Vernacular Health and Healing (colloquium)

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For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a year-long colloquium held from 2006–2007.

Herb-women, viper-gatherers, midwives, mothers, charlatans, and nuns—most of the health care in early modern Europe was provided by healers such as these, rather than by learned physicians. Meeting once a month over the course of the academic year, this colloquium explored health and healing from the perspectives of patients and practitioners. We focused both on healing practices and on the bodies of knowledge and belief that structured what we are calling vernacular healing—that provided by rank-and-file practitioners, the broader penumbra of other healers, and patients themselves. How did ordinary people make sense of their bodies and of sickness and health? How did their ideas relate to those of their healers? The colloquium began not with concrete definitions of vernacular and learned, but rather with a commitment to understand knowledge and practices as they were made, circulated, and used in a broad range of contexts. As there are strong structural continuities in medical practice over the late medieval and early modern periods, the colloquium especially sought to bring medievalists and early modern scholars into productive dialogue. Participants discussed each other’s work in relation to some touchstone readings, building a mosaic of various kinds of health and healing and their functions in various discourses and knowledge communities over the course of the year. Applicants’ works-in-progress therefore had to be sufficiently developed to serve as the basis of group discussion.

Director: Mary E. Fissell is a Professor in the History of Medicine at The Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Patients, Power, and the Poor in Eighteenth-Century Bristol (1991) and Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England (2004).