Publications

Coomans, J. Community, Urban Health and Environment in the Late Medieval Low Countries. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

By exploring the uniquely dense urban network of the Low Countries, Janna Coomans debunks the myth of medieval cities as apathetic towards filth and disease. Based on new archival research and adopting a bio-political and spatial-material approach, Coomans traces how cities developed a broad range of practices to protect themselves and fight disease. Urban societies negotiated challenges to their collective health in the face of social, political and environmental change, transforming ideas on civic duties and the common good. Tasks were divided among different groups, including town governments, neighbours and guilds, and affected a wide range of areas, from water, fire and food, to pigs, prostitutes and plague. By studying these efforts in the round, Coomans offers new comparative insights and bolsters our understanding of the importance of population health and the physical world – infrastructures, flora and fauna – in governing medieval cities.

Weeda, C. Ethnicity in Medieval Europe, 950-1250: Medicine, Power and Religion. (Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2021).

Students in twelfth-century Paris held slanging matches, branding the English drunkards, the Germans madmen and the French as arrogant. On crusade, army recruits from different ethnic backgrounds taunted each other’s military skills. Men producing ethnography in monasteries and at court drafted derogatory descriptions of peoples dwelling in territories under colonisation, questioning their work ethic, social organisation, religious devotion and humanness. Monks listed and ruminated on the alleged traits of Jews, Saracens, Greeks, Saxons and Britons and their acceptance or rejection of Christianity.
In this radical new approach to representations of nationhood in medieval western Europe, the author argues that ethnic stereotypes were constructed and wielded rhetorically to justify property claims, flaunt military strength and assert moral and cultural ascendance over others. The gendered images of ethnicity in circulation reflect a negotiation over self-representations of discipline, rationality and strength, juxtaposed with the alleged chaos and weakness of racialised others. Interpreting nationhood through a religious lens, monks and schoolmen explained it as scientifically informed by environmental medicine, an ancient theory that held that location and climate influenced the physical and mental traits of peoples. Drawing on lists of ethnic character traits, school textbooks, medical treatises, proverbs, poetry and chronicles, this book shows that ethnic stereotypes served as rhetorical tools of power, crafting relationships within communities and towards others.

Geltner, G. Kinetic health: Ecologies and mobilities of prevention in Europe, c. 1100-1600

Abstract: This article coins and deploys the term kinetic health as part of a broader attempt to historicize the mobilities paradigm from the standpoint of past community prophylactics. It uses the example of Galenic or humoral medicine, which for millennia organized individual and group health as a dynamic systems balance among several spheres of intersecting fixities and flows. The radical situatedness it fostered emerges clearly from tracing preventative health interventions among different communities in ‘preindustrial’ Europe, including urban dwellers, miners and armies, whose different motilities both bound people to and released them from their immediate environment. Beyond reframing past practices, kinetic health benefits mobilities studies scholars by interrogating stagist narratives of civilization and modernization in two ways. First, as an analytic, because although humoralism and other medical systems continue to inform present-day approaches to health and disease around the globe, they are often obscured by layers of colonialism and biomedicine. And secondly, as a perch for viewing the long-term ebb, flow and mingling of ideas about ill/health as an assemblage of (social) bodies and their natural and social environments.

You can read this Open Access article here.

Zaneri, T. Geltner, G. The dynamics of healthscaping: Mapping communal hygiene in Bologna, 1287–1383

Abstract: This article traces how urban communities operating with a humoral or Galenic medical paradigm understood and confronted the health challenges facing them, using the extraordinarily well-documented case of Bologna, Italy. Working within a GIS environment, the authors spatially analyse over 3,500 events recorded by the Ufficio del fango concerning violations of the city’s health-related ordinances, augmented by other demographic and material data. As such, the study not only adds specificity to recent attempts to enrich the field of pre-modern public health, but also demonstrates that the Bolognese administration had a sophisticated and evolving understanding of communal health risks, and exposes several discrepancies between policy and practice.

You can read this Open Access article here.

