The best books on early modern medicine

Jennifer Evans Author Of Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740
By Jennifer Evans

The Books I Picked & Why

Sufferers and Healers: The Experience of Illness in Seventeenth-Century England

By Lucinda McCray Beier

Sufferers and Healers: The Experience of Illness in Seventeenth-Century England

Why this book?

Originally published in 1987 this book is a classic text for those studying health and disease in this era. Drawing on diaries and printed materials it explains what people died of in the era and what conditions they lived with. It describes how people responded to ill health both spiritually and medically and it provides a series of case studies to illuminate different aspects of health, including women’s health. Using practitioners’ casebooks, it thinks about the differences between an urban surgeon and the practice of rural physicians. It thus moves beyond generalizations to show that practitioners worked alongside each other to heal patients drawn from different socio-economic backgrounds and that the practice of medicine was supplemented and relied upon interventions by friends, family, and community.


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Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England

By Olivia Weisser

Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England

Why this book?

This very readable book recovers the expressions, beliefs, and behaviors of early modern patients. It illuminates how understandings of disease causation, the progress of illness, sickbed experiences, and recovery were expressed in distinctly gendered ways. The richly detailed discussion describes how religious beliefs and social interactions shaped the experience of health and medicine at this time. Weisser draws on over forty diaries and fifty collections of correspondence from the middling and upper levels of society to paint this picture. To illuminate the experiences of the sick poor Weisser turns to pauper petitions, designed to overturn decisions made by overseers of the poor, presented to magistrates at the Quarter sessions of ten locations. It thus reveals the sick lives of those at every level of society.


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Physick and the Family: Health, Medicine and Care in Wales, 1600-1750

By Alun Withey

Physick and the Family: Health, Medicine and Care in Wales, 1600-1750

Why this book?

So many history books about medicine in the early modern period focus on London and other English urban centers. Withey’s book allows readers to move beyond the metropolis and glimpse sickness, disease, and medicine in a largely rural setting. It challenges readers to move beyond the concept that rural medicine was dominated by folklore and magic, Wales was not insular or remote but connected to broader medical trends in both Britain and Europe. This book illuminates how the ‘Welsh’ body was perceived: strong, robust, possessed of a hot choleric temperament, and a fondness for toasted cheese. And paints a clear picture of the men who made their living treating these bodies.


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Female Patients in Early Modern Britain: Gender, Diagnosis, and Treatment

By Wendy D. Churchill

Female Patients in Early Modern Britain: Gender, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Why this book?

I am always fascinated by gender history and women’s experiences in the past. Churchill’s book puts women front and center and considers how medical practitioners understood women’s bodies and health and what women experienced as patients. The book covers traditionally feminine conditions – gynecological and obstetrical issues – but also looks at disorders that affected both men and women, including smallpox, and mental health – hysteria and hypochondria. I like the way this book thinks through all aspects of women’s experiences, how their disorders were understood, who they sought treatment from, and how those treatments were adapted to the specifics of the female body (menstruation and lactation).


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John Hall, Master of Physicke: A Casebook from Shakespeare's Stratford

By Greg Wells

John Hall, Master of Physicke: A Casebook from Shakespeare's Stratford

Why this book?

This is a great example for anyone who is intrigued to read a physician’s case notes. The edition presents the patient observations of John Hall, son-in-law to William Shakespeare from the 1630s. There is a detailed introduction outing Hall’s life, medical practice, and social setting with further information about his library and his manuscript. Patient’s cases are presented throughout the book with helpful footnotes explaining who people were and illustrations bringing locations and faces to life. There is a helpful glossary of medical terms at the end. This is not necessarily a sit-down and read it cover-to-cover book but it provides a fascinating glimpse into one man’s medical practice and the lives of his patients.


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