PhD Position: Preventative Medicine and the Medici Court, 1530-1737

Project description:

This PhD scholarship is an important part of the ARC-funded project “Pursuing Public Health in the Preindustrial World, 1100-1800,” led by Prof. G. Geltner.

The team project will reconstruct and analyze preventative healthcare theory, policy and practice across three regions between 1100-1800—India, the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe—through the prism of three mobile and sedentary groups: pilgrims, miners and courts. The successful applicant will join an international and multi-disciplinary research team and contribute to the wider project, while undertaking their own distinct PhD project, which they are welcome to design under the broad contours of Medici-era preventative healthcare aimed at the group level.

Undertaking a PhD as part of a larger project has several advantages. First, the successful candidate will be integrated into an international research team and agenda that has already been funded by the Australian Research Council, and will have access to funding to support archival work, digitization, travel, and conference attendance. Second, the candidate will benefit from expert supervision from research leaders in health history, archaeology and religious studies. Finally, the candidate will benefit from being part of outcomes from the research, which may include co-authored publications (where the candidate’s contributions will be recognized through co-authorship), funded symposia and workshops, school-engagement exercises, and future grant applications.

Monash University is the largest university in Australia and regularly ranks in the top 100 universities worldwide. Monash has six globally networked campuses and international alliances in Europe and Asia. The applicant will be based at the Clayton campus in Melbourne. The Arts faculty at Monash is inclusive and vibrant, and the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies (SOPHIS) combines relevant expertise in history, archaeology, philosophy and religion. The school’s high-profile Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CMRS) is a particularly congenial environment for students of premodern Europe. We have a strong and supportive research culture, led by internationally recognised scholars successful in attracting national and international competitive funding.

More information can be found after 15 April through Monash University’s website.


Prof G. Geltner, School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies (

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The Disruptive Power of Pandemics in Public Health History – Guy Geltner

Online Public Lecture
Thursday, 7 April 2022, 09:45-11:00 (CEST)

Talk by Professor Guy Geltner (Monash University) on some of the global implications of his team’s revision of “premodern” public health.

You can register through this link.

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Health, Environment and Urban Development in the Middle Ages

17-18 February 2022
Norwegian University of Science and technology, University Museum, Trondheim

The conference completes the Norwegian Research Council funded project “Medieval urban health: from private to public responsibility” (2017-2020), whose goal is to shed new light on how public health evolved from individual health practices to actions for public health; what factors caused this ground-breaking development? The overarching methodological principle has been to compare the natural and built urban environment in medieval Trondheim with the development of health, diet, and mobility. The basic information has been gathered from the large collection of well-preserved skeletons from medieval cemeteries in Trondheim. Biomolecular analyzes are applied to identify the character and volume of infectious diseases in the urban population during the period c. AD100-1600.

Please click the link below to join the webinar:
Passcode: 294304


Day 1 – February 17.02

Session 1: Health, decease and environment  – a multidisciplinary field of research

   (Moderator: Axel Chistophersen).

Medieval urban health cannot be studied withought insight in the complex relations between health, environment and social conditions, and without applying all available empirical data. How can we perform interdisciplinary research practices regarding health, disease and environmental issues in medieval urban environments? 

09.00-09.15:      Welcome, practicalities (Axel Christophersen)

09.15-09.45:      Key note speaker: Guy Geltner (Monash University, Clayton, Australia): 

Laws, LiDAR and Ligaments: A Multidisciplinary Approach to the History of Miners’ Health in Europe, c. 1200-1600.

09.45-10.15:     John Robb (University of Cambridge), Craig Cessford (University of Cambridge), Eugenia D’Atanasio (La Sapienza University, Rome), Jenna Dittmar (University of Aberdeen), Meriam Guellil (Estonian Bioscience Centre), Ruoyun Hui (Turing Institute,), Sarah Inskip (University of Leicester), Marcel Keller, Toomas Kivisild (KU Leuven), Piers Mitchell (University of Cambridge), Bram Mulder (University of Cambridge), Tamsin O’Connell (University of Cambridge), Alice Rose ()University of Cambridge, and Christiana Lyn Scheib (University of Cambridge and Estonian Bioscience Centre): 

Health and society in medieval Cambridge.

10.15-10.30:    Pause

10.30-11.00:     Hanna Dahlström (Museum of Copenhagen, Denmark) and Elizabeth Newell, Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania, US):

The first Copenhageners – An interdisciplinary investigation of burials from two medieval churchyards from Copenhagen, Denmark.