Geltner, G., Weeda, C. Underground and Over the Sea: More Community Prophylactics in Europe, 1100-1600

Abstract: Public health historians have repeatedly shown that the theory, policy, and practice of group prophylactics far predate their alleged birth in industrial modernity, and regularly draw on Galenic principles. While the revision overall has been successful, its main focus on European cities entails a major risk, since city dwellers were a minority even in Europe’s most urbanised regions. At the same time, cities continue to be perceived and presented as typically European, which stymies transregional and comparative studies based at least in part on non- or extra-urban groups. Thus, any plan to both offer an accurate picture of public health’s deeper past and fundamentally challenge a narrative of civilizational progress wedded to Euro-American modernity (“stagism”) would benefit from looking beyond cities and their unique health challenges. The present article begins to do so by focusing on two ubiquitous groups, often operating outside cities and facing specific risks: miners and shipmates. Evidence for these communities’ preventative interventions and the extent to which they drew on humoral theory is rich yet uneven for Europe between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. Methodological questions raised by this unevenness can be addressed by connecting different scales of evidence, as this article demonstrates. Furthermore, neither mining nor maritime trade was typically European, thus building a broader base for transregional studies and comparisons.

You can read this Open Access article here.

Coomans, J, Weeda, C. Politics of Movement: Exploring Passage Points in Responses to COVID-19 and the Plague in the Fifteenth-Century Netherlands

Abstract: Engaging the concepts of flow, circulation and blockage can help us to understand the trajectories of pandemics and the social responses to them. Central to the analysis is the concept of obligatory passage points through which networks must pass. Attempts by various actors to control the movement through them, be they government authorities, health experts and caregivers, economic producers or consumers, can create social tensions. Such tensions were duly recognised during the recurring outbreaks of the plague in the Second Plague Pandemic between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries. Analysing historical plague ordinances allows us to expose the power mechanisms impacting networks as they move through spaces, and to remain critical of how circulation is controlled and moralised. We argue that historians can contribute to reviewing these mechanisms behind the spread of epidemics and the responses to them from the perspective of movement and blockage.

You can read this Open Access article here.

Geltner, G. “Fumiers! Ordures! Gestion et usage des déchets dans les campagnes de l’Occident médiéval et moderne”

Marc Conesa, Nicolas Poirier (dir.), Fumiers! Ordures! Gestion et usage des déchets dans les campagnes de l’Occident médiéval et moderne. Actes des XXXVIIIes Journées internationales d’histoire de l’abbaye de Flaran, 14 et 15 octobre 2016, Toulouse (Presses universitaires du Midi) 2019, 302 p. (Flaran, 38), ISBN 978-2-8107-0609-9, EUR 25,00.

“From cover to cover, this stimulating book brings to light the ways in which past societies managed waste, especially in the countryside. Or differently put, how communities extended certain matters in space and time in pursuit of sometimes competing agendas and under the restrictions imposed by matter itself and its physical surroundings. Ten case studies cover much of present-day France, with a further four chapters anchored in the British Isles, the southern Low Countries, northern Iberia and Majorca. The chronological scope is strategically broad, collectively stretching from the 13th to the 20th century, and is designed to question common assumptions about periodization as regards for instance agricultural production and urban waste management. Last but not least, the volume as a whole, and not few of its constituents, straddle different methodologies and several archaeological and historical sub-disciplines, once again in a conscious (and by all means successful) attempt to underscore the value of working across traditional divides.”

You can read the full review here.

Geltner, G., Weeda, C. & Coomans, J, “Mapping Health in the Middle Ages,” EU Research SPR20 (2020)

“Public health is often thought of as a by-product of modernity, yet historical evidence shows that numerous stakeholders in Medieval Europe took steps to reduce risks and improve health outcomes.”

Guy Geltner, Janna Coomans, and Claire Weeda explain how the Healthscaping project challenges perceptions of public health provisions in earlier eras. You can read more here.

 

Geltner, G., “The Path to Pistoia: Urban Hygiene Before the Black Death,” Past & Present (2020).

