New project: Mining Activities, Public Health Strategies and Pollution Legacies in Europe, 1200-1600

We are excited to announce we have received funding from Monash Arts Faculty for a Health and Medical Research Accelerator project on preindustrial public health.

This research project builds on the work done in our two (previous/ current) projects, Healthscaping Premodern Europe, and Pursuing Preindustrial Public Health, by exploring the environmental health of miners in preindustrial Europe.

Pollution and environmental health threats from mining are often seen as recent phenomena. Yet their history as a nexus dates back many centuries, with a particular acceleration in thirteenth-century Europe.

Woodcut from Georgius Agricolas “De re metallica libri XII”
Public domain

Europe experienced unprecedented demographic and economic growth between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, as well as an increase in industry and trade, all of which generated a need for metals and coinage. Mines and miners proliferated in an effort to exploit the region’s numerous ore deposits.

Extraction could last several centuries and fostered human settlement and economic growth, but it also threatened communities with pollution, deteriorated health and irreversible ecological changes. While mining products and their economic value are well known, miners’ health and extraction’s environmental impacts remain poorly understood, despite abundant evidence.

Our new project, which runs until the end of this year (thus the “Accelerator”), gathers researchers across disciplines including history and archaeology, to produce original and systematic comparison of three mining sites. We will compare:
1) short- and long-term medical and environmental consequences of Europe’s medieval mining boom; and
2) how mining communities understood and addressed such threats.

Map of known preindustrial mining sites in Europe 1200-1600, with our case studies identified in red.

The team will focus on the three mining regions of Brandes (France), Harz (Germany) and Colline Metallifere (Italy),  moving beyond the scale of single sites and (sub)disciplines, and towards a continental synthesis. Our project also has public engagement in mind: we will build a database of environmental and health data across these regions, and produce interactive maps visualising these comparisons. See our track record of historical GIS here.

The innovative pilot program will challenge the narrative of a single path to current environmental health threats, one that began namely with the Industrial Revolution in urban north-western Europe and culminated in a global Anthropocene.

Our research team consists, non-exhaustively, of the following researchers and research assistants based across western Europe; Australia; and Malaysia.

Guy Geltner (Monash University, Australia)
Léa Hermenault (Universiteit Antwerp, Belgium)
Nicolas Minvielle Larousse (Ecole française de Rome, Italy)
Giovanna Bianchi (Università di Siena, Italy)
Tina Asmussen (Ruhr-Universität Bochum and Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum, Germany)
Sarah May (Monash University, Australia)
Kallum Robinson (Monash University, Australia)

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Lecture: Supplying the slave trade in 10th-century Prague

Lola Digard, member of our previous research project, Healthscaping Premodern Europe, will be in discussion with Jane Fontaine tomorrow. Dr Fontaine’s lecture focuses on the role of the Prague market in the trade of enslaved people.

14 February 2023, 3.30pm EST
International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam

The details for the event are here.

Speakers: Jane Fontaine, Lola Digard.

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Medieval Round Table: The Nature of Extraction in Preindustrial Europe

Guy Geltner will be presenting at The University of Melbourne’s Medieval Round Table discussion group on 6 February 2023. The Round Table is an informal forum that meets monthly, usually on the first Monday of the month, to discuss works in progress. It is open to all interested scholars and students.

When: 6:15pm local time (Melbourne Australia)

Where: University of Melbourne, Melbourne Australia OR Zoom

Further details via The University of Melbourne Medieval Roundtable Page.

Image: Altarpiece of St. Anne’s Church, Annaberg-Buchholz (Germany), c. 1521

The Nature of Extraction in Preindustrial Europe:

As mining burgeoned across Europe from the thirteenth century on, the sector’s promoters and observers had to contend with resource management in a new key.  Ore extraction differed in scale and scope from traditional practices of agriculture and animal husbandry.  It was also more visibly destructive and by many accounts impacted the health of people, animals, soils and crops.  This paper begins by exploring such emic accounts and how they differ from present-day ecological and biochemical explanations.  It then moves to ask whether the era’s documented cultural responses to mining-related landscape change amount to an environmental turn or a secularization of Creation, a phenomenon scholars tend to associate with modernization?  As this paper will argue, tracing early mining history can be inspired by environmental history while challenging some of its conventions.

