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Healing, Harming, Feeling: Medical Hermeneutics in Early Modern Literature - ENG00140M

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Namratha Rao
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

‘Within the infant rind of this weak flower
Poison hath residence, and medicine power’

The Greek word for philter or medicine, pharmakon, also meant poison, and is used by Socrates to describe the nature of writing in Plato’s dialogue, Phaedrus. The idea of medicine in the early modern period teetered uneasily between poison and nourishment—transformative in multiple directions—and reading and writing were activities that could heal as well as hurt, affecting bodies, souls and the state. The rich constellation of topics that make up early modern medical writing, for example, narratives of illness and pain, of bodies, minds and feelings, are in turn remote and familiar, compelling and estranging, and invite us to examine the aesthetic, affective, social and political entanglements of health.

We will attend to an array of literary forms and genres, including lyric and narrative poetry, drama, diaries, self-help guides and recipes, to explore and analyse the construction and crises of selves and communities, the social and global contexts of sickness and wellbeing, and the diverse kinds of embodied experience in lives and centuries both divided from and tied to our own. Each seminar will focus, broadly speaking, on an affect or event that shapes and is shaped by language and theories of illness and health, even as we’re attuned to the ways in which they blur, clash and overlap: deformity, melancholy, sin, love, sympathy, remedy, death and madness. We will collectively read a combination of texts—literary and theoretical, early modern and contemporary—and think through the kinds of judgment they enable and foreclose, and the implications, and even inheritances, for our present conceptions of physical and mental health.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2023-24

Module aims

This module aims to introduce you to a range of early modern texts concerned with illness and health, thinking, in particular, about their aesthetic, affective, social and political dimensions. Methodologically, it encourages you to read comparatively and cross-disciplinarily, between literary and non-literary texts, and between the fields of literature, philosophy, and the history of medicine.

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, you should be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with a range of early modern literary and non-literary texts.

  2. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with key theoretical texts in critical medical humanities.

  3. Evaluate key debates within relevant critical fields including embodiment, affect and disability studies.

  4. Produce independent arguments and ideas in seminars and in writing, which engage critically with material from and beyond the syllabus.


Task Length % of module mark
4,500 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

You will hand in an essay of 1,400-1,600 words in Week 6 of the Autumn term for the Postgraduate Life in Practice module. The main purpose of the essay is to ensure that the department can identify those students who may require additional assistance with academic writing skills. Material from this essay may be re-visited in either one of the January essays or the dissertation. It is therefore an early chance to work through material that might be used in assessed work. The title topic of the essay, like the title topic of all assessed work for the degree, is left open to the individual student.


Task Length % of module mark
4,500 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your module tutor, the MA Convenor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours

Indicative reading

  • Primary texts, in full or in extract, by Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Donne, Robert Burton, Anne Clifford, Dionys Fitzherbert, Margaret Hoby; sonnets and erotic lyric; medical recipes
  • Critical writings by e.g. Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Audre Lorde, Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida, Martha Nussbaum
  • Classical texts, in extract, from Hippocratic writings, Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.