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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: Dániel Margócsy and Emma Spary

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

Michaelmas Term
Early Medicine and Life Science
Lauren Kassell (4), Emma Spary (3), Sachiko Kusukawa (1)
Fri 12noon (weeks 1–8)
Sources in Medical History
Sachiko Kusukawa (1), Dániel Margócsy (1), Emma Spary (1), Lauren Kassell (1)
Tue 12noon (weeks 5–8)
Lent Term
Visual and Material Culture
Sachiko Kusukawa (2), Dániel Margócsy (2)
Fri 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Medieval Medicine
Sachiko Kusukawa (2), Mary Brazelton (2)
Fri 12noon (weeks 5–8)
Early Modern and Enlightenment Medicine
Dániel Margócsy (4)
Tue 12noon (weeks 5–8)

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.


Early Medicine and Life Science
Lauren Kassell, Emma Spary, Sachiko Kusukawa (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

These lectures provide an overview of medicine in premodern Europe. 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 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.

Sources in Medical History
Sachiko Kusukawa, Dániel Margócsy, Emma Spary, Lauren Kassell (4 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

These lectures provide an overview of the sources historians of medicine use in order to interpret the past. 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. The lectures treat in detail how to study casebooks, printed books, medical and anatomical collections, and medical archives.

Visual and Material Culture
Sachiko Kusukawa, Dániel Margócsy (4 lectures, Lent Term)

This set of four lectures discusses the various roles images played in the formation and dissemination of scientific knowledge in Europe in the early modern period. Traditionally, historians of science have looked to historical images expecting to find evidence of direct observation and increasing accuracy, but the work of images was more complex, varied and ingenious in shaping and supporting claims about the knowledge. Examples from in the fields of anatomy, cartography, astronomy and natural history, spanning the period from Leonardo da Vinci to the French Encyclopédie will be discussed.

Medieval Medicine
Sachiko Kusukawa, Mary Brazelton (4 lectures, Lent Term)

These lectures provide an overview of medieval medicine from a global perspective. 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, whose traditions receive special attention. 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. In contrast, Chinese medicine in the Ming period produced a remarkable range of doctrinal, therapeutic, and regional variation within the classical medical tradition. Topics include scholastic medicine and surgery, diagnosis and prognosis, leprosy, the printing and circulation of medical texts, cross-cultural encounters, and the experience of being ill in the Middle Ages.

Early Modern and Enlightenment Medicine
Dániel Margócsy (4 lectures, Lent Term)

These lectures continue the topics introduced in the Early Medicine and Life Science 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