11.00-11.30:     Ole Georg Moseng (University of South-East Norway): 

Health history – an interdisciplinary field of research.

11.30-12.00:     Axel Christophersen (NTNU University Museum, Department of Archaeology and Cultural History):

                        Layers lost: Why are the cultural layers from late-medieval towns in Scandinavia so scarce?

12.00-12.30:      Plenary discussion

12.30-13.00:      Lunch

Session 2: Towns, urban landscape and environment (Moderator: Ole Georg Moseng)

The medieval towns created its own environmental conditions. What was the challenges the urban population face during the Middle Ages concerning health and decease? What measures did urban authorities implement in the urban landscape to meet these challenges?

13.00-13.30:     Erik Opsahl (NTNU Department of Historical and Classical Studies):

Trondheim as an urban center in the Late Middle Ages

13.30-14.00:      Elisabeth Swensen (NTNU University Museum, Department of Archaeology

and Cultural History):

Water management: using archaeological evidence of water infrastructure to detect their interaction with public health management.

14.00-14.15:      Pause

14.15-14.45:     Edite Martins Alberto (Center of Historical Studies in Lisbon City Hall´s Cultural Department) and Joana Balsa de Pinho (Artis –Institute of Art History (University of Lisbon): 

It would spread throughout the land with great damage” – The first public health and healthcare practices in 15th century Lisbon.

14.45-15.15:     Claire Weeda (Leiden University): 

Policing the Urban Environment and Fifteenth-Century Military infrastructures

15.15-16.45:     Terje Thun (NTNU University Museum, The National Laboratory for Age Determination) and Helene Løvstrand Svarva (NTNU University Museum, The National Laboratory for Age Determination):

Tree-ring investigations to detect events that might have influenced the health situation during the project period

16.45-17.15:      Plenary discussion

Day 2 – February 18.02 

Session 3: Looking into the future (Moderator: Hans Stenøien).

New analythical methods at the intersection of physics, biology, and genetics have provided opportunities to ask new questions and find new answers to old questions about environment, health and disease. Where are we now, and where does the road lead into the future?

09.00-09.30:      Key note speaker: Tom Gilbert The Globe Institute, Section for Evolutionary 

Genomics, University of Copenhagen: 

Historic Trondheim – what pathogens can we detect and how did they shape our genomes?

09.30-10.00:     Nina Elisabeth Valstrand (NTNU Department of Historical and Classical Studies): Old remains, new insights

10.00-10.30:     Hege Ingjerd Hollund (Museum of Archaeology, the University of Stavanger), Sean Dexter Denham (Museum of Archaeology, the University of Stavanger), Tom Gilbert (The Globe Institute, the University of Copenhagen), Axel

Christophersen (NTNU University Museum Department of Archaeology and Cultural History): 

A histotaphonomic investigation of medieval skeletal collections from Trondheim, Norway.

10.30-10.45:      Pause

10.45-11.15:      Sean Dexter Denham (Museum of Archaeology, the University of Stavanger):

Diet, health and  quality of life in medieval Trondheim.

11.15-11.45:     Jonas Bergman (The Archaeologists, National Historical Museums): 

Parasitic disease in the medieval urban environment.

11.45-12.15:     Rebecca Blakeney: 

Seeking Evidence of Monastic Medicinal Plant Use: a case study from Hovedøya Kloster

12.15-13.00:      Lunch

13.15-14.00:      Plenary discussion, summing up (Moderator: Erik Opshal) 

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“Eat, Pray, Dig: Preventative Healthcare Among Miners in Europe, 1200-1600” – Lecture by Guy Geltner

Ever since miners began excavating Europe’s „underground cathedrals” in the later twelfth century, they encountered many hazards both below and above the ground. This talk examines the cluster of dangers miners faced (or thought they faced) and the suite of preventative programs they devised to address them, on the basis of legal, scientific, administrative and pictorial sources. It also seeks to assess the latter’s limitations and impact, as they emerge from (bio)archaeological data from mining cemeteries and other archaeological remains. Tracing the preventative practices of these mostly rural communities sheds much new light on preindustrial healthscaping in Europe and its relations with the era’s prevalent medical paradigm of Galenism, which is increasingly better understood among townspeople. Furthermore, it tests new methodologies to recover and analyse miners’ sub/terranean spaces, including their unique materiality and mobility regimes. In particular, the spread of metalliferous seams, which elites could not control, and the era’s available technologies of excavation, created opportunities for miners to translate their underground agency into exterranean privileges, including those designed to preserve their health. Collectively these conditions often placed miners on the cutting edge of group prophylactics, ranging from protective gear and underground guidance systems, to expensive drainage and ventilation equipment, to balanced diets and zoning aboveground.

