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Professor John Henderson

BA (Newcastle-u-Tyne), MA (Cambridge), PhD (London)
Professor of Italian Renaissance history

Contact details

Department of History, Classics and Archaeology
Birkbeck, University of London
Room B11
27 Russell Square,

Tel: 020 7631 0686


  • I have long been interested in two major historical themes which are as relevant today as they were in medieval and renaissance Europe. The first is the way in which society dealt with poverty; by examining the poor relief and welfare structures in the past we can discover not just the origins of present systems, but also the enduring attitudes and prejudices towards poorer members of our society. The second is how society coped with epidemics, especially the two major diseases which dominated this period: plague and syphilis. Once again, examining reactions in the past to emergencies caused by both acute and chronic epidemic disease can help us to understand why and how societies of the 20th and 21st centuries reacted to the new epidemics including AIDS, SARS, malaria and Ebola.
  • John Henderson was made Professor of Italian Renaissance History at Birkbeck in 2007. He began working at Birkbeck in 2003 as a Wellcome Trust Reader in Renaissance Medicine; before that he was a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow in Renaissance History of Medicine at the University of Cambridge.
  • He is also:
  • Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge.
  • Research Professor, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.
  • Director of the 'Medici and Medicine' research project, Medici Archive Project, Florence.
  • Member of the Advisory Board of the Wellcome Trust-funded project at the University of St. Andrews: 'The Global War Against the Rat and the Epistemic Emergence of Zoonosis'.
  • Member of the Scientific Community of the Center for the Study of Medicine and the Body in the Renaissance (CSMBR), Institutio Santoriana, Fondazione Comel, Pisa.
  • Member of the Advisory Board of the ERC-funded research project 'Premodern Healthscaping' at the University of Amsterdam.

Research and teaching

  • Research interests
  • Medieval and early modern Italian history:
  • Reactions to Plague and Syphilis
  • Poverty, charity and welfare
  • Health, disease and the environment
  • Religion and popular piety
  • Teaching
  • I teach on a number of BA and MA modules, including:
  • 'The Medieval World'
  • 'Renaissance Florence' (MA option)
  • Practitioners and Patients in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe, c.1400-1650' (MA option)
  • 'The Renaissance in Italy and Europe' (BA Group 2)
  • PhD supervision
  • Most recently I have supervised dissertations on the following areas:
  • 'Plants and medicine in 16th-century Tuscany'
  • 'Medicine in the books: a study on 16th-century English medical remedies'
  • 'Alms-houses of Late Medieval London'
  • 'Flora in Florence: images and uses of flowers'
  • 'A visible difference: dwarfs in early modern Italian court culture'
  • I am also co-supervising two research students at Monash University, both working on the medical history of Renaissance Italy.
  • I would be interested in supervising PhD students in the religious, cultural, social and medical history of medieval, renaissance and early modern Italy, and especially Tuscany. In particular students would be welcomed with an interest in popular religion and ritual; the social and medical function of charitable and welfare institutions as well as their artistic role; reactions to epidemic disease and especially plague; and the practice and practitioners of medicine in Italy, from physicians and surgeons to apothecaries and herbalists.
  • Collaborative projects
  • I am co-founder and Chair of the International Network for the History of Hospitals, which organises a bi-annual conference and publishes the proceedings and a regular Newsletter.
  • Director of Research Project 'Medicine and the Medici in Grand-ducal Tuscany' at the Medici Archive Project, Florence
  • Member of the 'Body and the City' research project of the Prato Consortium for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
  • Member of the Advisory Committee of the ERC-funded research project 'Visualising Plague' at CRASSH, University of Cambridge.
  • Journal editorship
  • I am a member of the following editorial boards:
  • Medicina e Storia: Rivista di storia della medicina e della sanita’
  • Ricerche Storiche


