Calling Some Public Health Initiatives “Medieval” is Harmful

The “Middle Ages” have been making the headlines since the recent outbreak of COVID-19 and its presence in at least 29 countries around the globe. As the list of the dead and infected grows worryingly long, observers seem eager to draw parallels between the current situation and the deeper past, depicting, somewhat ironically, both the virus’ spread and diverse attempts to contain it as “medieval.” The term’s use in both contexts is meant to shock, even offend, albeit driven by a real desire to see efficient policies being rolled out. Yet there is a grave danger in weaponizing the “Middle Ages” in that particular way.

Recent allusions to the “Middle Ages” refer to the onset of and responses to the second plague pandemic, a.k.a. the Black Death, in 1346. That disease killed, by the most conservative estimates, 30 per cent of Europe’s population, although how and why it could do so remains hotly debated. Even as aDNA has become an accessible technology, which happened very recently, scholars continue to argue about the disease’s epidemiology. Yet the lack of reliable data did not stop commentators, then as now, from taking earlier societies’ ignorance and apathy for granted. It was, after all, a period historian Jules Michelet famously wrote off as “one thousand years without a bath.”

Those roots likely nourished an influential commentator’s quip, that we mustn’t “pull up the drawbridge & hide in the castle” until coronavirus goes away. Yet, as study after study has shown, earlier societies had a complex health awareness and rich experience with implementing preventative measures at the population level, even well before the onset of plague. Cities enforced zoning, armies monitored their diets, miners wore protective gear: all actively managing their unique risks, without the aid of microscopes, colonial armies, the WHO or the Rockefeller Foundation. More importantly, these attempts fit cultural contexts and available means, just as vaccinations and seat-belts did others in later eras. In short, the current framing of “medieval” responses is not merely ignorant, it is a blatant attempt to discredit certain measures. And it does so based on a combination of insufficient data, a distorted view of the human past, and a desire to throw “deviant” approaches into history’s dustbin.

Pundits’ lesser fault is their misuse of an imagined Middle Ages. In the shouting match that the public sphere has become, they undermine considered and relevant responses to the spread of disease by othering certain measures as “medieval.” That is unhelpful, and it ignores Anna Tsing’s important insight about the inherent friction of globalization. A globalized society does not mean (if you’ll excuse another irony) that the world is flat, and that policies must be uniform to succeed. Pathogens may know no borders, but fighting disease happens in specific cultural, political and historical contexts. Among the latter, none are—and some would say never have been—medieval.

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Symposium on Paleopathology, Disability, and Care

The next Paleopathology Association European Meeting will be held in the city of Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. The central theme for the conference will be “Paleopathology and its impact on medicine and society” and will focus on the importance of both scientific achievements and public outreach.

Abstracts shall be submitted until March 31, 2020, and they will be peer-reviewed by the Scientific Committee. We also encourage to submit proposals for symposia and workshops which shall offer an opportunity to present and discuss research on a particular topic (half-day or less). Selected symposia and /or workshops will take place either in the main venue of the meeting or Faculty of Medicine (Vilnius University) if they include an educational component and hands-on teaching opportunity.

Symposium # 1 | Paleopathology, Disability and Care

Organizers: Ileana Micarelli, Department of Environmental Biology, Sapienza, University of Rome; Lorna Tilley, Australian National University; Mary Anne Tafuri, Department of Environmental Biology, Sapienza, University of Rome

The past decade has seen growing interest in the ways disability and care were experienced in the past. Although to date most work in this area has been undertaken by prehistorians, a 2019 symposium on disability and care in Medieval times demonstrated the richness of theory and data available from the classical and post-classical world. This dedicated session seeks to bring together researchers from all time periods and cultures to build on this beginning, expanding aims, methods and perspectives in the field. In past times, dealing with the consequences of disease or injury, often caused or exacerbated by environmental and/or social constraints, placed significant demands on individuals, their families and their communities. How can we identify the likely impacts of pathology? Who received care? Who provided care? How were short-term needs met and longer-term caregiving sustained? How were people with visible impairments treated? How successful was the care available, and what might differences in access to care (and type of care provided) suggest about contemporary norms and values? Addressing questions such as these will deepen our understanding of past disability and care, a goal now part of a new agenda in bioarchaeology.
We envisage integrated poster and podium presentations, and call for contributions which engage with and/or extend theory and methodology in this area of bioarchaeological research. Descriptive case studies of disability and care are welcome as these are integral to comprehending individual, ‘on the ground’ experience, but may be best suited to a poster format.

