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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: 2023-24
    • See module specification for other years: 2021-22

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 period
A Semester 2 2023-24

Module aims

The aims of this module are 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

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Demonstrate a knowledge of a specialist historiographical literature;
  • Present findings in an analytical framework derived from a specialist field;
  • Solve a well-defined historiographical problem using insights drawn from secondary and, where appropriate, primary sources.
  • Set out written findings using a professional scholarly apparatus.

Module content

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1. Students will then attend a 2-hour seminar in weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing (RAW) weeks during which there are no seminars, and during which students research and write a formative essay, consulting with the module tutor. Students prepare for eight seminars in all.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. Illness, Health, Society and History
  2. The Body, Mind, and Soul
  3. Curing with Herbs, Surgery or Prayer?
  4. Healing in the Age of Religious Reform and Renewal
  5. Witchcraft and Demonic Possession
  6. Scholarly Searches for Meaning
  7. Exploration and Exotic Remedies
  8. Miracle Cures and Evidence


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

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students submit a 2,000-word formative essay in week 9.
A 4,000-word summative essay will be due in the assessment period.


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

Module feedback

Students will typically receive written feedback on their formative essay within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their seminars and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their formative essay during their tutor’s student hours—especially during week 11, before, that is, they finalise their plans for the Summative Essay.

For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 25 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

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

  • P. Elmer (ed.) The Healing Arts: Health, Disease and Society in Europe, 1500–1800 (Manchester University Press, 2004).
  • M. Jackson (ed), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  • M. Lindemann, Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe. 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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.