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Virtual Book Launch: Death and Disease in the Medieval and Early Modern World

13 January 2023, 12pm EST/ 6pm CET/ 10.30pm IST/ 4am + 1 AEDT
Online, zoom

Begin the new year with a virtual book launch for the fourth title in the “Health and Healing in the Middle Ages” series by publishers Boydell and Brewer. Edited by Lori Jones and Nühket Varlık, the volume covers the pre-modern Mediterranean world, Christian, Islamic and Jewish medical histories.

The link for the book description here.

The link for the event here.

Speakers: Editors of the book and series speaking with Elma Brenner; Ann Carmichael; Suman Seth. 

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Public Film Screening, Deakin University

Deakin Burwood Corporate Centre will hold their final CES stream event for the year: Unbounded Bodies, Dynamic Places: Biopolitics in the Preindustrial World, with Professor Guy Geltner on Tuesday 6 December 2022. 

OVERVIEW (More details below)

Session 1*: Masterclass with Professor Guy Geltner (11:00am – 12:30 pm)

Catered Lunch (12:30 – 1:30 pm)

Session 2*: Talk and Film Screening with Professor Guy Geltner On the long history of extraction and the environment, and its relation to questions of geo- and biopower (1:30 – 3:30 pm)


*Please note the two sessions can be attended separately.

Register for in-person attendance via Eventbrite.

Register for online attendance via Zoom.



Is “premodern public health” inherently an oxymoron? This lecture shares insights from medical and social historiography to suggest that preventative-health interventions at the population level were both common and complex many centuries before the industrial revolution, centralised bureaucracies and biomedicine, the traditional triggers and enablers of public health. Sedentary and mobile groups across the Galenic world, from Dublin to Delhi, be they urban dwellers or roving armies, engaged in risk management and developed prophylactic programs to address their changing needs. Tracing how these programs were designed and enforced illuminates the negotiation of biopower and the influence of geopower in an era supposedly devoid of either. Moreover, interventions emphasised bodies’ plasticity and the interaction between individual bodies, groups and their moral/spiritual and material environment in ways that foreshadow recent discoveries in epigenetic research, albeit in a very different natural-philosophical paradigm. Collectively these insights challenge the conventional chronology, geography and periodisation in public health history.



Guy Geltner is a social and cultural historian of mining, public health, punishment and cities at the University of Amsterdam and Monash University. His most recent work concerns the history of public health and the environmental history of mining in Europe and among Galenic cultures more broadly. His articles, monographs and edited volumes have appeared in English, Italian, Dutch, French, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic, and contain work that has been supported by the Social Science Research Council, Hanadiv Foundation, the Netherlands Scientific Organization and the European Research Council. His current research focus is on premodern healthscaping. It traces preventative health theories, policies and practices among several types of populations rarely celebrated for their hygienic vigilance, including European cities, pilgrims, monasteries, and armies between 1200-1500. Working within the medical and natural[1]philosophical paradigms of their era, these groups fought to prevent and reduce all sorts of pollution, as numerous documents and instruments of practice attest.