For more information about the next Paleopathology Association European Meeting and guidelines on how to submit an abstract, please visit here.

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Janna Coomans Won the 2019 Pro Civitate Award of Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium

Janna Commans, a member of the Premodern Healthscaping Project, has won the prestigious Pro Civitate award of Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts for her doctoral thesis In Pursuit of a Healthy City: Sanitation and the Common Good in the Late Medieval Low Countries for its “original and important contribution to city history or to local history.”

You can read more about this award and Janna’s thesis here.

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Medicine in the Medieval North Atlantic World

Maynooth University, Ireland

19–21 March 2020

This interdisciplinary conference explores the reception and transmission of medical knowledge between and across England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Scandinavia during the medieval period, and will draw on history, literature, philosophy, science, religion, art, archaeology and manuscript studies. It will interrogate medical texts and ideas in both Latin and vernacular languages, addressing questions of translation, cultural and scientific inheritance and exchange, and historical conceptions of health and of the human being within nature.

Confirmed speakers: Dr Debby Banham (University of Cambridge); Prof. Guy Geltner (University of Amsterdam); Prof. Charlotte Roberts (Durham University)

Organising committee: Dr Sarah Baccianti (Queen’s University Belfast); Dr Siobhán Barrett, Dr Bernhard Bauer & Dr Deborah Hayden (Maynooth University)

Registration is open now. For registration and the programme, please check here.

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‘Public Health’ in the Middle Ages: Healthscaping Urban Europe

Bijeenkomst van de werkgroep ‘History, Health and Healing’

vrijdag 7 februari 2020, 13.00-18.00 uur

Universiteitsbibliotheek locatie Uithof, Heidelberglaan 3, Utrecht (Boothzaal)

Tijdens deze bijeenkomst van de werkgroep HHH presenteren leden van de onderzoeksgroep ‘Healthscaping Urban Europe’ hun onderzoek. Na een inleiding van Prof. Guy Geltner, die het project coördineert, volgen drie presentaties die vervolgens worden gerefereerd door twee specialisten: een in de mediëvistiek, en een in de geschiedenis van public health. Daarna is er plenaire discussie en een borrel.

Aan deelname zijn geen kosten deelname verboden. Wel wordt u – in verband met de catering – verzocht zich aan te melden bij de secretaris van de werkgroep, Timo Bolt:

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Early Public Health Wikithon

Wednesday, 29 January 2020, 15:30 CET
Bushuis room F2.08B (Kloveniersburgwal 48 Amsterdam)

Facilitated by Guy Geltner (UvA) and Alice White (Wellcome Trust)

We invite you all to join the Premodern Healthscaping team to make a focused intervention on Public Health History and a handful of related entries on Wikipedia in languages other than English, Dutch, Italian, French and Farsi (as these are already being covered by the team members).

Anyone  interested in participating or just following the event on social media, please look at the brief instructions below.

If you want further information, please email us via


  1. Open a (free) Wikipedia account;
  2. Confirm your participation and Wikipedia handle with Peyman Amiri at; Peyman will also help sign you up to the event’s outreach portal;
  3. Familiarize yourself with the Wiki editing guide.


  1. Identify the language and entry in which you’d like to intervene, and look through the editorial forum and “talk” section to see what relevant people think about the status quo in general;
  2. In the “talk” section of the Wikipedia entry, raise the need or state your intention to overhaul/improve/create an entry for “early public health”; please do so asap and do not wait until the Wikithon day!

