New Article by Guy Geltner: “The Path to Pistoia: Urban Hygiene Before the Black Death”

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.

You can access the article here.

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Postdoctoral Researcher GIS – Urban Archaeology of the Low Countries, 1200-1500

Project description

The postdoctoral researcher’s main project entails the collection of diverse data on preventative and curative health programs and indicators for their material impact in several Netherlandish cities, culminating in the construction of a health map concerning one of these cities. A health map is an innovative methodology developed by the existing team that seeks to bring together in a digital environment different disciplines and types of historical evidence on pre-industrial urban wellbeing. It is intended to facilitate research and exchange among scholars working on modern, pre-modern, and global contexts. Currently, much work has been done for Italy (and Bologna in particular), which will serve as the main point of reference and comparison between these two highly urbanized regions.

With regard to the Low Countries, data available for the health map of Ghent are in the most advanced stage and can be further developed in close cooperation with several team members, social-urban and medical-cultural by training. Sources attesting a wide range of facilities, policies, practices and material adjustments that impacted the health and wellbeing of the urban community can be mapped and then compared/juxtaposed with other information, such as demographic and socio-economic geographic data, including but not limited to the water systems, artisanal production sites, schools, churches and the presence of animals.


Eligible applicants must have:

  • a completed PhD in medieval or urban archaeology by the time of the appointment;
  • proven significant experience working in a GIS environment;
  • research experience in Netherlandish archaeological sites and familiarity with working in local archives;
  • a research and publication record commensurate with their career stage;
  • a thorough command of (Middle) Dutch, excellent English and a working knowledge of Latin and languages pertinent to the field’s professional literature;
  • theoretical background in urban studies and material culture;
  • a strong creative and cooperative attitude and willingness to work in a multidisciplinary team;
  • strong organizational skills;

The specialist knowledge of premodern medical history (theory, policy and practice) is an advantage.

Further information

For further information, please contact:


The postdoctoral researcher will be appointed for 22,8 hours per week (0,6 fte) for a maximum period of 21 months at the Department of History, European Studies & Religious Studies of the Faculty of Humanities. The research will be carried out under the aegis of ASH. The appointment is initially for a period of 6 months; contingent on satisfactory performance it will be extended by a maximum of 15 months.

The intended starting date of the contract is 1 January 2020. The gross monthly salary (on a full-time basis) will range from €3,389 to €4,018 depending on experience and qualifications, in accordance with the Collective Labour Agreement of Dutch Universities.

Job application

The UvA is an equal-opportunity employer. We prioritise diversity and are committed to creating an inclusive environment for everyone. We value a spirit of enquiry and perseverance, provide the space to keep asking questions, and promote a culture of curiosity and creativity.

Only qualified applicants, as detailed under requirements, should apply.

Applications should include the following information, in one pdf-file (not zipped):

  • a letter of motivation;
  • a full academic CV, including a list of publications;
  • the names and contact details of two referees who may be approached by the selection committee;
  • an original article/chapter-length text (up to 10,000 words) relating directly to the research field.

Shortlisted candidates will be contacted for an interview by the end of October 2019. Interviews are expected to be held on 13 November 2019.

No agencies, please!

You can see the original announcement and apply here.

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Marking and Badges: Exploring Premodern Schools, Discipline and Communal Health from a Global Perspective

A Report by Claire Weeda

In June 2019, I hesitantly fastened my conference badge to my blouse in attendance of the conference ‘The Pursuit of Global Urban History’ in Leicester. How to address global commensurability, the impress of environment and the spread of knowledge, technology, and artefacts through networks is featuring higher on the agenda of many academic symposia and journals. It is also rapidly becoming central to premodern studies, as the recent issue of Past & Present attests. So I was excited about joining this conference, to immerse myself for several days in new approaches to global urban history.

Together with the historian of medicine Geneviève Dumas, from Sherbrooke University in Canada, I co-presented a paper on the dissemination of Galenic medical knowledge from southwest Asia and northern Africa to northern Europe cities. We approached the spread of Galenism from the perspective of impulse centres – urban communities –, the sites where knowledge might be carried further, through artefacts like books, or people, by word of mouth. How does knowledge ‘walk’, so to speak? Tracking specific textual knowledge allowed us to map and compare how technologies of hygiene – hand washing – were copied and adapted, from the Persian and Arab Mediterranean to the Low Countries. Monks, students, and men of learning translated and absorbed Greco-Arabic medical information at impulse centres like Monte Cassino, Salerno and Toledo around the turn of the twelfth century. The emerging universities in northern Europe integrated this new knowledge in their curricula.