Abstract: When the Black Death struck Western Europe in late 1347, city dwellers across the region were already practising public health, in part by building, maintaining and monitoring infrastructures whose prophylactic value emerged from the experience of intensified urbanization. The demands of a new urban metabolism, evident from the twelfth century, prompted numerous cities, including Pistoia, to develop preventative health programmes in anticipation of and in response to diverse threats. The latter certainly included famine, floods, pestilence and war, but Pistoians and others were no less concerned by routine matters such as burials, food quality, travel and work safety, artisanal pollution and domestic waste disposal. All of these were recognized as impacting people’s health, based on the medical and natural-philosophical theories prevalent at the time, and their management took into consideration not only climactic conditions and multi-species behaviour, but also the smooth functioning of sites such as wells, canals, bridges and roads. The political value that municipalities and other stakeholders began to place on the upkeep of these sites exceeded their economic function and thus questions the seminal role that scholars tend to attribute to the second plague pandemic in public health history. It also demonstrates how a key aspect of Euro-American modernity continues to shape interpretations of urban and health histories and suggests a broader path for historicizing community prophylactics. (Open Access through Past & Present.)

 

Rawcliffe, C & Weeda, C., Policing the Urban Environment in Premodern Europe (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019).

Tapping into a combination of court documents, urban statutes, material artefacts, health guides and treatises, Policing the Urban Environment in Premodern Europe offers a unique perspective on how premodern public authorities tried to create a clean, healthy environment. Overturning many preconceptions about medieval dirt and squalor, it presents the most outstanding recent scholarship on how public health norms were enforced in the judicial, religious and socio-cultural sphere before the advent of modern medicine and the nation-state, crossing geographical and linguistic boundaries and engaging with factors such as spiritual purity, civic pride and good neighbourliness.

 

Geltner, G., “In the Camp and on the March: Military Manuals as Sources for Studying Premodern Public Health,” Medical History (2018).

Abstract: Historians tend to view public health as a quintessentially modern phenomenon, enabled by the emergence of representative democracies, centralized bureaucracies and advanced biomedicine. While social, urban and religious historians have begun chipping away at the entrenched dichotomy between pre/modernity that this view implies, evidence for community prophylactics in earlier eras also emerges from a group of somewhat unexpected sources, namely military manuals. Texts composed for (and often by) army leaders in medieval Latin Europe, East Rome (Byzantium) and other premodern civilizations reflect the topicality of population-level preventative healthcare well before the nineteenth century, thereby broadening the path for historicizing public health from a transregional and even global perspective. Moreover, at least throughout the Mediterranean World, military manuals also attest the enduring appeal of Hippocratic and Galenic prophylactics and how that medical tradition continued for centuries to shape the routines and material culture of vulnerable communities such as armies. (Open Access through Cambridge University Press.)

 

 

Geltner, G., Roads to Health: Infrastructure and Urban Wellbeing in Later Medieval Italy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

This book “[…] proposes to examine public health from an emic (“insider”) perspective as a dynamic and historically contingent set of legal prohibitions, disciplining practices and subtle insinuations designed to improve health outcomes at the population level. It is decidedly not meant to set up later medieval cities as the antechamber of modernity, although resisting the teleology does not amount to suggesting that the period under consideration and eighteenth-century developments share no common ground whatsoever. For, if cities threatened to turn into Europe’s demographic black holes in the aftermath of industrialization, why not examine how governments and residents dealt with comparable pressures during western Europe’s first—medieval—widespread proliferation of cities and in one of its most urbanized regions, namely central-northern Italy? At this, by now well-documented level, my goal is to stimulate a different kind of conversation among health and medical historians and enable them, if not to reject, then at least to tread a little more carefully (and certainly less giddily) across an assumed pre/modern divide. Without dismissing the distinction’s analytical value tout court, it is important to ask more precisely what happened and more deliberately where lies the qualitative gap between two postulated (and all too often essentialized) eras, rather than assume and thereby perpetuate the notion of a pervasive hygienic ignorance among premodern urban residents.”

 

C. Weeda, ‘Reviewing Conduct Books: Galenic Medicine and the “Civilising Process” in Western European Households c.1100–1300’, in Christopher M. Woolgar (ed.), The Elite Household in England, 1100-1550: Proceedings of the 2016 Harlaxton Symposium (Donington, 2018), 167-184.