Session 1: Masterclass with Professor Guy Geltner (11:00am – 12:30 pm)

Reading (two articles):

•Geltner, G. (2021):Kinetic health: ecologies and mobilities of prevention in Europe, c. 1100-1600 Mobilities, 16(4), 553-568

•G. Geltner & J. Coomans (2022): The healthscaping approach: Toward a global history of early public health, DOI: 10.1080/01615440.2022.2128487


Session 2: Talk and Film Screening with Professor Guy Geltner On the long history of extraction and the environment, and its relation to questions of geo- and biopower (1:30 – 3:30 pm)

Building on but distinct from the previous session, we will briefly introduce and later discuss Jean Queyrat’s striking and award-winning documentary La Mine du Diable (2011; English dubbing). It follows a young miner named Eduardo through the hardships of working and living near the ancient silver-extraction site of Potosí (Cerro Rico/Sumaq urqu), in present-day Bolivia. The site was allegedly discovered by the Spanish in 1545, just in time to relieve Europe from its silver scarcity and by resorting to extraction techniques and labor regimes that went back centuries, including in terms of their preventative healthcare. Its legacy as the “man-eating mountain” demonstrates the a-synchronicity of modernisation or the morphing manifestations of colonialism, but it also provides a case study in the history of geopower.

Viewing time is 52 minutes.


Recommended reading on Potosí and (Post) Colonial Mining in the Andes

•Jason Moore, “‘This Loft Mountain of Silver Could Conquer the Whole World’: Potosí and the Political Ecology of Underdevelopment, 1545-1800,” The Journal of Philosophical Economics 4.1 (2010), 58-103, available here.

•Heidi V. Scott, “The Contested Spaces of the Subterranean: Colonial Governmentality, Mining and the Mita in Early Spanish Peru,” Journal of Latin American Geography 11 (2012), 5-33

•Allison Margaret Bigelow, “Women, Men and the Legal Languages of Mining in the Colonial Andes,” Ethnohistory 63 (2016), 351-80

•Rossana Barragán Romano, “Dynamics of Continuity and Change: Shifts. In Labour Relations in the Potosí Mines (1680-1812),” International Review of Social History 61 (2016), 93-114

•Eadem, “Potosí’s Silver and the Global World of Trade (Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries,” in On the Road to Global Labour History, ed. Karl-Heinz Roth (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 61-92

•Eadem, “Working Silver for the World: Mining Labor and Popular Economy in Colonial Potosí,” Hispanic American Historical Review 97 (2017), 193-222

•Eadem, “Extractive Economy and Institutions? Technology, Labour, and Land in Potosí, the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century,” in Colonialism, Institutional Change, and Shifts in Global Labour Relations, ed. Karin Hofmeester and Pim de Zwart (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018), 207-38

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New Article: Public Works, Spatial Strategies, and Mobility in Late Medieval Ghent

Coomans, J., & Hermenault, L. (2022). Public Works, Spatial Strategies, and Mobility in Late Medieval Ghent. Journal of Urban History

This article argues that medieval urban authorities developed nodal spatial strategies to mitigate various risks—from accidents, floods, and military vulnerability to sickness and scarcity. Using digital methods (Geographic Information System [GIS]) to map public works during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in one large city (Ghent), it offers a fuller understanding of urban governance in dialogue with a city’s topography and environmental and sociopolitical challenges. Ghent’s authorities invested in gates, bridges, markets, thoroughfares, key buildings, and waterworks. Tracing their interventions reveals the city as an interconnected, moving system, an economy of movement. Attention concentrated on these points because several types of interests related to communal well-being converged there. The city was thus capable of absorbing shocks (war, floods) through regular maintenance and monitoring. Tracing public works that promoted mobility can therefore tell us much about power dynamics and how communities functioned in practice.

You can read this Open Access article here.

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New Publication – The healthscaping approach: Toward a global history of early public health

Geltner, G. and Janna Coomans. “The Healthscaping Approach: Toward a Global History of Early Public Health.” Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History.

This article presents a modular, multidisciplinary methodology for tracing how different communities in the deeper past adapted their behaviors and shaped their environments to address the health risks they faced, a process also known as “healthscaping.” Historians have made major strides in reconstructing preventative health programs across the pre- or non-industrial world, thereby challenging a common view of public health as a product of Euro-American modernity and biomedicine. However, these studies’ general focus on cities and their reliance on archival and other documents that are more readily available in Euro-American contexts, limit the intervention’s potential for rethinking the earlier history of public health comparatively, transregionally and on a global scale. A broader definition of health, additional sources and alternative methodologies allow us to expand research in and especially beyond urban Europe, promoting a global turn in health historiography that operates outside the seductive teleology of modernization, colonialism and imperialism.