This lecture was delivered in Bochum University on 18 November 2021. You can watch the video recording of the lecture here.

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Interview with Claire Weeda about her new book “Ethnicity in Medieval Europe 950-1250: Medicine, Power and Religion”

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 colonization, questioning their work ethic, social organization, 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. 

Ethnicity in Medieval Europe 950-1250, Medicine, Power and Religion (Boydell and Brewer, 2021), provides a 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 racialized others. Interpreting nationhood through a religious lens, monks and schoolmen explained it as scientifically informed by environmental medicine, and 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.

You can listen to this interview here.

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Urban health in the Middle Ages and Today: Changing Community Politics and Environments

Janna Coomans

Through vaccination campaigns and lifting restrictions, authorities across the globe are promoting the idea of a return to normal, yet which form the ‘end’ of the COVID pandemic will take is uncertain. There may be celebrations and post-war-like baby booms, or public festivities, which are, in a way, secular versions of religious processions thanking God for lifting the curse of plague. Others foresee a more gradual liberation, with many relapses. The pandemic may also stay, and for a long time impact both physical and mental communal wellbeing – as did the Second Plague Pandemic, which lasted in Europe from the mid-fourteenth to the late eighteenth century. Moreover, historical comparisons reveal important links between crises and routine health practices.

The past two years have made it very clear that public health is as much about spaces, movements and economic and political stakes as it is about access to hospitals and doctors. There is, moreover, a new interest in long-term histories of health. Modern democratic states are no prerequisite to establish public health policies, which can entail any intervention to avoid disease and promote wellbeing at a group level. Preventative health was as pertinent and political during the later Middle Ages as it is today.

A recent effort has been made by historians to ‘clean up’ the Middle Ages. This was not an era characterized by urbanites spending their lives in an apex of dirt and chaos. Neither did things improve in any linear progression towards the ‘true’ birth of public health in the nineteenth century. My study of the medieval Low Countries subscribes to that important intervention. Yet the question ‘how dirty a medieval city was’ may not even be the most important one. Rather, concerns for sanitation and health were integrated into the routine governance of a medieval city. Urban community politics were negotiated and performed through daily activities, and dealing with routine health risks and organising sanitation were crucial arenas in which that happened.

Based on the foci and subjects that Netherlandish archival sources convey, the pursuit of a healthy medieval city can be divided into four main goals, namely: 1. well-functioning infrastructures; 2. sufficient and high-quality water and food; 3. organized (but not necessarily centralised) waste disposal; and, 4. finally, a morally healthy community. Managing all kinds of matter, including animals, waste, and people, was therefore also linked to an idea of social and moral union. Controlling those resources gave a sense of security, indeed secured power. In sum, balancing flows, in combination with balancing morality, defined communal health practices during the later Middle Ages. It was therefore at once more environmental and more spiritual than its twenty-first-century Euro-American counterpart. Further, responsibilities were divided differently. The water-rich lands of the late medieval Low Countries were populated by a large number of semi-independent towns and cities. This gave the region a distinct political profile, in which public health at an urban level played a key role. Besides regional and urban authorities, others such as guilds, parishes, religious orders and neighbourhoods also participated in health practices. Thus, facilities like sewage and waste collection, now in the hands of municipalities, were often organised among households or artisans.

There were also ‘shocks’ to routines: epidemic disease, famines, disasters such as floods and large fires, and political conflicts could impact public hygiene profoundly. Plague was one important factor and accelerator. However, it was not the start of thinking about communal health, as scholars earlier assumed. There is an important parallel to be made here: rather than perceiving the COVID crisis on its own, it is crucial to relate its experience and sense of collapse to structural everyday health practices, if we want to understand its societal impact, and think about future preventative efforts.

This post first was published on fifteeneightyfour.

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Call for Papers: Health, Environment and Urban Development in the Middle Ages

New Dates: 17-18 February 2022
Norwegian University of Science and Technology, University Museum, Trondheim

New Abstract Submission Date: 17 December 2021

(The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty about travel activity, inland and abroad. However, it is our priority to conduct this conference physically to contribute constructively to network building within a research area in very rapid development.)

The aim of the conference is to share results and promote interdisciplinary debate amongst international colleagues who have worked across disciplines with research questions related to health, environment, and medieval urban development. We welcome papers from archaeology, history, ancient DNA, paleobotany, zoology/zooarchaeology, climate science, linguists, literary studies, and other relevant disciplines.

