Birkbeck Medieval Seminar: Hygiene and Health in the Middle Ages featuring Prof. Carole Rawcliffe

The Birkbeck Medieval Seminar presents a hybrid event with our very own Prof. Carole Rawcliffe.

The seminar is on Friday, 16 June from 10:00-17:00 (GMT). There is an option to watch the event virtually. Register here.

From the website:

Friday 16 June 2023 10:00-17:00 This event is hybrid, convening at Birkbeck, 30 Russell Square, Room 101, and also online. For participants who want to listen in remotely, a Teams link will be sent prior to the event. 

The 2023 Birkbeck Medieval Seminar focuses on hygiene in the Middle Ages, considering both attitudes and practices. Contrary to popular perception, this was a subject of great interest to medieval people, who were generally much cleaner than we assume. This interdisciplinary seminar will build on recent studies which have attempted to ‘clean up’ the Middle Ages, showing that medieval Europeans developed sophisticated strategies (informed by a coherent set of beliefs about the relationship between hygiene and health) to keep themselves and their surroundings clean. It will also consider approaches to and experiences of dirtiness, including the ascetic practices of the medieval clergy and archaeological evidence of parasitic infections. ‘Hygiene and Health in the Middle Ages’ will develop our understanding of medieval personal hygiene and public health, especially as they relate to contemporary ideas about health and medicine.

Scheduled Speakers:

Dr Janna Coomans (Utrecht University)  Fire and Flow: Sanitation and Community Politics in the Low Countries, 1300-1530

Dr Katherine Harvey (Birkbeck) ‘Tortured by Vermin’: Piety and Personal Hygiene in Later Medieval Europe

Dr Piers Mitchell (University of Cambridge) Parasites and Hygiene in Medieval Europe

Prof. Carole Rawcliffe (UEA) “Travel is a fearsome thing”: Guides to health for late medieval wayfarers.

Join us for our inaugural workshop ‘Hospitals in Crisis’ on Saturday, 25 March at 10:00 (CST)/17:00 (CET

Join the committee of the International Network for the History of Hospitals (INHH) for our inaugural virtual workshop. Crisis can manifest in so many ways: hospitals going bankrupt, operating in a warzone, sex scandals, etc. But this idea of crisis extends beyond our sources to how we, as researchers, approach our work from funding issues to writer’s block. Presenting on the theme of Hospitals in Crisis:

Sex, Lies, and Parchment: Reputation and Regulation at Narbonne’s Hospital of the Bourg in the Fourteenth Century

Anna M. Peterson (Independent Scholar)

Surviving Destruction: St Giles’s, Norwich, and the Crisis of the Protestant Reformation

Carole Rawcliffe (University of East Anglia)

Plague, Covid and the Historian

John Henderson (Birkbeck, University of London)

Conflicts and Hospital History in Twentieth-Century Uganda

Kathleen Vongsathorn (Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville)

This first meeting will set the stage for this ongoing series. The goal of these workshops is to provide graduate, postgraduate, early career, and precarious faculty with a space to discuss their thesis, research projects, and the questions and obstacles that arise from them. Too often we have worked alone on our hospitals, but the INHH is committed to creating a space where our community can come together and inspire each other’s research.

To register for the workshop:

Follow us on Twitter @HospitalHistori or check back here for upcoming workshops.

If you would like to present your work at a future INHH workshop, please contact us at:

Prof. John Henderson talks to Prof. Suzannah Lipscomb about surviving an outbreak of Plague in Seventeenth-Century Florence on Not Just the Tudors

On this episode:

Between 1630 and 1631, the city of Florence suffered its last epidemic of plague. Some 12% of the city’s population of 75,000 perished.

In this edition of Not Just the Tudors, Professor Suzannah Lipscomb talks to Professor John Henderson, historian of epidemics, about how Florence suffered, fought and survived the impact of plague – and what we might have learned from the approach of the Florentine authorities during our own recent pandemic.

