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Medicine in Medieval Europe

Module Code: HIS-00052-I

Credits: 30

Tutor: Peter Biller

Pre-requisites: A History first year module

This course looks at pre-modern medical cultures. Chronologically it spans the "dark ages" to the 15th century, geographically it deals with western Europe – going where the secondary literature and original evidence are most accessible, which in practice means England, France, Italy and Aragon. The course looks at the sparse evidence of the pre-1000 period, asking the simple question, what can be known about medicine in this period. After examining the rise of medicine and women practitioners at Salerno, it turns to investigate the transformation of written and learned medicine brought about by the introduction into the west, through translation, of Arabic medical treatises. It examines one of the translation centres, the earliest: Monte Cassino. It looks at one sub-genre (love-sickness treatises) to examine the reception of the Arabic material, and it investigates one of the consequences, the rise of university medicine.

Looking at the 13th-14th centuries, the course investigates the relations of learned and popular practice in the medical market. The course looks at crises – leprosy and plague - asks what is revealed about medieval medicine by its responses to these, and it investigates the relations between religion and medicine, asking whether these were characterised by opposition or complementarity. The aim is not to attempt a complete historical survey of medieval medicine, but to investigate some crucial developments and also the long duration features of medieval medicine, and, while doing this, to see the fascinating light cast upon medieval culture and society by its medicine.

Learning Outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully should:

  • Be familiar with the main themes in the cultural and social history of medicine in medieval western Europe
  • Be familiar with and be able to evaluate and use some of the original evidence relating to these themes
  • Be familiar with and able critically to evaluate some of the approaches to these themes taken by various historians working in different historiographical traditions
  • Be able to use the history of medicine as an opening into understanding medieval to culture and society, and the relationship between western medieval culture and other cultures and societies

Teaching Programme

This 30-credit module is taught through a weekly two hour seminar run from Weeks 2-10 in the spring term and a four week period of project work undertaken in Weeks 1-4 of the Summer Term. Students will write and submit a procedural essay in Week 7 of the Spring Term. Tutors may choose whether the project work is undertaken by students individually or as a group. In either case students will complete their work within that period and tutors should arrange to be available for consultation with students twice during that time. There will be no formal seminar teaching during this period.

The seminar programme will deal with the following:

  • The "dark" ages
  • Salerno, Monte Cassino, Constantine the African
  • Learned medicine: universities; love-sickness treatises
  • Leprosy
  • Ethics, charity and hospitals
  • The medical market in England and Aragon
  • Women’s medical practice; medicine, natural philosophy, and gender
  • Plague
  • Religion and medicine

Individual project:

  • Students will be able to select a source discussed in the seminars (or pick a related source) and explore this in greater depth, producing an analysis of this. Students will be encouraged to work on themes and issues which they have enjoyed in the module and to work in greater detail on this.


A 24 hour open exam to be taken in the summer assessment period. Single subject students, who take two Explorations modules, will take two 24 hour open exams to be held on consecutive days.

An individual project for which a piece of written work of no more than 1,500 words will be submitted at the start of the summer assessment period (Week 5). This piece of written work might take a variety of forms such as a book or website review; a textual commentary, annotated bibliography, project report or a short essay.

The exam carries 67 per cent of assessment and the project element 33 per cent for this module.

Preliminary Reading                             

  • Wallis, F. Medieval Medicine: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. 
  • Siraisi, N.G. Medieval & Early Renaissance Medicine, An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
  • Conrad L. & et al. The Western Medical Tradition, 800BC to AD1800. Cambridge UP, 1995.
  • Rawcliffe, C. Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England. Stroud, England: Alan Sutton Pub, 1995.
  • Rawcliffe, C. Leprosy in Medieval England. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006.
  • Biller P., and J. Ziegler, eds. Religion and Medicine in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2001.