We welcome proposals for papers of 20 minutes in length (+ 10 minutes of discussion) engaged with the session themes. Abstracts should not exceed 200-300 words, and are to be sent to Elisabeth Forrestad Swensen, e-mail: by no later than 17 December 2021, and should contain the following information: name, institutional affiliation, email.

Keynote speakers: Prof. Guy Geltner, Monash University, Melbourne, and Prof M. Thomas P. Gilbert, Centre for Geogenetics, University of Copenhagen.

The conference is organized by the Norwegian Research Council funded project “Medieval urban health: from private to public responsibility” (2017-2020), whose goal has been to shed new light on how public health evolved from individual practices to public actions; what factors caused this ground-breaking development? The overarching methodological principle has been to compare the natural and built urban environment in medieval Trondheim with developments in health, diet, and mobility. The evidence has been gathered from large collections of well-preserved skeletons from medieval cemeteries in Trondheim. Biomolecular analyzes have also been applied to identify the character of infectious diseases in the urban population during the period c. AD1000-1600.

Organizing committee: Prof. Axel Christophersen (Department of Archaeology and Cultural History, NTNU University Museum), Prof. Hans K. Stenøien (Department of Natural History, NTNU University Museum) and senior research fellow Elisabeth Forrestad Swensen (Department of Archaeology and Cultural History, NTNU University Museum).

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Ethnicity in Medieval Europe, 950-1250

Claire Weeda

On 26 March 1215, the brash Bolognese rhetorician Boncompagno da Signa read aloud his manual of rhetoric, Rhetorica antiqua,in front of the college of professors of civil and canon law. If some of his students had nodded off by the time he reached book VI, about the art of writing letters of consolation, they might have jolted awake when laughter arose in the classroom. For at that point, Boncompagno injected some comic material into his lesson, ridiculing several ethnic groups in Europe. In the section on how to address peoples in mourning, he mocks the northerners and their typical drinking habits, claiming that ‘the English, Bohemians, Poles, Ruthenians and Slavs mix their tears with drink until they reach a state of drunkenness, and thus consoled, they retain their usual merriment’. On the other hand, he continues, the Germans lament in soft voices – which is a playful inversion of their stereotypically harsh voices, that were sometimes likened to barking dogs or rattling carts. The more southern people of Romagna and Lombardy typically use artifice, however, whereby ‘in order to simulate lamentation there are many who wet their eyes with saliva or prick their eyelids’. Thus, Boncompagno actively put into practice his own lessons on the art of rhetoric. The textbooks of rhetoric and poetry indeed advised writers to capture their audience’s attention, and to be convincing, by incorporating common stereotypes, alluding to the typological traits of women, peasants and noble men, old-aged persons or ethnic groups.

Following on from literary composition, I wanted to understand the functioning of those ethnic and racial stereotypes in social contexts and power relations, their construction and the meaning attributed to them outside of the nation-state. My research suggests that the stereotypes employed by monks, schoolmen, poets and historians in western Europe in the period 950-1250 certainly were not random. English drunkenness, for instance, was a widespread image attached to northern peoples that was used in multiple contexts. Thus, in 1213, Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury, suggested that English drinking was passed down from father to son and was hereditary. He did so in the context of the interdict pronounced by Pope Innocent III over England in 1207, thus attributing England’s woes to the collective guilt of gluttony and drunkenness. The Benedictine monk William of Malmesbury, writing a century earlier, claimed the English on the eve of the Battle of Hastings acted as drunkards, ‘eating till they were sick and drinking till they spewed’. Their drinking ushered in their defeat at the hands of the Normans. In fact, English drinking was such a ubiquitous trope that Walter Daniel (fl. 1150–67), a Cistercian monk at the abbey of Rievaulx who referred to himself as a medicus, in the Centum Sententiae portrayed the English drinker sitting, holding in one hand a siphon to his mouth to drink, and in his other hand his own pipe – his penis – to eject urine.

Ethnic stereotypes abound in all kinds of texts produced between the tenth and thirteenth centuries in Latinate Europe: poems, histories, lists, encyclopaedias, medical tracts, proverbs and letters. My research shows that besides in the classroom and in social relations, the rhetorical use of ethnic and racial stereotypes occurred foremost in the military sphere and in ethnographic description in the context of colonization, advanced by men in the rising schools and courts. The ethnic tropes were used to categorize the traits of fighters and labourers within and outside the Christian imperium, holding them up to norms of strength, manliness, courage, industry and rational thought – to levels of discipline. In doing so, schoolmen and courtiers were making arguments about who qualified to lead the defence of the sweet patria in conflicts within Europe’s Christian imperium, as well as justifying the expropriation of land outside it.

