Dept of History, Classics and Archaeology | Our research | Research Projects | Medicine and the Bishop in Medieval England
Document Actions

Medicine and the Bishop in Medieval England

In ‘Medicine and the Bishop in Medieval England, c. 1100-1400’, funded through a Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Research Fellowship (2014-17, £150,282), Dr Katherine Harvey takes a new approach to the interrelationship between medieval medicine and religion. Her research focuses on the bishop (a figure who was the living embodiment of church and faith) from a medical perspective, examining interactions between bishops, medical knowledge and the medical professions. It illuminates the relationship between religion, medicine and the body as it existed in twelfth- to fourteenth-century England.

Building on Dr Harvey’s previous work on bishops’ spiritual, political and administrative functions, this project takes our understanding of the bishop’s role in medieval society in fresh directions. It sheds new light on the nature of medieval episcopacy (in particular the pastoral aspects of the role), and on the complex relationship between the episcopal office and the incumbent’s humanity. More broadly, the study illuminates the links and tensions between spiritual and medical approaches to health and well-being, and enhances our understanding of the role of medicine in the lives of medieval elites.

The project covers three key themes, which intermesh to provide an integrated and original study of the relationship between medicine and the episcopate in medieval England:

  • The bishop as a beneficiary of medical knowledge and treatment emphasises the significance of preventative medicine, based on the Galenic theory of the six non-naturals. It argues that significant efforts which were made within the episcopal household and in the bishop’s daily life to protect his health. It also surveys the illnesses which bishops were known to have suffered from, and the nature of responses to such illnesses, addressing questions such as: What medical provision was available to the bishop, and who treated him? What treatments did he receive, and what medicines were purchased for him?
  • The bishop’s medical knowledge asks what medieval bishops knew about medicine, and uncovers the sources of their medical knowledge. It demonstrates how this knowledge was used in the fulfilment of episcopal duties, in particular its relevance to various aspects of pastoral care (including confession and preaching) and the management of the clergy.
  • Understanding the bishop’s body argues that medical knowledge was used to interpret the bishop’s body, including his food practices, sexuality, and emotions, as well as his corpse. Ultimately, it is argued that the episcopal body was a potent cultural symbol, which played an important role in shaping individual and institutional reputations, both good and bad.

In addition to papers already produced on episcopal diets and virginity, the project’s chief output will be a monograph on ‘The Episcopal Body in Medieval England.’ The well attended and successful project conference, Religion and Medicine: Healing the Body and Soul from the Middle Ages to the Modern Day (co-organised by Dr Katherine Harvey, Professor John Henderson and Dr Carmen Mangion) was held at Birkbeck in July 2016.

Current News