Listen below:

Jane Stevens Crawshaw discusses plague in sixteenth-century Venice on the Experiencing Epidemics podcast

‘In our ninth episode, Dr. Jane Stevens Crawshaw guides our reading of Rocco Benedetti’s Accounts of some events taking place in Venice during the plague years of 1576-1577. The text is a first-hand account of one of the most devastating plague outbreaks to strike Venice in the early modern period. Its author was a notary, one of the few people allowed to move freely across the city in order to record wills and provide other services to the citizenry. His account is both informative and haunting. How did Benedetti’s work as a notary shape his views on this terrible episode of Venetian history? What did he think about the local plague hospitals’ performance and the lockdown practices ordered by the government? Find out in today’s episode!’

Listen now

Check out more episodes of Experiencing Epidemics wherever you listen to podcasts.

Catch John Henderson speaking on the Great Pox at the upcoming CSMBR webinar

Prof. Henderson presented ‘The War of Torments: Imagining and Experiencing the Great Pox in Renaissance Florence’ on 11 November 2022 at 17:00 (CET) for the Centre for the Study of Medicine and the Body in the Renaissance (CSMBR). His presentation explores the epidemic of the Great Pox and its impact on many aspects of early modern European society. In contrast to plague, which led to rapid rises in mortality, this new chronic disease led to long-drawn-out suffering, poverty, destitution and death, infecting all levels of society, from popes and cardinals to princes, courtesans and the poor. This lecture is part of an ongoing project on how the Great Pox was imagined, received and experienced in Renaissance Italy. Building on the approaches and findings of recent studies of early modern England, Germany and Spain, this lecture will compare the experience and representation of female and male Pox patients through the examination of both written and visual evidence. These will include contemporary written accounts, such as satirical and moralistic poems and plays, and visual evidence, ranging from broadsheets to medical illustrations. It will be argued, that only by analysing these sources through the prism of contemporary medical understanding of the nature of the Pox and its symptoms can we begin to understand more clearly how this disease was perceived and represented in text and image in renaissance Italy.

Plague – Recent Lectures and Podcasts

Plague Lectures

The Invisible Enemy’: Fighting Plague in Renaissance Italy

Humanities Society, Wolfson College, Cambridge
Professor John Henderson, Professor of Italian Renaissance History, Birkbeck College, University of London
Watch The Invisible Enemy’: Fighting Plague in Renaissance Italy

The study of plague remains as relevant today as in pre-industrial Europe, especially as we struggle to combat the threat of Covid 19. In this lecture, John Henderson will provide a timely reminder that present-day policies of ‘containment, mitigation and quarantine’ have long historical precedents, just as human reactions of fear and panic are shared across the centuries. He will show how early modern Italy, though well-known as the birthplace of the Renaissance, was also renowned for the precocious development of its public health policies. These have provided the model not just for nineteenth-century policies in combatting plague, but also more recent epidemics from SARS to Ebola and the Corona virus.

This lecture focusses on the development of public health policies in seventeenth-century Tuscany within a wider Italian and European context. The aim is to go beyond traditional oppositions between rich and poor by examining the impact of regulations at the level of the neighbourhood, street and family. Looking behind the optimistic gloss of official printed accounts, John Henderson will examine the often moving and tragic stories of the individuals who ran hospitals, the doctors who treated plague victims, and, above all, of the ordinary men and women left bereft and confused by the sickness and death of family members as they sought to adopt strategies to survive during quarantine and lockdown.

Coping with Plague: Public Health and Epidemics

Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
2nd June 2019
Professor John Henderson, Professor of Italian Renaissance History, Birkbeck College, University of London
Watch Coping with Plague: Public Health and Epidemics

Italy, though best known for the birth of the Renaissance, is also renowned for the precocious development of its public health policies in the 16th century. In this talk, Professor John Henderson argues that it is time to re-examine and reassess early modern Italian policies dealing with plague. Henderson’s approach is to examine the often moving and tragic stories of the individuals touched by plague from either side of the doctor-patient boundary. The way in which governments and individuals dealt with plague are as relevant today as they were 500 years ago.