Abstract: In western Europe conduct books offering advice to young students and aristocrats on how to behave in a social environment began to appear in the twelfth century. They played a substantial role in guiding and governing the behaviour of members of the elite and urban households and feature in historical discussions as an important accelerator of as well as testimony to the so-called civilising process in western European court society, structuring and disciplining the social behaviour of members of the body politic who were trying to gain access to power. However, as this chapter argues, an overlooked aspect of these fresh conduct manuals, which partly drew on the Latin Catonic tradition of teaching morals and manners to young students, was their concerns over health and hygiene. Engaging with the newly introduced medical theories in Graeco-Arabic texts translated in Spain, Sicily, southern Italy and Byzantium from the late eleventh century, clerics in the centres of learning such as Salerno, Paris or Bologna absorbed medical knowledge about healthy behaviour as part of the staple education, thereupon infusing it into manuals of conduct written for young men aspiring to be prudentes, good citizens. This chapter examines a number of these educational tracts from the twelfth- and early thirteenth-century and the presence of such arguments of health and hygiene in them, arguing they attest an understanding that health, hygiene and social status were intertwined.

 

Coomans, J., “The King of Dirt: Public Health and Sanitation in Late Medieval Ghent,” Urban History (2018), pp. 1-24.

Abstract: Taking the office of the coninc der ribauden in Ghent as a case-study, this article reconstructs the enforcement of urban sanitation and preventative health practices during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The coninc managed a wide range of issues perceived as potentially polluting, damaging or threatening to health. Banning waste and chasing pigs as well as prostitutes off the streets, the office implemented a governmental vision on communal well-being. Health interests, as part of a broader pursuit of the common good, therefore played an important yet hitherto largely overlooked role in medieval urban governance. (Open Access through Cambridge University Press.)

 

 

Geltner, G., “Public Health,” in A Companion to Medieval Bologna, ed. Sarah Rubin Blanshei. (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 103-28 [PDF].

 

Geltner, G. “Finding Matter out of Place: Bologna’s ‘Dirt’ (Fango) Officials in the History of Premodern Public Health,” in The Far-Sighted Gaze of Capital Cities. Essays in Honor of Francesca Bocchi, ed. Rosa Smurra, Houbert Houben and Manuela Ghizzoni. (Rome: Viella, 2014), 307-21 (PDF).

 

Geltner, G., Healthscaping a Medieval City: The Curia viarum of Lucca and the Future of Public Health History,” Urban History 40 (2013), pp. 395-415.

Abstract: In early fourteenth-century Lucca, one government organ began expanding its activities beyond the maintenance of public works to promoting public hygiene and safety, and in ways that suggest both a concern for and an appreciation of population-level preventative healthcare. Evidence for this shift (which is traceable in and beyond the Italian peninsula) is mostly found in documents of practice such as court and financial records, which augment and complicate the traditional view afforded by urban statutes and medical treatises. The revised if still nebulous picture emerging from this preliminary study challenges a lingering tendency among urban and public health historians to see pre-modern European cities as ignorant and apathetic demographic black holes. (PDF)

 

 

Coomans, J., and G. Geltner, “On the Street and in the Bath-House: Medieval Galenism in Action?,” Anuario de Estudios Medievales 43 (2013), pp. 53-8.

Abstract: In this article we combine the perspective of medieval urban hygiene and the findings of medical and intellectual historians by tracing some ways in which medieval urban residents and governments attempted to limit disease and promote health by recourse to preventative measures. In both of the urban regions and domains in focus, namely Italian streets and Dutch bathhouses, considerable thought had been put into reducing the health risks perceived as attending upon them, at times devising arguments and procedures that possibly reflect insights from prevailing medical theories and the advice of practitioners. We suggest that the relation between medical learning and health practices was more complex than a trickle- down process, and analyze them in the context of pre-modern “healthscaping”: a physical, social, legal, administrative, and political process by which urban individuals, groups, and especially governments sought to safeguard and improve collective wellbeing. (PDF)

 

 

Geltner, G., “Public Health and the Pre-Modern City: A Research Agenda,” History Compass 10 (2012), pp. 231-45.

Abstract: How and to what extent did pre-modern people go about creating healthier environments? Can we reasonably talk about public health when it comes to earlier urban societies? This essay briefly surveys a few tenacious misconceptions about preventative (as opposed to curative) health care in pre-modern cities, and then proceeds to review a budding scholarly literature that explores how urban dwellers, organizations, and governments, especially in medieval Europe and the Near East, identified and addressed the particular health risks attendant upon their milieus. The article concludes by pointing out several fruitful directions in which this emerging historical field can develop. (PDF)