ERC Consolidator grant for “Healthscaping Urban Europe: Biopower, Space and Society, 1200-1500”

We are delighted to announce the award of an ERC Consolidator Grant for HealthScaping, a multidisciplinary framework for developing the field of premodern public health. Here is the gist of the project, which will formally kick off on 1 September 2017:

Medieval cities are often imaged as demographic black holes, environmental accidents waiting to happen. Within their dilapidated walls, weak governments, medical ignorance and religiously fostered apathy purportedly converged to amplify regular health risks, as epitomized by the havoc wrought upon Europe’s urban population by the outbreak of the second plague pandemic in the mid fourteenth century. This perennial state of affairs, it is argued, likewise impeded the development of a public sphere in which power could be negotiated at the level of life (“biopolitics”). Yet an abundance of written and material evidence, much of it untapped for such purposes, offers a very different picture than a clear pre/modern dichotomy. The overarching goal of this project is to show that population-level preventative interventions were common and conscious, and that they collectively promoted health to the status of a principal good whose control took on major political significance. Healthscaping processes in other words participated in shaping the boundaries of the private/public divide. For these purposes the project addresses the following five key research questions:

 

1) To what extent did late medieval people understand cities as generating unique population-level health needs or expressed social problems in these terms, and how did these relate to and reflect social, political and economic developments and discourses;

2) What resources, including medical theory, did they draw upon and develop in order to meet those needs;

3) How were health initiatives and policies implemented, by whom, and what obstacles did they face; and

4) How did such initiatives and policies impact upon and/or rely on changes in the built environment and across the public/private divide?

Building on the insights that answering such questions will generate, the project will likewise explore:

5) Whether earlier practices can inform present-day healthscaping.

 

Preliminary studies, including those conducted by the PI, have shaped the project’s three main hypotheses, namely that in late medieval urban Europe: 1) healthscaping processes were ubiquitous, cross-fertilizing, diverse and nonlinear; and 2) that they collectively formed a regular focus of negotiating urban bio-power relations, a process that participated in shaping a public sphere, including the urban built environment. As such, 3) earlier practices can help promote a more culturally informed approach to present-day healthscaping, and participate in a nascent shift in focus from augmenting narrowly defined resources and emphasizing specialist/curative expertise to identifying affected communities’ definitions of health and stimulating bottom-up/preventative efforts.

 

HealthScaping will test these hypotheses mainly through intensively and comparatively studying two regions in continental Europe—central-northern Italy and the Low Countries—and from diverse disciplinary perspectives, covering the years c. 1200-1500. Case studies were chosen for their excellent documentation on the one hand and for being in the most urbanized regions in the period under study, on the other. The timeframe gives due attention to the period preceding the onset of Black Death in the mid fourteenth century, redressing a scholarly focus on the era following it. Selecting case studies from northern and southern Europe, which themselves differ in terms of topography, climate and latitude, moreover, facilitates a comparison between cities and regions with diverse morphologies and profiles, including unique commercial, political and administrative traditions. The ambitious chronological length, geographic and cultural scope, and demographic trajectory covered by this project afford a fresh and complex view of preventative practices and their impact in an era rarely associated with prophylactic medicine, let alone bio-power, and thus usually ignored by public health historians and professionals today. Methodologically innovative (see below), HealthScaping fills a major lacuna; revises Europe’s public health history across an imagined but seldom interrogated pre/modern divide; historicizes key concepts such as urban health, health risks, governmentality and bio-power, and the public/private divide; and provides an original perspective for rethinking the feasibility of public health interventions in a world that is at once globalizing and far from homogeneous.

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