The production of such images was aided by already circulating texts, such as Vegetius’s military manual De re militari, biblical commentaries, and Latinate ideas about governance, embedded in Graeco-Arabic environmental deterministic theories about how climate determines physiology and character. The monks, schoolmen and courtiers thereby integrated various traditions of thought: religious ideas about sin and the fall of mankind, genealogy and prophesies of the translation of power and knowledge; medical environmental theory about bodies, minds and places; and rhetorical-legal discussions about ownership of land and the fruits of labour, governance and the organization of society. The ethnic self-representations that the schoolmen forged and appropriated reflect an idealized image of the social elite, emphasizing discipline, but also urbanity and eloquence. These were prerequisites for administering governance well, as laid out in the ubiquitous regimens produced at this time.

The stereotypes, crucially, give weight to legal arguments pertaining to property and dominium, set in an environmentally deterministic narrative of progress, offering a justification of the colonization of ‘squandered lands’. In ethnographic description, those fertile lands are populated by allegedly semi-pagan, irrational, lawless beings, on a sliding scale of human-animalistic traits. Images of the self and the other thereby work in dialogue, within the same framework, drawing from Graeco-Arabic, Roman and religious ideas. Negative tropes place others in a different space and timeframe, in a backward past, as a form of temporal and spatial othering.

In my view we can only begin to understand ethnic or racial stereotypes of others, if we understand how ideas of the self are constructed. The imagined nation, or ethnotype, stands in a long and fluid textual and oral tradition, whereby the relevance and power of those stereotypes depends on the context in which they are employed, the discourses on which their validity is based and the authoritative voices that wield them. This underscores ethnotypes’ status not as outcomes of political and cultural processes but, rather, as verbal ammunition to be used in negotiations over social status, property and power, along with intergroup bonding. My book thus presents a snapshot of how monks and schoolmen, in the period 950-1250, talked about ethnicity. I would like to add that it does not work with beginnings and outcomes of the development of nationhood, but instead looks at processes in which constellations of marks of distinction are negotiated. Hopefully, my book will contribute to understanding how such configurations influenced the colonization discourses in other regions as well, in yet other contexts and places.

This post first was published on Boydell & Brewer

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Matter into Place: Public Health and Urban Space in the Medieval Low Countries

Online Workshop

Friday, 9 July 2021, 9:00-13:00 CEST


09:00-10:45 Session1: Waterscapes

Janna Coomans, Léa Hermenault (University of Amsterdam)
Water infrastructures and public works as key elements of an economy of movement in Ghent (14th-15th centuries)

Frank Gelaude (University of Antwerp)
Controlling rivers in the medieval city of Ghent

Roos van Oosten (Leiden University)
Water management in a typical Dutch water-rich town

Discussant: Maaike van Berkel (Radboud University Nijmegen)

10:45-11:15: Coffee Break

11:15-13:00 Session2: Crafts, wastes and pollution in the city

Lola Digard (University of Amsterdam)
The influence of guilds and peace procedures on the social, moral and healthcare environment of the late medieval cities of Ghent and Douai, 1350-1500

Ward Leloup (Vrije Universiteit Brussel & Ghent University)
‘Walram the coryer, he stynketh’. The leather industry and the urban environment in late medieval Bruges and Mechelen

Barbora Wouters, Yanik Devos (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)
Open spaces, markets, waste management and post pollution in medieval towns through a geoarchaeological lens

Discussant: Marc Boone (Ghent University)

Organizers: Janna Coomans, Lola Digard and Léa Hermenault

Please email to register and receive the zoom link.

You can watch the recording of this workshop here.

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Approaches to Life and Health in Medieval Cities – Online Workshop

Featuring the launch of the Healthscaping WebGIS

Friday, 25 June 2021, 15:00-18:00 CEST/ 9:00-12:00 EST


15:00 Introduction: Launching the Healthscaping Map
Guy Geltner, University of Amsterdam and Monash University

15:10 Mapping Public Health Measures in Late Medieval Bologna
Taylor Zaneri, University of Amsterdam

15:40 Pollution Issues in Late Medieval Bologna from the Fiscal Sources’ Point of View
Rosa Smurra, University of Bologna

16:10 The Demographic and Health Context and Consequences of Plague in Medieval London
Sharon DeWitte, University of South Carolina

17:00 Discussant
Nicholas Terpstra, University of Toronto

Please email to register and receive the zoom link.

You can watch the recording of this workshop here.

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