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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 manager: Lauren Kassell

Michaelmas Term
Early Medicine
Lauren Kassell (8)
Fri 12noon (weeks 1–8)
Medical Cases and Casebooks
Lauren Kassell (4)
Tue 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Early Chinese Medicine
Mary Brazelton (4)
Tue 12noon (weeks 5–8)
Lent Term
Visual and Material Culture
Sachiko Kusukawa (4)
Fri 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Early Modern and Enlightenment Medicine and Natural History
Emma Spary (4)
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
Lauren Kassell (4 lectures, 4 classes, Michaelmas Term)

These lectures and classes 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.

Medical Cases and Casebooks
Lauren Kassell (4 classes, Michaelmas Term)

[These classes also support an HPS Part II primary source essay on The Casebooks of Simon Forman and Richard Napier, 1596–1634: A Digital Edition, ed. Lauren Kassell, Michael Hawkins, Robert Ralley, John Young, Joanne Edge, Janet Yvonne Martin-Portugues, and Natalie Kaoukji.]

In the decades around 1600, a pair of English astrologers produced one of the largest surviving sets of medical records in history. The Casebooks Digital Edition transforms this paper archive into a digital archive. This source provides opportunities to study the histories of medical records and archives, cases and observations, medical ideas and practices (including disease categories and remedies), astrology and the occult, patient experiences, and day to day life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. It also provides an opportunity to engage with digital humanities. Note that these records inspired a videogame, Astrologaster, available on most platforms.

Early Chinese Medicine
Mary Brazelton (2 lectures, 2 classes, Michaelmas Term)

These lectures and classes offer an overview of medicine in premodern China. 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 the rise of new texts, professions and institutions. Central themes and case studies will emphasise the ways in which Chinese medicine was characterised by a diversity of practices and pedagogies across the geographic expanse of empires and the social divisions between folk practitioners, scholarly physicians and medical men at the highest levels of empire. We will also consider how Chinese practitioners consistently incorporated ideas, materials and texts from foreign sources.

Visual and Material Culture
Sachiko Kusukawa (2 lectures, 2 classes, Lent Term)

These lectures and classes discuss the various roles images and objects played in the formation and dissemination of scientific and medical knowledge in Europe in the early modern period. Traditionally, historians of science have looked to historical sources expecting to find evidence of direct observation and increasing accuracy, but the work of images and objects was more complex, varied and ingenious in shaping and supporting claims about knowledge. Classes will involve closer examination of a selection of primary and secondary sources.

Early Modern and Enlightenment Medicine and Natural History
Emma Spary (2 lectures, 2 classes, 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