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Humanities scholars study health, disease in the Middle Ages

December 01, 2011

What do the 2012 summer Olympics and medieval scholarship have in common? For both, London will be the site of extraordinary achievements.

Monica Green, professor in ASU's School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies, and Rachel Scott, assistant professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, have been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to co-direct “Health and Disease in the Middle Ages,” a five-week seminar for 16 U.S. scholars. Both are affiliated faculty of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (ACMRS).

The seminar will be based at London’s Wellcome Library, the world’s premier research center for medical history. The applicants (including two advanced graduate students) will be chosen in a national competition based on their interest in questions of health, disease and disability in medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, and will come from a variety of academic disciplines. They will receive stipends to support travel and living expenses from a total budget of $167,757.

A general goal of the group will be to combine the new scientific technologies for identifying pathogens and disease states, particularly leprosy and plague, with a traditional humanistic perspective. For example, historical, literary, art historical, and linguistic evidence describing diseases (such as the Black Death) and disabilities (such as leprosy) can be examined in light of modern scientific studies of them, thanks to new methods of bioarcheology and ancient DNA retrieval and analysis.  

Humanistic studies of medieval medicine and health practices will be compared with these scientific findings to explore the relations between religion, economics and medicine in the medieval interpretation and treatment of disease. Study of the material evidence (from architecture, medicinal plants and skeletal remains) of medieval medicine, particularly balneotherapy (warm mineral-water bathing) and botanical pharmaceutics, will be the special focus of the seminar along with learned and artistic interpretations. 

Site visits to locales in and around London, such as the Museum of London, the Chelsea Physic Garden, and the Roman bath complex in the city of Bath, will provide the participants an opportunity to study these material remains personally.

The co-directors are specialists in the fields of medical history and bioarcheology, respectively, and they will be assisted by three expert guest lecturers: Ann Carmichael (Indiana University), Luke Demaitre (University of Virginia), and Florence Eliza Glaze (Coastal Carolina University). The seminar directors and guest scholars will assist participants with their independent research projects relating to the History of Medicine, especially those based on unpublished primary sources.  

The seminar will mark the second time Green, a world-renowned specialist in medical history, who was recently elected to the Fellows of the Medieval Academy of America, has directed an NEH Summer Seminar in London, the last one being in 2009 (see a report in the Medieval Academy Newsletter) with ACMRS serving as the seminar’s administrative home for both.  

ACMRS is one of the leading academic centers in the U.S. promoting research of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The 2012 NEH grant represents one of the largest projects awarded to the center.

More information about this year’s seminar may be found at