and understandings of the human body and the natural world, methodologies and apparatuses to study them, as well as the practices, institutions and cultural transmissions of knowledge.

The intention is to examine continuities and discontinuities in the institutions, practices and theories of medicine and related sciences that attempt to understand, explain and transform the human and natural world. Interest will centre on methodology, transmission and testing of knowledge, healing practices, institutions and apparatus, both across time and across different locations. Questions relating to epistemology, the transmission and mediality of knowledge, scientific and medical authority and community will be explored. Attention will also be paid to the variety of sources used in studying the early history of medicine, and how such sources shape our interpretation of past events. Given the longevity of some of the 'traditions' considered, there will be some forays into later periods, including the 19th and 20th centuries, on occasion. Why, for example, did people learn about human sexuality into the 20th century from a book titled Aristotle's Masterpiece?


Aims and learning outcomes

  • to encourage students to explore the medical ideas and practices of the ancient, medieval and early modern periods;
  • 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
    • literacy, material culture and communicating knowledge
    • the transmission of knowledge across cultures
    • interactions between customers, patients and producers in medical and scientific marketplaces
    • classifications of scientific and 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 medical institutions, methods, and ideas across cultures and time periods.



Early Medicine

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.

  1. Introduction – Galen (DM)
  2. Dissection and experiment (DM)
  3. Medical marketplace (ES)
  4. Spaces and governance (ES)

Global Natures in the Age of Exploration

Dániel Margócsy (4 lectures, Michaelmas 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.

  1. Medical traditions in the Atlantic
  2. Human bodies and race
  3. Worms and disease
  4. Trade and trust in natural history

Topics in the Social History of Medicine

Dániel Margócsy, 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.

  1. Domestic medicine (DM)
  2. Generation (DM)
  3. Sources of medical history: books, images and the internet (DM)
  4. Sources of medical history: guilds, notarial archives, recipes (ES)

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.

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.

  1. China: theories and sources (MB)
  2. Islam: sources (DW)
  3. Exchanges (DW)
  4. Institutions (MB)

Visual and Material Culture

Sachiko Kusukawa (4 lectures, Lent Term)

This is a set of four lectures that focus on visual and material sources that shed light on the ideas and ideals of medical knowledge, expertise and authority in early modern Europe. Traditionally, this is the period lauded for the growing empiricism, direct observation and accuracy, but the sources tell a more nuanced and complex story about medical practices within a wider context.

  1. Historiography – Leonardo da Vinci, anatomist?
  2. Skeletons and the anatomical theatre
  3. Medicinal plants and gardens
  4. Visual and material dimensions of authority


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