You can read this Open Access article here.

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Dynamic Balances: Public Health in the Premodern World

The ERC project Premodern Healthscaping hosted its final conference ‘Dynamic Balances: Public Health in the Premodern World’ at the University of Amsterdam on 29-30 September. During this two-day conference, the team members presented the findings of five years of research in numerous aspects of public health in pre-industrial urban Europe. Their propositions were challenged and expanded by contributions from scholars of public health in the Islamic World, South Asia, and Latin America of the same historical period. Here is the list of the presentations during these two days:

  • Edmund Hayes and Maaike van Berkel, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen

     Water as a purifying agent in the governance of public health of the medieval middle eastern city

  • Carole Rawcliffe, University of East Anglia

     Fire Prevention in Late Medieval British Towns and Cities

  • Léa Hermanault, Universiteit van Amsterdam

     Interweaved knowledge: Empirical decisions, relations to natural environment and disseminations of Galenic texts during the Middle Ages in north-western Europe

  • Abigail Agresta, George Washington University

     Plague Hospitals and Public Health Infrastructure in Late Medieval Valencia

  • Lola Digard, Universiteit van Amsterdam

     ‘Que nul barrier ne soi si hardi’: The Medical Market as a site of biopolitical negotiation in Late Medieval Flanders

  • Nükhet Varlık, Rutgers University

     Imagined Healthscapes: Early Modern Ottoman Cities as Places of Health and Disease

  • Guy Geltner, Universiteit van Amsterdam and Monash University

     Preventative Healthcare among Miners in Europe, 1200-1550

  • Shireen Hamza, Harvard University

     Provisioning Ulema with Medicine in the Indian Ocean World

  • Francesco Bianchini, Kings’ College Cambridge

     Better Safe than Sorry: Hospitals, prevention and Healthscaping in Medieval Monsoon Asia

  • Justin Stearns, New York University, Abu Dhabi

     Healthscaping a World Ravaged by Plague: The Promises and Limitations of Islamicate Plague Treatises from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Century

  • Carmen Caballero-Navas, Universidad de Granada

     Caring for Our People’s Well-being: Agents of Communal Health in Late Medieval Iberian Jewish Communities

  • Claire Weeda, Universiteit Leiden

     Vermin, disease and Public health in Europe, 1100-1600: Extermination, Exorcism and Purification

  • Janna Coomans, Universiteit van Amsterdam and Utrecht University

     Forced Motions: Poor Migrants and Changing Perceptions of Public Health in Northwestern Europe, 1450-1600

  • Edward Anthony Polanco, Virginia Tech

     Pactinemiliztli: Maintaining, Losing and Restoring Health in Early Colonial Central Mexican Nahua Communities

The gathering came to a conclusion through a plenary public event on 30 September. During this event Guy Geltner, Nükhet Varlık, and Peregrine Horden explored the history of premodern public health and reflected on possible future directions within this research field. Below is the title of their talks:

  • Guy Geltner, Universiteit van Amsterdam and Monash University

     Healthscaping Urban Europe and Beyond

  • Nükhet Varlık, Rutgers University

     Rethinking the History of Premodern Health

  • Peregrine Horden, Royal Holloway, University of London

     Healthscape Picture Restoration: Is There a Risk of Over-cleaning?

The papers which were presented and discussed during the conference will be published in an edited volume.

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La vita urbana e le pratiche igieniche medievali a Bologna e in altre città

26 September 2022, 09:00-18:00
Università di Bologna (Aula 3, via Azzo Gardino 33 complesso Unione)

This conference explores the connections between population, health, and the urban environment in northern Italian cities, particularly Bologna. It brings together scholars from history and archaeology to investigate how medieval governments, institutions, and citizens defined and managed urban health and hygiene, and conversely illness and danger.