  • Books
  • Florence Under Siege. Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2019)
  • Plague and the City, ed. with L. Englemann and C. Lynteris (Routledge, London, 2017-18)
  • L'ospedale riniscimentale. La cura del corpo e dell'anima (Odoya, Bologna, 2016)
  • Teoria e pratica Medica. Rimedi e formacopee in eta’ moderna, ‘Introduction’, ed. with M. Garbellotti, Medicina e storia, XV (2008), pp. 190.
  • The Impact of Hospitals in Europe 1000–2000: People, Landscapes, Symbols, 'Introduction' and edited by John Henderson, Peregrine Horden, and Alessandro Pastore (Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang, Autumn 2006), 426 pages.
  • The Renaissance Hospital. Healing the Body and Healing the Soul (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), xxxiv + 458 pages. German translation: Das Spital im Florenz der Renaissance – Heilung für den Leib und für die Seele (Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart, 2013)
  • [ed. With A. Pastore], ‘Medicina dell'Anima , Medicina del Corpo: l'Ospedale in Europa tra Medio Evo ed Età Moderna’: Special number of Medicina e Storia, III (2003), 134 pages.
  • The Great Pox. The French Disease in Renaissance Europe, with J. Arrizabalaga and R. French, Yale University Press, 1997, xv + 352 pages.
  • [ed. with R. Wall], Poor Women and Children in the European Past, Routledge, 1994, xiii + 347 pages.
  • Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994, xviii + 545 pages; revised paperback ed.: Chicago University Press, 1997, xviii + 533 pages.
  • Italian translation: Pieta' e carita' nella Firenze del Basso Medioevo, Casa Editrice Le Lettere, Florence, 1998, pp. 545.
  • [ed. with T.V. Verdon], Christianity and the Renaissance, Syracuse University Press, 1990, xviii + 611 pages.
  • [ed.], Charity and the Poor in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe: England and Italy Compared in Continuity and Change, 3.ii (1988), 176 pages.
  • Articles and chapters
  • Popular Religion in medieval Italy
  • 'Ospedali Fiorentini ed opere d’arte nel rinascimento: valore storico e ruolo sanitario-devozionale', Medicina nei secoli. Journal of History of Medicine, 2001, pp. 273-295.
  • 'Healing the Body and Healing the Soul: Hospitals in Renaissance Florence', Renaissance Studies, 2001, pp. 188-216.
  • [with P. Joannides] 'A Franciscan Triptych by Fra Angelico', Arte Cristiana (1991).
  • 'Penitence and the Laity in Fifteenth-Century Florence', in Verdon and Henderson, eds., Christianity and the Renaissance (Syracuse, USA, 1990), pp. 229-249.
  • 'Religious Confraternities and Politics in Fifteenth-century Florence', Collegium Medievale (1990), pp. 53-72.
  • 'Confraternities and Death in Renaissance Florence', in Florence and Italy. Renaissance Studies in Honour of Nicolai Rubinstein, ed. P. Denley and C. Elam (London, 1988), pp. 383-394.
  • 'Confraternities and the Church in Fifteenth-century Florence', Studies in Church History, xxiv (1986), pp. 69-83.
  • 'Society and Religion in Renaissance Florence: A Review Article', The Historical Journal, 29 (1986), pp. 213-225.
  • 'Le confraternite religiose nella Firenze del tardo medio evo: patroni spirituali e anche politici?', Ricerche storiche, xv (1985), pp. 77-94.
  • 'The Flagellant Movement and Flagellant Confraternities in Central Italy, 1260-1400', Studies in Church History, xv (1978), pp. 147-160.
  • Social History: charity and welfare in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy
  • 'Introduction' and ed., 'Living and Dying in the City' in Living in the City, ed. E. Sonnino (Rome, 2004).
  • 'Charity and Welfare in Sixteenth-century Tuscany', in A. Cunningham and O. Grell, eds., Charity and Medicine in Southern Europe (London, 1999), pp. 56-86.
  • 'Women, Children and Poverty in Florence at the time of the Black Death', in Henderson and Wall, eds., Poor Women and Children in the European Past (London, 1994), pp. 160-179.
  • 'Charity in late medieval Florence: the role of religious confraternities', in C.H. Smyth and G.C. Garfagnini, eds., Florence and Milan: comparisons and relations (Florence, 1989), pp. 67-84.
  • 'The Parish and the Poor in Florence at the time of the Black Death: the case of San Frediano', Continuity and Change, 3 (1988), pp. 247-272.
  • Plagues in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy
  • '"Filth is the mother of corruption": environment and plague in early modern Florence' in Plague and the City, ed. L. Englemann, J. Henderson and C. Lynteris (London, 2017-2018).
  • 'The Impact of Plague in Florence: 1630-1631: re-evaluating the evidence' in: Epidemics and Society, ed. G. D'Andiran et alia (Geneva, 2017).
  • (with Colin Rose), 'Plague and the City: methodological considerations in mapping disease in early modern Florence', Mapping Motion, Emotion, and the Senses: Historical GIS and Rethinking the Early Modern City, ed., N Terpstra (London, 2016), pp. 125-46.
