Marooned on an Island Monographs: an Early Modern Medical History Reading List

Guest Blog by Jennifer Evans

Last summer we ran a blog series called ‘Marooned on an Island Monographs’, a collection of posts inspired by the question: what 5 history monographs would you take with you to a deserted island? Each post offered suggested reading on a particular topic or type of history – trying to pick just 5 monographs to cover the whole of human history was a bit too tough! – and the themes covered included early modern social, economic and religious history, and even historical fiction. 

The series proved quite popular, and people have told us the lists are really useful too: they can provide a handy guide to a new topic for both students and teachers, or even just a helpful overview of key works in a subject area you don’t know much about – a resource for a bit of quick swotting up for when you next have a Reformation scholar over to dinner! So, we thought it would be a good idea to revive the series and make a bit of a resource out of it, but as there are only so many topics us monster-heads can cover between us we’ve decided to occasionally invite some of our favourite historians to help us out with a guest post!

Our first guest is Jennifer Evans, Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Hertfordshire. Her research is focused on the body, medicine and gender and covers the period 1550-1750. Jennifer is the author of Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England, runs her own blog Early Modern Medicine, and tweets @HistorianJen

Jennifer Evans

Below is my list of history of medicine books that I often turn to or particularly enjoyed. Now these are probably not what would appear on most people’s ultimate guide to early modern medical history (there is, as you will see, a notably absence of Margaret Pelling’s The Task of Healing: Medicine, Religion and Gender in England and the Netherlands 1450-1800 and Roy Porter’s numerous works), but they are well worth a read. Some of them are general texts and some deal with more specific areas of research. Taken together I think they suggest the breadth and diversity of the field and show all of the interesting areas of research being undertaken in the field.

1) Andrew Wear, Knowledge & Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680  (2000)

9780511612763iWear’s book is a must have for those entering the field of early modern English medical history. It provides a detailed overview of how remedies, diseases, the body, and environment were understood in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Importantly Wear considers both the wealthy who could afford the care and attentions of a physician and the sick poor who had to make do and sought help from a range of healers. He likewise thinks about the differences in medical education experience by a range of practitioners and considers the actual work done by physicians and surgeons. Knowledge and Practice also offers a detailed investigation of the understanding and treatment of plague, that most deadly of epidemics to strike early modern England, and an exploration of the rise of chemical medicine, which challenged traditional Galenic medical theories in this era. As a well-rounded detailed study of English medical practice I return to this book time and time again.

2) Mark S. R. Jenner and Patrick Wallis (eds), Medicine and the Market in England and its Colonies, c.1450-c.1850 (2007)

image-service.aspSo this isn’t a monograph, but I still think it is worthy of a place on this list. The essays in this collection cover a range of approaches to medical history and topics. Taken together they provide a varied, engaging and stimulating look at the medical world early modern English men and women experienced. Particular highlights, for me, were Lauren Kassell’s discussion of Robert Fludd’s magnetical medicine and Sara Pennell and Elaine Leong’s examination of remedy recipes and how they could have social currency. The book also has chapters on the cost of purchasing medical texts, by Mary Fissell, the provision of medical practitioners in rural areas, by Ian Mortimer, and the role of midwives, by Adrian Wilson. The diversity of this book is its real value, it illuminates so many different aspects of medical practice and care. Moreover, this book, by examining the colonies, helps to situate English medical practices within the global picture of health and medicine in this era.

3) Andrew Cunningham, The Anatomist Anatomis’d: An Experimental Discipline in Enlightenment Europe (2010)

9780754663386.jkt.tifCunningham’s lavishly illustrated tome explores the practice of anatomy across Europe and reveals not just the discoveries made through dissection, but the lives of the men who spent their time investigating the insides of the human body. The book covers everything from how a dissection was conducted, to how the beautiful images that adorned anatomical texts were created, from how a man became an anatomist, to the use of animals to understand the human body. Although this book is very detailed, and not at first glance an easy introduction to the topic of early modern anatomy, each chapter is broken down into clear, manageable subsections. Readers can therefore pick and choose sections of the book to help understand particular issues or read the whole to get a comprehensive picture of what it was like to study anatomy in an era when the practice was both evolving itself and reshaping the medical knowledge of others. Cunningham really brings a sense of what it was like for men to investigate the messy and unruly body on the dissection table before them and captures the excitement that the changing anatomical landscape created.

4) Hannah Newton, The Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580-1720 (2012)

9780199650491_140This may be a relative newcomer to the field published in 2012 (and it was written by a friend) but Newton’s book truly offers a unique stance on the history of early modern medicine. While other books may have noted that children suffered from and died of awful diseases in this period, Newton is the first to make this the central focus of investigation. She eloquently blends medical and social history exploring not just the understanding of children’s bodies and the medicines given to sick children in the long seventeenth century, but also the role of prayer and religion in these children’s lives. She explores how they used sickness to raise their voices and have agency, and in particular how children used their illness to gain attention from the adults in their lives. In revealing these details Newton illuminates the tender parent-child relationships of the era and in particular the devotion with which early modern parents cared for their children.

5) Matthew Cobb, The Egg & Sperm Race: The Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth (2007)

51dMcr+zYvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Now this is the curve ball of the group. It is a history of the creation of the microscope and the discovery of eggs and sperm in the 1670s. It is not written by an academic historian but a professor in the faculty of life sciences at the University of Manchester. In places this means that the contextual background to these discoveries, the religious beliefs for example, are a not as closely considered as perhaps a historian would like. Nonetheless, what this book offers is an easy and enjoyable jaunt through a complex set of debates and discoveries. Cobb weaves together the events of this era, particularly the debates and arguments presented in letters and transactions of the royal society, into a narrative. He paints vivid pictures of men dissecting, describing and arguing over the minutiae of the reproductive system. In particular his descriptions of the scrabble of men across Europe to be recognised as the first to have discovered an element of the reproductive system is captivating. Through the use of narrative and rich descriptions Cobb manages to unpick the complex ways in which the reproductive system was understood and how these new discoveries changed our understandings of the process of life.

Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section…

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One thought on “Marooned on an Island Monographs: an Early Modern Medical History Reading List

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol: #36 | Whewell's Ghost

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