On the Wikithon day:

  1. Make sure you will be connected through a network that can easily support Wiki editing, e.g. university or home-private. A public (but not university!) library is less recommended;
  2. Have your text and references at hand; and
  3. Join us physically or virtually via skype (Premodern Healthscaping).

For all technical/strategic queries to do with Wikipedia editing, please contact Alice White ( at the Wellcome Trust.

We view this above all as a preliminary exercise to identify the inevitably numerous lacunae that still exist on Wikipedia from your perspective. Feel free to create (and share!) your own “to do” list, and organize follow-up events.

Live tweeting via @ProSanitate #EarlyPubHealth and #Wikithon

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Representations of Circulation and Flow in Eleventh-Century Urban China – A Workshop with Christian de Pee

Thursday, 6 February 2020, 15:00-17:00.

Oost-Indisch Huis, D2.04 (Kloveniersburgwal 48, Amsterdam)

This workshop is dedicated to discussing Christian de Pee’s recent work on representations of circulation and flow in eleventh-century urban China, as part of his current book project Losing the Way in the City: Urban Life and Intellectual Crisis in Middle-Period China, 800-1100. If you wish to attend the workshop, please contact us ( to receive the text.

Christian de Pee is an associate professor at the University of Michigan and at this moment a visiting scholar at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden. Christian de Pee’s previous publications include The Writing of Weddings in Middle-Period China: Text and Ritual Practice in the Eighth through Fourteenth Centuries and the edited volume Senses of the City: Perceptions of Hangzhou and the Southern Song books.


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Book Review – The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages

Written by Claire Weeda

Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Every discipline is in many intimate ways intimately connected to its object of study. In pre-modern historical sciences, the question of whether racism already existed in the European ‘Middle Ages’ is directly related to the diversity within the discipline. Cultural historian Claire Weeda argues that before we can seriously investigate racism in the ‘Middle Ages’, the concept of the ‘Middle Ages’ itself must be viewed very critically.

You can read this review (in Dutch) here.

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New Publication: Osteoarchaeology in Historical Context

Osteoarchaeology in Historical Context: Cemetery Research from the Low Countries

Edited by Roos van Oosten, Rachel Schats & Kerry Fast

Osteoarchaeology is a rich field for reconstructing past lives in that it can provide details on sex, age-at-death, stature, and pathology in conjunction with the cultural, social, and economic aspects of the person’s environment and burial conditions. While osteoarchaeological research is common in the Low Countries, many of the studies done on the excellent skeletal collections remain unpublished and therefore unavailable to a larger audience.

Following on the Urban Graveyards volumes, Osteoarchaeology in historical context contributes to the dissemination of cemetery research in the Low Countries. Several important skeletal collections are examined in their historical contexts to better understand past living and dying. Osteoarchaeological data are combined with information on burial location, orientation, and grave goods. In doing so, this volume expands our knowledge of contextual cemetery research in the Low Countries and serves as a starting point for comparative research.

You can read more about this forthcoming volume here.

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Call for Papers: Historical Questions – Zooarchaeological Answers

Historical Zooarchaeology: New Perspectives on Combining History, Archaeology, and Zooarchaeology

Thursday, December 12,  09:30–17:30.

University of Amsterdam.

This is the second joint workshop co-organized by the University of Amsterdam and the University of Groningen exploring new developments in method and theory in zooarchaeology. The sub-field of zooarchaeology has reached maturity in the last 50 years and now informs all fields of archaeological inquiry, from the distant prehistoric past, to forensic investigations of recent faunal remains. The aim of this workshop is to explore the particular challenges that are posed when working on historically documented time periods. Does the presence of textual sources make our lives as specialist researchers easier? Or simply complicate our interpretations of faunal remains?

We are seeking papers that explore human-animal interactions and relationships from a variety of perspectives demonstrating the opportunities as well as the potential pitfalls that arise when one attempts to combine archaeological data with evidence from documentary and or epigraphic sources.

The CALL FOR PAPERS is now open to anyone working within the zooarchaeological field that combines zooarchaeological data with any form of documented history.

You can read more about the workshop here.

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