This is not a new argument. However, by mapping the origins of hundreds of medical students enrolled in, for instance, fourteenth-century Cologne university, a picture begins to emerge of the further dissemination of such knowledge. As knowledge walked further into urban communities, medical texts containing hygienic prescripts, like hand-washing advice at the dinner table, slipped into conduct books. These attempted to teach morals and manners at pre-university schools across the region, to the laity, to tradesmen, and aspiring members of the political community. The Greco-Arabic context probably quickly was lost.

Schools are one of the most important sites where we pick up new knowledge. Moreover, the maintenance of the body politic as a working, living organism is intrinsically tied up with education. Viewing the city or a principality as an organism gained traction with the spread of Aristotelean political and Galenic medical knowledge. From the thirteenth century, writers such as Giles of Rome or Nicole Oresme went on to produce new blueprints for government informed by a corporal idea of society. A plethora of regimens and mirrors advising how to govern the body and the body politic appeared in Latin, Old French, Middle Dutch, Middle English, and Italian. Education at the expanding universities played a key role in spreading these ideas, as did the courts, monasteries and local parish schools.

But this is only part of the story. While in Leicester, I met up with Ben Parsons, who recently published Punishment and Medieval Education. In this must-read study of physical disciplining, Parsons argues convincingly that the use of corporal punishment in medieval schools was measured, taking into account the age, circumstances, and capabilities of the students. His book also brings to light to what extent knowledge of the body and pedagogy were intertwined. The thirteenth-century influential Disciplina scolarium, for instance, uses Galenic classification to advise how to advance the learning process of students, especially that of young, sanguine, unruly boys agitated by the hot blood running through their veins.

Knowledge of how the body, brain, and memory worked could be put to a teacher’s advantage. It not only helped to nourish memory and concentration. It also formed part of the backbone of disciplinary strategies. Galenism thus aided teachers, as a secular political pastorate, caring and managing, disciplining and regulating the members of the urban community, to etch schooling and policy onto the body.

But it doesn’t stop here. As Stephen J. Ball comments in Foucault, Power and Education, schools are also sites where we learn to categorize. Along with social and economic status, citizenship, and gender, biological classifications of the abilities of students means students are put into boxes at an early stage in life, based on ‘authoritative knowledge’. This categorization also determines who has access to which knowledge – and based on biology, who is deemed able to process which kind of knowledge.

Knowledge of social rules of hygiene – the dinner table morals and manners – allowed some individuals to present themselves aesthetically as disciplined actors in society. It helped certain individuals to perform urbanity, which ultimately might have given them a political voice.

These classifications can have a lasting impact on a person’s life, socio-economic status, and position in the hierarchy of the body politic. It determines what kind of labour a person will do, how she will spend her energy, how she will move in society. In the thirteenth-century body politic, the craftsmen worked with their hands, the peasants toiled the land. Their contribution to the body politic was considered to be different from that of officials, judges or notaries, men of the pen.

Such categorization is also visualized materially through uniforms. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, city governments handed out cloth to various officials representing governmental authority and tasked with maintaining order. Earlier the Church ordained that minorities wear the mark or badge of difference.

Pinning my badge onto my blouse in Leicester, made me think if present-day conference badges take on a different or similar function than premodern signposting. As a form of marking, badges reproduce a way of classification, determining who is in and who is out. Needless to say, wearing a conference badge is not compulsory, highly dangerous, or regulated through pecuniary disciplining. Moreover, I realize that privilege usually plays a significant role in being allowed to access academic symposia.

However, in my mind it does underscore yet again how important diversity in the academic community is – diversity of topics, regions, periods, ideas, approaches, and people. For diversity is one of few ways to break down the tunnel vision that classification readily takes. This, more than anything else, is what I took away from the ‘The Pursuit of Global Urban History’ conference.

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The MedHeal Seminar 2019: Public Health Development and Social Practice Patterns

Friday, September 20,  09:00–16:00.
Trondheim, University Museum (Vitenskapsmuseet), Schøning House, 2nd floor, meeting room Hugin.


9.00-915: Axel Christophersen: Welcome, introduction to the MH seminar 2019: Task and expectations.

A. Short reports from WP 1: Nutrition and environment
9.15 – 9.45: Paula Utigard Sandvik: Plant remains and nutrition
9.45 -10.15 Terje Thun: Climate conditions: Stability and change
10.15-10.30: Coffee break
10.30-11.00: Marie Joseé Nadeau: the isotope analysis: Results and challenges (if any!)
11.00 -11.30: Summing up WP1: How to proceed?
11.30-12.15: Lunch at the SIT cafeteria (next to the venue place)

B. Short reports from WP2: Water, waste and infectious diseases
12.30 -13.00: Elisabeth: PdD-Status and plans
13.00 -13.30: Åshild Vågene: Report from the DNA-analysis: Status and potentials
13.30 -14.00: Sean Denham//Hege Hollund: Report from the osteo- and histo archaeological analysis: Status and potential
14.00-14.15: Coffee-break
14.15 -14.45: Plenum, summary WP 2: How to proceed?