Death in Florence: Plague, Prosecution, and the Poor in early Modern Florence

NYU Florence Acton Lecture
18th December 2017
Professor John Henderson, Professor of Italian Renaissance History, Birkbeck College, University of London
Watch Death in Florence: Plague, Prosecution, and the Poor in early Modern Florence

Professor John Henderson

Plague remains a popular topic, as reflected in the continued popularity of the narrative accounts from Defoe to Manzoni to Camus which present vivid fictional recreations of what it was like to live through an epidemic. While it is the liveliness of this type of description which continues to fascinate, many histories of public health have traditionally tended to concentrate on chronicling government policies rather than the lived experience. The top-down approach also reflects the theme of contemporary political and medical rhetoric in surviving records, in which the lower levels of society were often blamed disproportionately as the spreaders and even cause of plague. In contrast, this lecture, which explores the last epidemic of plague to affect Florence in 1630-31, places less emphasis on official views. Instead it will seek to recreate the variety of experience and lively voices of the inhabitants in the city’s streets and neighbourhoods, as reflected in the wide range of trials against those who broke sanitary legislation. While analysing the extraordinary variety of ‘crimes’, from simply adopting survive strategies to robbing empty plague house, we shall also ask whether the draconian punishments prescribed in law were enforced as rigorously as in other Italian cities at the time.

Religion, Medicine and Art in the Time of Plague: Florence 1630-33

Bill Kent Memorial Lecture, Monash Centre, Prato
13th December 2017
Professor John Henderson, Professor of Italian Renaissance History, Birkbeck College, University of London and Monash University
Watch Religion, Medicine and Art in the Time of Plague: Florence 1630-33

The subject of religion and medicine, and indeed religion as medicine, has recently become an important topic of research, particularly within the context of the history of late medieval and early medicine. The relationship between these fields has emerged as a fundamental aspect in understanding the nature of the contemporary holistic vision of how the human body worked and was treated through the complementary role of the doctor of the body and the doctor of the soul. This lecture will analyse the role of religion as medicine in the treatment of the sick body of both the city and the individual during the last major epidemic of plague to affect the city of Florence, 1630-1. It will examine the main religious strategies adopted by Church and State first to prevent and then to mitigate the impact of plague and finally to give thanks for the cessation of the epidemic. The strategies centred around three main holy sites: the Cathedral, the miraculous shrine at the Servite church of SS. Annunziata, and the Observant Dominican church of S. Marco, which housed the body of the 15th -century Florentine archbishop, St. Antoninus. The increased devotion at these important ecclesiastical centres led, furthermore, to a wide range of artistic commissions, including chapels, altarpieces, frescoes, costly silver candlesticks, and more humble ex-voti. Given this artistic outpouring during and following the epidemic, this lecture will explore the themes of commissions and how they placed emphasis on the representation of saintly figures and patrons and how far on showing the ravages of disease on the body of the sick. Furthermore, how far did the religious reactions and subjects of the artistic commissions associated with plague in 17th -century Florence conform or differ from those adopted by other cities in early modern Italy.

Plague Podcasts 

Where does quarantine come from?

Professor John Henderson, Birkbeck College, University of London
Octavian Report
13th July 2020

The new episode of our podcast features John Henderson, Professor of Italian Renaissance History at Birkbeck University of London, and author of Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City and numerous other works of Italian history. We spoke with Professor Henderson about the history of quarantine itself and other aspects of how epidemic disease changed Italian society.

Listen to the Podcast ‘Where does quarantine come from?

‘The History of Now: Plague in Early Modern Italy’, in conversation with Chris Clark, John Henderson and Jane Stevens-Crawshaw

History Faculty, University of Cambridge
20th April 2020

Listen to the Podcast – The History of Now: Plague in Early Modern Italy

The Terrors of the Time: Lessons from Historic Plagues

Professor John Henderson, Birkbeck College, University of London
Professor Vanessa Harding, Birkbeck College, University of London
Aaron Columbus is a doctoral student examining how the London plague affected the poor in society at Birkbeck College, University of London
17th April 2020

As this latest battle rages on, historians are looking at similarities in individual and collective response. Regardless of our modern understanding of disease and its spread, historians point to the need to find blame.

