A verger's dream: Saints Cosmas and Damian performing a miraculous cure by transplantation of a leg. Oil painting attributed to the Master of Los Balbases. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Licensed under CC BY 4.0

Medicine and Spiritual Healing in the Early Modern World

Tutor: Tara Alberts

Module type: MA Option

Module Code: HIS00065M

What’s the best cure for demonic possession? Which diseases are caused by sin, and how should they be treated? Are exotic medicines more effective, or are all necessary cures found where they are most needed on Earth? Over the sixteenth and seventeenth century such questions were pondered both by learned commentators, who sought a theoretical understanding of disease and by ordinary people, who were desperate for cures. This module explores how ideas about, and practical solutions to disease developed and changed in Europe over the sixteenth and seventeenth century.

The line between what we would consider ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ explanations and ‘secular’ theories about health and healing were often blurred. We will explore the interaction between ‘spiritual’ cures and other remedies for disease, and examine the controversies and debates which emerged over competing theories of illness. We will pay particular attention to two key issues: the impact of the religious changes of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, and the consequences of Europe’s interaction with the wider world, which brought access to new ideas and to novel materia medica.

The seminar programme may include the following:

  • Illness as God’s punishment
  • Witches, demons and magic
  • The body, mind and soul
  • Scholarly searches for meaning
  • New theories, new controversies
  • Healing in the age of religious reform and renewal
  • Curing with herbs, surgery or prayer?
  • Exploration and exotic remedies
  • Miracle cures and evidence

Preliminary reading

  • Cook, Harold C. Matters of Exchange. Commerce, Medicine and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. Yale University Press, 2007 
  • Duffin, Jacalyn. Medical Miracles. Doctors, Saints and Healing in the Modern World. Oxford University Press, 2008 
  • Lindemann, M. Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2010 
  • Reff, Daniel T. Plagues, Priests, Demons. Sacred Narratives and the Rise of Christianity in the Old World and the New. Cambridge University Press, 2005


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.