The best books on early modern medicine

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

Who am I?

I’m a lecturer in history at the University of Hertfordshire where I teach early modern history of medicine and the body. I have published on reproductive history in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The history of medicine is endlessly diverse, and there are so many books on early modern medicine, some broad and others more specific, it’s this variety that I find endlessly intriguing. Some conditions from the era, like gout and cancer, are familiar, while others like, greensickness, aren’t recognized any longer. Thinking about these differences and about how people’s bodies ached and suffered helps me to appreciate their relationships, struggles, and triumphs in a whole new dimension.

I wrote...

Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740

By Jennifer Evans, Sara Read,

Book cover of Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740

What is my book about?

Maladies and Medicine offers a lively exploration of health and medical cures in early modern England for anyone curious about the history of the body and the way our ancestors lived. This was an era when tooth cavities were thought to be caused by tiny worms and smallpox by an inflammation of the blood, and cures ranged from herbal potions, cooling cordials, blistering the skin, to of course letting blood. The book’s twenty chapters cover attitudes towards, and explanations of, some of the most common diseases and medical conditions in the period, along with the steps people took to get better.

It explores the body from head to toe, from migraines to gout. Case studies and personal anecdotes taken from doctors’ notes, personal journals, diaries, letters, and even court records show the reactions of individuals to their illnesses and treatments, bringing the reader closer to patients who lived c.400 years ago.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Lucinda McCray Beier,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sufferers and Healers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Lucinda McCray Beier's remarkable book, first published in 1987, enters the world of illness in seventeenth-century England, exploring what it was like to be either a sufferer or a healer. A wide spectrum of healers existed, ranging between the housewife, with her simple herbal preparations, local cunning-folk and bonestters, travelling healers, and formally accredited surgeons and physicians. Basing her study upon personal accounts written by sufferers and healers, Beier examines the range of healers and therapies available, describes the disorders people suffered from, and indicates the various ways sufferers dealt with their ailments. She includes several case-studies of healers and…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Olivia Weisser,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ill Composed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the first in-depth study of how gender determined perceptions and experiences of illness in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, Olivia Weisser invites readers into the lives and imaginations of ordinary men and women. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including personal diaries, medical texts, and devotional literature, the author enters the sickrooms of a diverse sampling of early modern Britons. The resulting stories of sickness reveal how men and women of the era viewed and managed their health both similarly and differently, as well as the ways prevailing religious practices, medical knowledge, writing conventions, and everyday life created and…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Alun Withey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Physick and the Family as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Physick and the family offers new insights into the early modern sickness experience, through a study of the medical history of Wales.

Newly available in paperback, this first ever monograph of early modern Welsh medicine utilises a large body of newly discovered source material. Using numerous approaches and methodologies, it makes a significant contribution to debates in medical history, including economies of knowledge, domestic medicine and care, material culture and the rural medical marketplace. Drawing on sources from probates to parish records, diaries to domestic remedy collections, Withey offers new directions for recovering the often obscure medical worldview of the…

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

Why did I love 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).

By Wendy D. Churchill,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Female Patients in Early Modern Britain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This investigation contributes to the existing scholarship on women and medicine in early modern Britain by examining the diagnosis and treatment of female patients by male professional medical practitioners from 1590 to 1740. In order to obtain a clearer understanding of female illness and medicine during this period, this study examines ailments that were specific and unique to female patients as well as illnesses and conditions that afflicted both female and male patients. Through a qualitative and quantitative analysis of practitioners' records and patients' writings - such as casebooks, diaries and letters - an emphasis is placed on medical practice.…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Greg Wells,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked John Hall, Master of Physicke as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the first complete edition and English translation of John Hall's Little Book of Cures, a fascinating medical casebook composed in Latin around 1634-5. John Hall (1575-1635) was Shakespeare's son-in-law (Hall married Susanna Shakespeare in 1607), and based his medical practice in Stratford-upon-Avon. Readers have never before had access to a complete English translation of John Hall's casebook, which contains fascinating details about his treatment of patients in and around Stratford.

Until Wells's edition, our knowledge of Hall and his practice has had to rely only on a partial, seventeenth-century edition (produced by James Cooke in 1657 and 1679,…

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