C. Report from WP 3: Public health development and social practice patterns
14.45-15.15: Erik/Ole Georg: Summing up yesterday’s workshop: ideas and potential for future research.
15.15-15.30: Plenum, summary WP 3: How to proceed?
15.30-16.00: Summing up, the way forward

There will be a seminar dinner on Thursday, September 19, at restaurant Troll at 19:00.

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“Roads to Health” – Now Available from Penn Press

Roads to Health: Infrastructure and Urban Wellbeing in Later Medieval Italy

G. Geltner

320 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 illus. 
Cloth Aug 2019 | ISBN 9780812251357
A volume in the Middle Ages Series

  • “G. Geltner’s Roads to Health transforms our understanding of urban life in later medieval Italy, and the premodern world more broadly, not simply by recovering the activities of officials in charge of urban infrastructure and the courts that adjudicated their work but also by pushing the chronology of these ‘healthscaping’ efforts into the period before the arrival of the Black Death. Geltner’s book is as important for historians of medicine and urban life as it is for historians of public health. A singular achievement.”—Monica Green, Arizona State University
  • A field-changing book, Roads to Health shatters the prevailing narrative that public health administration emerged from industrialization and other processes of Euro-American modernization. Combining richly documented detail and bold historical sweep, G. Geltner demonstrates that teleological assumptions have obscured the history of premodern public health policies, practices, and preventive theories; have distorted efforts to historicize govermentality and biopower; and are complicit with agendas that have claimed public health as a characteristic of civilized, Western modernity.”—Kathleen Davis, University of Rhode Island
  • “Consistently original and innovative, Roads to Health is a major contribution to the study of public health and medieval urban life. It furnishes incontestable documentary proof that northern Italian towns adopted a proactive approach to issues of environmental health long before the Black Death, while developing sophisticated legal and administrative structures to ensure compliance ‘on the ground.'”—Carole Rawcliffe, University of East Anglia
  • “Roads to Health is a spirited and thought-provoking argument for continuity between medieval and modern public health activities and for the existence and preeminence of routine practices over one-off emergency solutions to public health problems.”—Paolo Squatriti, University of Michigan

In Roads to Health, G. Geltner demonstrates that urban dwellers in medieval Italy had a keen sense of the dangers to their health posed by conditions of overcrowding, shortages of food and clean water, air pollution, and the improper disposal of human and animal waste. He consults scientific, narrative, and normative sources that detailed and consistently denounced the physical and environmental hazards urban communities faced: latrines improperly installed and sewers blocked; animals left to roam free and carcasses left rotting on public byways; and thoroughfares congested by artisanal and commercial activities that impeded circulation, polluted waterways, and raised miasmas. However, as Geltner shows, numerous administrative records also offer ample evidence of the concrete measures cities took to ameliorate unhealthy conditions. Toiling on the frontlines were public functionaries generally known as viarii, or “road-masters,” appointed to maintain their community’s infrastructures and police pertinent human and animal behavior. Operating on a parallel track were the camparii, or “field-masters,” charged with protecting the city’s hinterlands and thereby the quality of what would reach urban markets, taverns, ovens, and mills.

Roads to Health provides a critical overview of the mandates and activities of the viarii and camparii as enforcers of preventive health and safety policies between roughly 1250 and 1500, and offers three extended case studies, for Lucca, Bologna, and the smaller Piedmont town of Pinerolo. In telling their stories, Geltner contends that preventive health practices, while scientifically informed, emerged neither solely from a centralized regime nor as a reaction to the onset of the Black Death. Instead, they were typically negotiated by diverse stakeholders, including neighborhood residents, officials, artisans, and clergymen, and fostered throughout the centuries by a steady concern for people’s greater health.

G. Geltner is Professor of History at the University of Amsterdam and author of several books including The Making of Medieval Antifraternalism: Polemic, Violence, Deviance, and Remembrance, The Medieval Prison: A Social History, and Flogging Others: Corporal Punishment and Cultural Identity from Antiquity to the Present.

You can view Table of Contents and excerpt, and obtain the book via Penn Press.