Listen to the Podcast The Terrors of the Time: Lessons from Historic Plagues

Surviving Plague

Professor John Henderson, Birkbeck College, University of London
Birkbeck Arts Week: podcast

Listen to John Henderson on what an extraordinary image evoking what it was like to live through plague in Renaissance Florence, the subject of his new book Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City (Yale, 2019), and Yale have made a chapter available to read.

Listen to the Surviving Plague Podcast

Surviving the Dissolution: Norwich’s Great Hospital in the Sixteenth Century

By Ellie Phillips

The Great Hospital has provided care for the local community continuously for almost 800 years.   Few other charitable organisations in Europe can match this remarkable record and even fewer can boast such a rare combination of architectural and documentary riches.  Although at the time of its foundation in 1249 the hospital of St Giles (as it was then known) was typical of many and far from unusual, the closure of most comparable institutions during or after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s means that it is now unique in an English context.  Indeed, because most other medieval hospital archives were then destroyed, that of the Great Hospital is now deemed to be so important that in 2011 UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, awarded it special Memory of the World status.  Having in 1570 been transferred under lock and key to a special ‘treasury’ in the guildhall, it is now held in the Norfolk Record Office. 

Image of the stone cloister  window and floor at the medieval Great Hospital Norwich
The medieval cloister of the Great Hospital Norwich Photographer: C. Bonfield

St Giles’ hospital was founded by Bishop Walter Suffield for sixty ‘infirm’ poor men sharing thirty beds, priests ‘broken with age’ and seven young scholars.  Care for the soul was prioritised over that of the body and, as was then common, the regulations followed a monastic model based upon the Augustinian Rule.  Unusually, however, the hospital was not only efficiently managed and free from scandal, but also closely integrated into the religious and political life of the city, which may in part explain why the rulers of Norwich were determined to save it from dissolution. They were also influenced by developments in communal health and welfare across the North Sea, and as a result took the radical step of acquiring the hospital from the crown in 1547 for conversion into an alms-house.  

The Re-foundation Charter drawn up at that time (transcribed in Appendix 1) established the remit of the new ‘Howse of the Poor on Holme Street’, otherwise ‘Goddes Howse’, any doctrinally suspect connection with a Catholic saint having been abruptly terminated. The hospital was henceforward to maintain forty resident paupers, both men and women, for whom professional medical services were provided. The paid staff comprised the master (a Protestant cleric), a minister to the poor, a cook, five female nurses described as ‘keepers’, a surgeon, a barber and various administrators.  Since it was initially planned to house a school on the premises, a schoolmaster and usher also feature on the original payroll.  The provision of physical care now became a priority as the liturgical role of the hospital ceased.  This shift is underscored by the fact that the account roll for the year 1550-51 is bound in a page torn from one of the medieval service books: a widespread practice which allowed for the recycling of forbidden material.  We should note, too, that the accounts were henceforward compiled in English, which the hospital’s new managers could read, rather than Latin, the language of the Church.

Great Hospital account roll for the year 1550-51, wrapped in a page torn from a medieval missal
(Norfolk Record Office, NCR, 24A)

Despite the care taken to secure an adequate landed income from rental properties in Norwich and estates in Norfolk, the hospital got off to difficult start because of the devastation caused during Kett’s Rebellion of August 1549.  The insurgents may have deliberately targeted ‘Goddes Howse’ as an institution controlled by the ruling elite, and the first surviving account roll, which covers the year ending 24 June 1550, records the losses that ensued.  Although the sale of the ‘quere’ (choir stalls) and the stone paving of the chancel raised the considerable sum of £25, plans to house the city’s grammar school there had to be abandoned on account of fire damage.  Instead, the female paupers were eventually accommodated in what had once been a sacred space reserved for religious observance, while the men occupied the former infirmary. The account roll for the year 1570-71 confirms that the hospital authorities were now on a sufficiently secure financial footing to undertake major rebuilding work for the enlargement of both male and female quarters, while continuing to offer residents what was, by sixteenth-century standards, a comfortable old age.  In 1566, the master promised that they would ‘be fedd with no courser bread then whole wheat’ and that he would ‘gently use and intreate’ them ‘withowt eny correccion or beatyng’ (Appendix 2).