  • Coping with Plagues in Renaissance Italy’, Society in an Age of Plague, ed. L. Clark and C. Rawcliffe in: The Fifteenth Century, XII (2013), pp. 175-194.
  • ‘More Feared than Death Itself’? Isolation Hospitals and Plague in Seventeenth-century Florence in:, ed. C. Bonfield, T. Huguet-Termes, J. Reinarz, Hospitals and communities, 1100-1960 (London and Bern, 2013).
  • ‘Public Health, Pollution and the Problem of Waste Disposal in Early Modern Tuscany’, in: Economic and Biological Interactions in the Pre-industrial Europe from the 13th to the 18thCenturies, ed. S. Cavaciocchi (Firenze University Press, Florence, 2010), pp. 373-382.
  • ‘Epidemie, Miasmi e il corpo dei poveri a Firenze nella Prima Età Moderna’, Storia Urbana (Feb. 2007).
  • 'Historians and Plagues in pre-industrial Italy over the longue durée', History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences (2004), pp. 481-99.
  • 'The Black Death', in The Times Medieval Atlas, ed. R. McItterick (London, 2003)
  • '"La schifezza, madre di corruzione": Peste e società a Firenze nella prima epoca moderna', Medicina e Storia, 2 (2001), pp. 23-56.
  • 'The Mal Francese in Sixteenth-century Rome: The Ospedale di San Giacomo in Augusta and the "Incurabili"', in E. Sonnino, ed., La popolazione di Roma dal medioevo all'età contemporanea. Fonti, problemi di ricerca, risultati (Rome, 1999), pp. 483-523.
  • 'La peste nera a Firenze: teorie mediche e la politica governativa', in M.L. Betri and A. Pastore, eds., L'arte di Guarire. Aspetti della professione medica tra medioevo ed età contemporanea (Milan, 1993), pp. 11-29.
  • 'The Black Death in Florence: medical and communal reactions', in S. Bassett, ed., Death in Towns (Leicester, 1992), pp. .
  • 'Plague in Renaissance Florence: medical theory and government response', Maladies et société‚ (xii--xviiie siècles), ed. N. Bulst and R. Delort (Paris, 1989), pp. 165-186.
  • 'Epidemie nella Firenze del Rinascimento: teoria sanitaria e provvedimenti governative', in Sanità e Società. Emilia Romagna, Toscana, Marche, Umbria, Lazio, secoli xvi-xx, ed. A. Pastore and P. Sorcinelli (Udine, 1987).
  • Medical History in renaissance and early modern Italy
  • Caring for the Poor. Commessi and commesse in the Hospitals of renaissance Florence’, in Hospitaler in Mittelalter und Fruher Neuzeit. Frankreich, Deutschland und Italien. Eine vergleichende Geschichte, ed. G. Drossbach (Munich, 2007), pp. 163-172.
  • 'The Art of Healing. Hospital wards and the sick in Renaissance Florence', in P. Helas and G. Wolf, eds, Armut und Armenfürsorge in der italienischen Stadtkulturzwischen 13. und 16. Jahrhundert. Bilde, Texte und sozial Pratiken (Frankfurt am Main, 2006), pp. 79-96.
  • 'Fracastoro, Mal Francese e la cura con il Legno Santo', Girolamo Fracastoro. Fra medicina, filosofia e scienze della natura, eds, A. Pastore and E. Peruzzi (Florence, 2006), pp. 73-89.
  • 'Santa Maria Nuova nel quadro europeo del rinascimento: bellezza e terapia', in La bellezza come terapia. Arte e assistenza nell'ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova di Firenze, eds, E. Ghidetti and E. Diana (Florence, 2005), pp. 27-44.
  • 'Medizin für den Körper und Medizin für die Seele – Hospitäler im Florenz der Renaissance', in M. Matheus, ed., Strukturwandel spätmittelalterlicher Hospitäler in Europa (Stuttgart, 2006).
  • 'The material culture of health: hospitals in renaissance Italy', in F. Steger, K. P. Jankrift, eds, Gesundheit - Krankheit. Kulturtransfer medizinischen Wissens von der Spadtantike bis in die Fruhe Neuzeit (Beihefte zum Archiv für Kulturgeschichte, 55), (Cologne, 2004), 155-66.
  • '"Antechambers of Death"? Poverty and Sickness in the Hospitals of Renaissance Florence', in Forme di povertà e innovazioni istituzionali in Italia dal Medioevo ad oggi, ed. V. Zamagni (Bologna, 2000), pp. 111-129.
  • 'Ospedali ed epidemie a Firenze nel Rinascimento: Peste e Mal Francese', L'Ospedale e la Città. Catalogo della mostra, Palazzo Vecchio, dicembre 1998, ed. A. Aleardi, et al. (Florence, 2000), pp. 16-27.
  • 'Cura del corpo e cura dell' anima. Ospedali a Firenze e in Italia', in E. Pieri Venturi and L. Sandri, eds., La nuova città, II n. 4 (1999), pp. 93-102.
  • '"Splendide case di cura". Spedali, medicina ed assistenza a Firenze nel Trecento', in A. Grieco and L. Sandri, eds., Ospedali e città. L'Italia del Centro-Nord, XIII-XVI secolo (Florence, 1997), pp. 15-50.
  • [with K.P. Park] '"The First Hospital Among Christians": the Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova in Early Sixteenth-century Florence', Medical History, xxxv (1991), pp. 164-188.
  • 'The Hospitals of Late-Medieval Florence: a preliminary survey', in The Hospital in History, ed. L. Granshaw and R. Porter (London, 1989), pp. 63-92.


