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Public Health in Premodernity


Prof. Guy Geltner

Members of the research group

dr. Janna Coomans
prof.dr. G. Geltner
Sander Govaerts (PhD candidate)
dr. C.V. Weeda

Description of the research programme of the research group

This research group focuses on the ways in which premodern health discourses played into or shaped the historical development of a private/public divide as a frontier for conflict and an axis of identity formation. How and to what extent did pre-modern people go about creating healthier environments? We seek to address misconceptions about preventative (as opposed to curative) health care in pre-modern cities, and explores how urban dwellers, organizations, and governments, especially in medieval Europe and the Near East, identified and addressed the particular health risks attendant upon their milieus. Moving beyond the current historiographical focus on epidemiology, the group investigates the processes of urban “healthscaping” in premodernity and its material and cultural heritage in the modern age. The key research questions are:

  • What were the implications for preventing disease and limiting its spread at a population level or fostering the most congenial environment for reducing health risks?
  • What kinds of bodies, organizations, and individuals played a part in addressing such challenges and how, if at all, did they interact?
  • What were the ramifications of these efforts in terms of the built environment, from private dwellings to civic architecture, and what can such healthscaping processes tell us about the relations between the private and public spheres?
  • Did one’s position along socioeconomic strata influence his or her access to the benefits of public health? Were such benefits gendered, or were they stacked against disempowered groups and marginal individuals?
  • And how did all of these aspects change over time and under different regimes?
  • Did any of it actually work in terms of reducing harm?
  • What intellectual and material heritage has arisen from premodern healtscaping processes?
  • How does this heritage relate to modern public health issues, both as a “remain” of the past” or continuity and an object of conflict in the present?

This interdisciplinary project is grounded in the field of memory studies, and will study premodern healthscaping from a dynamic and transregional perspective, with sensitivity towards geopolitical diversity as well as an emphasis on documented practice rather than prescriptive and literary sources. Moreover, the project seeks to embed discourses on health in the concrete spatial and material setting of the premodern city. The subject contributes to various interdisciplinary research themes in heritage and memory studies, such as the relation between individual and society, social norms and technological development, the dynamics of controlling urban space, and the perception of public and private spheres.

Recent activities/results

  • ERC Consolidator grant obtained (9/2017-8/2022): PI, 4 postdocs, 1 PhD (all)
  • Stanford Humanities Center fellowship (Geltner)
  • Edited volume (in preparation) (Weeda)
  • Dissertation ongoing (Govaerts)
  • Dissertation completed (expected) (Coomans)
  • Several articles submitted and/or in print (all)
  • Several lectures in US, UK, NL, Belgium (all)
  • Monograph submitted to publisher (Geltner)
  • Panel proposal accepted for Urban history conference Rome (all)
  • Online bibliography updated
  • Website setup:

Societal relevance

This project offers an historical perspective on the construction and function of public health. The line of research also offers substantially new insights into the historical development of a private/public divide as a frontier for conflict and an axis of identity formation. Writing the history of pre-modern urban public health can emerge from a dialogue with a range of current debates in memory studies, urban planning, restoration studies, identity politics, social justice, and gender studies, and should thus be done in a conscious attempt to contribute back to them. Providing modern public health professionals and institutions, which are often woefully, disengaged from historical insight, with a historical perspective can also help us test the common assumption that successful interventions (that is, effecting behavioral change) are contingent upon the existence of central government action, advanced technology, and modern science.