These two accounts provide a fascinating insight into the development of the post-Dissolution hospital, as well as the wider religious, economic and social life of Tudor Norwich.  They record the salaries of senior employees and the less generous day wages of labourers, as well as outgoings on food, drink, clothing (such as ‘lether for shooes for the poore folkes’), bedding, laundry and end-of-life essentials, including ‘shetes to bury the pore in’ and a ‘shoovel to make graves with’.  Detailed information about the cost of building materials (bricks, lime, clay, straw, timber) and other necessities, such as ‘nayles for dores’, appears alongside expenditure on the preaching of sermons, which played a notable part in delivering the new Protestant message.   And, like any other institution involved in the acquisition and management of a portfolio of rental and agricultural properties, the hospital had to pay for legal ‘advyse’, ‘pennyng the bookes’ and the cost of obtaining ‘diverse and sondrye wrightinges’ as documents of title.

Some entries in the accounts are particularly poignant.   In 1575-6 a payment of 2s 8d was made to ‘Mary Cole one of the pore women in th’ospitall for a stylt after her leg was sawen of”.  The following year, the unfortunate but resilient Mother Cole was attended by John Cropp, a Dutch surgeon who received 20s for healing her remaining leg.  The inevitable clash of personalities involved in running a large and prestigious institution sometimes gave rise to public confrontations:  on one occasion an argument between hospital staff and the civic authorities about accurate record-keeping resulted in an exchange of ‘stowte words’ which were later ‘rehersed openly’ in the mayor’s court.

The accounts

In accordance with an established medieval model, the primary aim of these documents was to show that the hospital was being efficiently and honestly run rather than to reveal profit or loss. Arrearages (uncollected receipts carried over from the previous year) were noted first, followed by charges (current receipts) and then expenditure, which would be noted in minute detail to prevent fraud.  Any supplementary income, such as gifts or legacies, would be recorded separately.  The accounts were audited annually by four surveyors (the aldermen and councillors charged with oversight of the hospital), who examined them for any errors or evidence of malpractice before signing off. 

parchment Page from the 1550-51 accounts with caligraphy
Total expenditure of £295 6d recorded in the account for 1550-51 from the Great Hospital Norwich Accounts

As might be expected given the complexity of the hospital’s finances and the extent of its outgoings, the account rolls grew larger: that for 1549-50 comprises 17 membranes measuring 31 x 34 cm, whereas by 1570-71 the dimensions had grown to 34 x 58 cm.  The adoption of a clearer, more accessible layout devised by the city chamberlain, Robert Raynbald, made it much easier to locate individual entries, while the fine calligraphy and the elegant strap-work used as decoration by the scribe attest to the care that was given to the creation of these rare documents.

Health and Hygiene in Early-Modern Norwich: Account rolls of the Great Hospital, Norwich, 1549-50 and 1570-71 was edited by Ellie Phillips (published 2013) and is available from the Norfolk Record Society.

Other Resources

The Great Hospital online (where a full transcript of the 1550-51 account may be found)

Carole Rawcliffe, Medicine for the Soul: The life, death and resurrection of an English Medieval Hospital (Stroud, 1999)

Space and the Hospital: International Network for the History of Hospitals Conference 26-28 May 2021

Space, in both its physical and conceptual manifestations, has been a part of how hospitals were designed, built, used, and understood within the wider community. By focusing on space, this conference will explore this subject through the lens of its architectural, socio-cultural, medical, economic, charitable, ideological, and public conceptualisations.

Download the Space and the Hospital Conference program.

Book your ticket for the Space and the Hospital Conference at Eventbrite

This conference is taking place online via YouTube.

View the conference information in Portuguese

This conference is in partnership with “Hospitalis: Hospital Architecture in Portugal at the Dawn of Modernity” and “Royal Hospital of All Saints: city and public health” research projects.