9:15-9:30 Introduzione: Guy Geltner (Università di Amsterdam e Monash)

Sessione 1 (Presiede Guy Geltner)
9:30-9:50 Rosa Smurra (Università di Bologna, Centro Gina Fasoli): Questioni di inquinamento dal punto di vista delle fonti fiscali bolognesi
9:50-10:10 Paola Foschi (Vicepresidente della Deputazione di Storia Patria per le Province di Romagna): I pozzi pubblici e privati a Bologna e loro diffusione nella città romana e medievale. Acqua sana e acqua malsana: un tentativo di analisi
10:10-10:30 Rossella Rinaldi (Archivio di Stato di Bologna): Residui animali. Note su pratiche e regole (secc. XIII-XV)

10:30-11:00 Domande e risposte
11:00-11:20 Pausa

Sessione 2 (Presiede Alessandra Cianciosi)
11:20-11:40 Lara Sabbionesi (Direzione Regionale Musei dell’Emilia Romagna): Pro maiore sanitate hominum civitatis ….et borgorum
11:40-12:00 Taylor Zaneri (Università di Amsterdam): La salute nella Bologna medievale: per una mappatura delle condizioni igieniche (secc. XIII-XIV)
12:00-12:20 Chiara Guarnieri (Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per la città metropolitana di Bologna e le province di Modena, Reggio Emilia e Ferrara): Ferrara tra Medioevo e Rinascimento: pratiche di smaltimento e gestione dei rifiuti. Regole scritte e documentazione archeologica

12:20-12:50 Domande e risposte
13:00-14:30 Pranzo

Sessione 3 (Presiede Rosa Smurra)
14:30-14:50 Colin Arnaud (Università di Münster): Il controllo sociale, igienico e ambientale dell’Ufficio del Fango: I vacchettini dei decenni 1386-1397 e 1458-1467 a confronto
14:50-15:10 Armando Antonelli (Archivio di Stato di Bologna): Razionalità della misurazione, ordinatio-compilatio della documentazione comunale. Un caso dall’Archivio di Stato di Bologna
15:10-15:30 Domande e risposte 15:30-15:50 Pausa

Sessione 4 (Presiede Taylor Zaneri)
15:50-16:10 Mauro Librenti, Cecilia Moine, e Lara Sabbionesi (Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia, Soprintendenza Archeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le province di Parma e Piacenza, e Direzione Regionale Musei dell’Emilia Romagna): Archeologia delle strutture di assistenza e ospitalità
16:10-16:30 Alessandra Cianciosi (Università di Stanford e Amsterdam): L’approvvigionamento idrico dei centri lagunari nel Medioevo. Il caso di Jesolo (Ve)

16:30-16:50 Domande e risposte

17:00-17:30 Discussione: Sauro Gelichi (Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia) e Massimo Giansante (Archivio di Stato di Bologna)


This conference will be in Italian. For receiving a Zoom link to join online, please send an email to

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Dynamic Balances: Public Health in the Premodern World

30 September 2022, 16:00-17:30
University of Amsterdam, University Library, Doelenzaal

The ERC project ‘Healthscaping Urban Europe’ will hold a concluding plenary event on 30 September, where three experts will explore the history of premodern public health and especially reflect on possible future directions within this research field. All are welcome to join in person in the Doelenzaal. The event will be followed by a drinks’ reception at Café Luxembourg on the Spui.
The presentations will also be broadcasted live via Zoom. To receive a link to the online event, please email Peyman Amiri (


Professor Guy Geltner (University of Amsterdam & Monash University)
Healthscaping Urban Europe and Beyond

Dr. Nükhet Varlık (Rutgers University, Newark)
Rethinking the History of Premodern Health

Professor Peregrine Horden (Royal Holloway, University of London & Oxford University)
Healthscape Picture Restoration: Is There a Risk of Over-cleaning?

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