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The Kiln, the Alembic, and the Clockwork: Inside the CSMBR Summer School

A Report by Lola Digard

The Centre for the Study of Medicine and the Body in the Renaissance (CSMBR) is an international institute of advanced studies belonging to the Fondazione Comel. Between the 29th and the 31st of March, the centre held a summer school entitled The Kiln, The Alembic and The Clockwork, in Pisa, in which I participated. This summer school gathered mostly young researcher around a few experienced keynote speakers, amongst which some famous names, such as Vivian Nutton, to discuss the transmission of medical knowledge from the Greek masters of antiquity to the Renaissance man. 

The summer school is open to anyone, but the Fondazione awards five participation grants each year to allow young researchers to not only attend the summer school, but also share their research with the rest of the participants. Each day was organized around several presentations by the keynote speakers, followed by a discussion. The afternoon was concluded by a round table where participants were encouraged to discuss a chosen subject, presented through (audio)visual, textual and sometimes musical supports. Each day ended by a visit of a cultural site in Pisa, and the participants were invited to dinner on the last evening.

I cannot begin to describe my experience, without saying a few words about the amazing place that is the Domus Commeliana, home of the Fondazione in Pisa. Located right next to the leaning tower, which oversees its gardens, the villa is the ideal space to assemble and discuss ideas, in the Italian sun and tradition. 

The concept of a summer school, rather than a conference, is really put forward by the organizers with the idea of creating an atmosphere that encourages debates and discussions, and allows younger scholars to feel comfortable engaging with the more experienced ones. Each intervention was well framed and made accessible to all researcher interested in the history of medicine, since (and that was also one of the interests of this event) the present researchers had a very varied set of specializations. Indeed, the award-winning presentations included subjects as diverse as the conception and production of prosthetic limbs in 16th century Germany, or the redaction by authors otherwise known for their scientific production, of poetic texts with a scientific subject. 

One of the highlights of the summer school was the possibility of exchanging ideas with scholars interested in such a variety of subjects. Being able to engage with these speakers, and with other young scholars was a great experience for everyone, and lively conversations took place both during lunch and breaks, but also in the evening, when we dinned in the great Pisan restaurants recommended by the organizers. The work of Tomaso Maria Pedrotti Del’Acqua, who is in charge of the Fondazione in Pisa, helped put everybody at ease, and create the warm atmosphere that presided the debates. 

In terms of the content, the school reached its  announced goal of “exploring  how the representation of the body and its functions changes from antiquity to the early modern period and how technology alters the perception of what we are as human animals.” 

Each day was dedicated to a specific scientific process, both inside and outside the body, and connected to the technological analogy usually used to represent this concept, i.e. the process of combination and concoction of humors was discussed along with the analogy of the kiln. This approach allowed to explore how the intercommunication of technology and medical science was beneficial for the development of both fields, and how technological advances modified the perception of the physical body. 

The wide temporal scope proposed by the program was addressed by the intervention of scholars such as Vivian Nutton and Hiro Hirai on the one hand, whose comparative work gave an in-depth analysis of the transmission of antique medical knowledge to renaissance thinkers. The interventions of scholars more specifically concerned with Renaissance perspectives derived from ancient Greek concepts, such as Fabrizio Bigotti and Benjamin Goldberg on the other hand, outlined how the multiplicity of knowledge of certain personalities of the Renaissance allowed them to combine medical and technical abilities to develop new perceptions of the body. As often, the discussion slightly leaped over some important interventions of the medieval period. This position can however be justified by the focus of the centre and the participants on the early modern period. 

The subjects discussed during these three days made me reflect on the possibility of using actor-network theory to explore the influence of technological innovations on the development of medical knowledge and health initiatives. For example, did the technologies developed in the Low Countries to control water flows in cities lead to the development of medical technologies designed to control humoral flows in the body? 

However, the most relevant insight I got from my participation in the summer school came from my exchanges with other scholars. Several of the participants told me that one of the experiences that helped them understand the challenges of acquiring and communicating medical knowledge in a technological context far different from ours, was attending a medical autopsy. If the idea first seemed a bit surprising (and quite frankly not really appealing), I quickly realized how insightful it could be. Whether it be from science classes or the doctor’s office, the general image we have of the interior of the body, is one of the neatly separated organs, usually each coloured in a different shade of red or blue, easily identifiable. The reality of opening a corpse is far different from this aesthetically pleasing and easily understandable image of the body. And even then, in modern autopsies, whether of legal or medical interest, technologies allow us to keep some of the most trivial aspects of opening a corpse, such as the smell, at bay. These conversations with other scholars convinced me that the challenges that understanding the body represented in the medieval context can be better understood by coming in contact with the reality of the corpse. That is why I have decided to get in contact with medical universities to see if I could attend an autopsy. If my attempts are successful, I will describe my experience in a future post. 