Professional membership

  • Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, member of council, 2013-16
  • Fellow Wolfson College, University of Cambridge

Current activities

  • Most recently I published: Florence Under Siege. Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2019). The remarkable survival of the almost complete records for a major epidemic in Italy, 1630-1, has made it possible to reconstruct in vivid and moving detail the reactions of all levels of society from the beliefs and practices of medical men, to government officials in coping with plague, to the men and women who ran plague isolation hospitals to the survival strategies of those at the lower levels of society.
  • Following my book on plague, I am exploring a series of research areas.
  • The first is the representation of disease in renaissance and early modern visual and textual culture. Later in 2020 I am publishing a co-edited volume with art historians Frederika Jacbs and Jonathan Nelson called Representing Infirmity in Renaissance Italy (Routledge) to which I have contributed an article on the representation of plague in early modern Tuscany.
  • In a second study I am examining the written and visual representation of the Great Pox in early modern Italy.
  • A third major are I am examining is the evolution of public health in Tuscany between 1600 to c.1780, a period characterised by an increased emphasis on the causal relationship between environmental conditions and the health and disease of the urban and rural population. This new empirical approach led to the generation of detailed medical and public health surveys which enable one to test how far where you lived in early modern Tuscany determined your life-chances and how relevant is the idea of the ‘urban penalty’ for understanding mortality in Mediterranean Europe during the transition from the late renaissance to the Enlightenment.
  • Finally, I remain fascinated by one of the major themes of my last book, The Renaissance Hospital, the relationship between religion and medicine through function and placement of artistic and commissions and programmes in hospitals in medieval and renaissance Italy.