Health and well-being: Early Medicine’s new theme

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By | Early Medicine

The preservation of health and prevention of illness were major preoccupations in the ancient, medieval and early modern worlds. Since medical intervention to combat sickness could be both expensive and dangerous, it was preferable to take steps to avoid becoming sick or physically vulnerable.

This thematic strand in the Early Medicine blog explores understandings of human health and wellness, and measures taken to protect health, from the ancient world to the end of the 17th century. Certain sources, such as early modern recipe books, testify to finely-tuned thinking about what it meant to be healthy and how this could be achieved. Such thinking took into account the well-being of body, mind and soul, and the importance of not only the inner state of the body, but also behavioural and environmental factors.

Woodcut of swimming.

Woodcut in EPB/1754/B: Everard Digby, De arte natandi libri duo (London: T. Dawson, 1587). Wellcome Images L0069792.

These ideas centred upon the non-naturals, factors which were understood to influence health in either beneficial or detrimental ways. The six non-naturals – air, sleep, exercise, diet, bodily evacuation and emotional state – lay at the core of regimens of health, texts produced from the 13th century onwards to provide essential advice on how to live a healthy life. Especially following the Black Death, these guides were very popular among lay readers, often being produced in the vernacular rather than in Latin, and appearing in print from the latter decades of the 15th century onwards. The ‘Régime du corps’ of Aldobrandino of Siena, for example, was composed in French in 1256 and printed at Lyon c. 1481. A number of manuscripts survive of this text, indicating its wide readership.



Protection and prevention were important strands in thinking about sickness and disease between the ancient and early modern periods. Bloodletting, an especially widespread practice in the Middle Ages, was performed not only to restore the proper balance of the four bodily humours in those who were sick, but also to maintain that balance in those who were healthy. Public health measures, instituted in European cities from the late Middle Ages onwards, aimed to protect urban populations from environmental hazards that were understood to cause disease, including corrupt air, polluted water and contaminated food. Protection, as well as healing, was also derived from religious and magical sources, including charms, amulets and appeals to saints.

Certain activities that stimulated the senses, such as contemplating religious images or listening to soothing music, were recognised as being beneficial to physical, mental and emotional well-being. At the same time, sensory experiences could be distressing and damaging, such as witnessing or undergoing a violent act. In the early modern period, medical practitioners were well aware of the power of music with respect to health, associating it in particular with mental health.

Contributors to this special theme will consider these and other topics, paying close attention to how health and well-being were perceived in specific periods and contexts, and how such perceptions may have changed or persisted over time. Yet while it is important to disentangle modern-day notions of what it means to be healthy, happy and comfortable from those of the past, it is striking how nuanced the thinking about these issues was in the ancient, medieval and early modern periods. Although many people were perhaps most concerned about the fate of their souls in the world to come, they also took positive measures with respect to their bodily and mental health.

Elma Brenner

Elma Brenner

Dr Elma Brenner is the Wellcome Library’s subject specialist in medieval and early modern medicine. Her research examines the medical and religious culture of medieval France and England, especially the region of Normandy. She is also interested in the materiality of early books and manuscripts, and the digital humanities. For her publications, see She can be found on Twitter @elmabrenner.

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