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CFP: Medicine in the Medieval North Atlantic World

Call for Papers: Medicine in the Medieval North Atlantic World

19–21 March 2020

Maynooth University, Ireland

This interdisciplinary conference, jointly funded by the Irish Research Council and the British Academy, 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.

We welcome proposals for papers of 20 minutes in length (+ 10 minutes of discussion) as well as proposals for postgraduate research posters. Contributions might engage with, but are not limited to:

  • Literature
  • History
  • Anthropology
  • Theology
  • Philosophy
  • Science and technology
  • The body and the soul
  • Charms
  • Leechbooks/Remedies
  • Surgery
  • Wounds (visible and invisible)
  • Health policy
  • Medicine and law
  • Medicine and religion
  • Relationship between the human and non-human
  • Gender and medicine
  • Music/Art as medicine
  • Diet and medicine
  • Physical activity and medicine
  • Medical drawings/illuminations

Proposals (250-300 words) are to be sent to by no later than 15 October 2019, and should contain the following information:

Name; Institutional affiliation (if any); email

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 and Dr Deborah Hayden (Maynooth University)

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Turning Global with Public Health: How to Move Beyond Networks of Prophylactic Knowledge and Communities of Practice in Preindustrial Europe

Premodern Healthscaping will present recent developments in health history during The Pursuit of Global Urban History conference at University of Leicester.

Chair: Janna Coomans, University of Amsterdam

Organizers: Guy Geltner and Janna Coomans, University of Amsterdam

Panel: Geneviève Dumas, University of Sherbrooke, and Claire Weeda, Leiden University

             Taylor Zaneri, University of Amsterdam, and Roos van Oosten, Leiden University

            Guy Geltner, University of Amsterdam

July 12, 9:00-10:45


This panel will present recent developments in health history that focus on preventative programs in a variety of premodern urban contexts and interrogates their relevance to comparative and global history. Insights achieved by public health historians and medical archaeologists working across western European cities have challenged a common tendency to see public health as a response to the Industrial Revolution, one that was uniquely enabled by modernization. But can pushing against a hegemonic paradigm of Euro-American modernity from the perspective of earlier European experiences provide relevant, non-hegemonic tools for scholars working in different regions and eras, with different sources and intellectual genealogies, but burdened by a similar teleology? Panelists will reflect on their diverse methods of knowledge production and findings as an invitation to discuss emic and non-essentialized approaches to urban health as a fruitful way to pursue global history, on the one hand, and resist the sovereignty of Western periodization on the other.

You can find more information about the conference and the panel here.

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Policing the Urban Environment in Premodern Europe; Symposium and Book Launch

Thursday, 20 June 2019, 14:00-17:00
Bushuis, F2.08B (Kloveniersburgwal 48, Amsterdam)

You are warmly invited to attend the symposium and book launch of Policing the Urban Environment in Premodern Europe, edited by Carole Rawcliffe and Claire Weeda.


Program Symposium

14.00-14.40| Carole Rawcliffe (University of East Anglia)
Cleaning up the Middle Ages: A Few Words about Policing the Urban Environment

14.50-15.30| Fritz Dross (Institut für Geschichte und Ethik der Medizin)
“Portzel” – A Premodern Piece on Public Health and Public Order

15.30-15.50| Coffee and Tea Break

15.50-16.30| Jane Stevens Crawshaw (Oxford Brookes University)
Broken Bridges and Crowded Calle: Policing Urban Ideals and Realities in Early Modern Venice

16.30-17.00| Claire Weeda (Leiden University)
Closing Remarks

The event will be followed by drinks from 17.00 at Café Luxembourg (Spui 24, Amsterdam).


Policing the Urban Environment in Premodern Europe, ed. by Carole Rawcliffe and Claire Weeda, is published by Amsterdam University Press in the series Premodern Crime and Punishment.

Contributors: Elma Brenner, Janna Coomans, Luke Demaitre, Catherine Dubé, Geneviève Dumas, G. Geltner, Annemarie Kinzelbach, Patrick Naaktgeboren, Carole Rawcliffe, Claire Weeda.

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.


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Premodern Healthscaping in China

Saturday, 1 June 2019, 08:30-11:30

Guy Geltner and Taylor Zaneri will present their paper Mapping Health in Medieval Bologna: A Geospatial and Environmental Approach in Renmin University of China (Beijing) during a two-day conference titled The Nature of Health, the Health of Nature: Perspectives from History and the Humanities. You can read more about the conference here.

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