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Medicine & Spiritual Healing in the Early Modern World - HIS00065M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Tara Alberts
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22
    • See module specification for other years: 2020-21

Module summary

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.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2021-22

Module aims

The module aims to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation;
  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

After successfully completing this course students should:

  • Understand debates, controversies and developments in medical ideas early modern Europe, identifying connections, comparisons and exchanges concerning these ideas between Europe and the wider world.
  • Understand the varied and changing ideas about forms of ‘spiritual healing’ in the early modern world, and how these ideas could be affected by inter-cultural exchange.
  • Identify connections and/or disjunctions between conceptions of ‘medical’ and ‘spiritual cures’ in the early modern world.
  • Identify key primary sources for the study of ideas of medicine, health and spiritual healing
  • Understand the methodological complexities and challenges of these sources
  • Analyse and critique varied historiographical approaches to ideas of health and healing and miracles in the early modern world.
  • Analyse and critique methodologies of comparative and connective history.

Module content

Teaching Programme:
Students will attend eight weekly two-hour seminars in weeks 2-9.

The seminar programme may include the following:

Illness, health, society, and history
The body, mind, and soul
Curing with herbs, surgery or prayer?
Healing in the age of religious reform and renewal
Witchcraft and demonic possession
Scholarly searches for meaning
Exploration and exotic remedies
Miracle cures and evidence


Task Length % of module mark
Long Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will complete a 2,000-word essay for formative assessment, due in week 6 or 7 of the autumn term, for which they will receive an individual tutorial. They will then submit a 4,000-word assessed essay for summative assessment in week 2 of the spring term.

For further details about assessed work, students should refer to the Statement of Assessment for Taught Postgraduate Programmes.


Task Length % of module mark
Long Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback consisting of comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission. They will also receive verbal feedback at an individual tutorial. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their formative work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. Supervisors are available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment for Taught Postgraduate Programmes.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of 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.

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.