‘Nature’s Office and Work: Defeating Disease in Early Modern England, 1580-1720’

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By | Early Medicine, Events and Visits

Saint Elizabeth offers a bowl of food and a tankard of drink to a male patient in the hospital in Marburg, Germany. Oil 1598 by Adam Elsheimer. Wellcome Images L0015276

The next seminar in the 2013-14 History of Pre-Modern Medicine academic seminar series, will take place on Tuesday 5th November.

Details: Hannah Newton (Cambridge)

“Nature’s Office and Work”: Defeating Disease in Early Modern England, 1580-1720


The ‘golden saying’ in early modern medicine was ‘Natura est morborum medicatrix’, or ‘Nature is the healer of disease’. Taking the viewpoints  of doctors and laypeople, this paper asks how exactly Nature removed disease, and examines its relationship with the two other main agents of recovery in contemporary perceptions, God and medical intervention. While historians are familiar with these latter agents, the vital role of Nature has been largely overlooked. In theory, the agents operated in a strict hierarchy: Nature was ‘God’s instrument’, and the physician, ‘Nature’s servant’; but in practice the power dynamics were rather more complicated. I show that Nature was depicted both as a ‘homely woman’, who cooked and washed the body’s bad humours, and as a ‘princely
soldier’ who fought and defeated disease. Drawing on sources such as medical texts, casebooks, and letters, the paper also sheds light on wider themes, including gender, age, and religion.


The seminar will take place in the Wellcome Trust, Gibbs Building, 215 Euston Road, NW1 2BE.

Doors at 6pm prompt, seminars will start at 6.15.

The seminar series is focused on pre-modern medicine, which we take to cover European and non-European history before the 20th century (antiquity, medieval and early modern history, some elements of 19th-century medicine).

Further details on the seminar series are available in a previous post.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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