Past Project Events

Workshop: 'Histories of Medicine in the Household', University of Warwick, 5-7 July 2012

Date: July 2012
Sandra Cavallo presented the paper, ‘Health concerns and the changing material culture of rest and sleep in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Italy’ at the Anglo-Dutch-German Workshop ‘Histories of Medicine in the Household’, University of Warwick

Conference: 'Clothing and the Cultures of Appearances in Early Modern Europe', Fundación Carlos de Amberes, Madrid, 2-4 February 2012

Date: February 2012
Sandra Cavallo delivered the paper:, ‘From Perfumes to Clothing: Health and Household Objects in Late Renaissance Italy’ at the International conference “Clothing and the Cultures of Appearances in Early Modern Europe” (2-4 February 2012), held at the Fundación Carlos de Amberes, Madrid.

Conference: 'Sport in Early Modern Culture', German Historical Institute, London, November 2011

Date: 18 November 2011
Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey gave the paper ‘Conceptions and practice of exercise among the Roman aristocracy in the 16th and 17th centuries’, at the Conference ‘Sport in Early Modern Culture’, German Historical Institute, London.

80th Anglo-American Conference of Historians: Health in History, Institute of Historical Research

Date: 29 June-1 July 2011

Sandra Cavallo is co-organizing two panels at the 80th Anglo-American Conference of Historians on the subject of: Healthy living in medieval and early modern Europe. Medical and lay perspectives, I and II.

Summary: In classical and medieval medicine prevention fulfilled as important a role as treatment and was seen as a branch of medicine. For Galen, in particular, a key aspect of the physician’s task was that of advising patients about the correct way of living in order to stay in good health. Though these ideas still appear firmly established in medical theory at the onset of the early modern period, the emphasis of recent historiography on medical consumerism has led scholars to concentrate on therapeutic medicine and medicinal remedies rather than on behavioral regimes and the care of the healthy body. These two panels aim to re-direct the attention to the measures adopted in everyday life to preserve health through an investigation of the persistence of the preventative paradigm from the middle ages to the eighteenth century. The six papers will analyse from a range of perspectives the circulation and reception of the doctrine of the six non natural things from which health was seen to depend (the air breathed, the food and drink ingested, sleeping and waking, movement and rest, evacuation and repletion, the passions of the soul) and the adaptability of the paradigm to changing social, religious and medical contexts. They will reconstruct tensions within the medical debate ranging from the inherent clash between the growing universality of medical advice and the principle of individual complexions to the impact of changes in how bodily functions were understood. Attention will also be given to the relationships between guidelines and practice, including the perspectives of lay people and how preventative concerns informed actual lifestyles.

Panel I. Sleep exercise and passions. Wednesday 29th June, 11,30, Low Countries room
Chair: Silvia De Renzi

Bill MacLehose (UCL) Sleep, health and pathology in Medieval medicine

Tessa Storey (RHUL) Managing the passions and comforting the spirits: medical advice and lay experience in Italy, 1470-1700

Sandra Cavallo(RHUL) Gentle exercise and genteel life: movement and health in medical advice and lay practice in 16th and 17th century Italy


Panel II. Food, diet and lifestyle. Wednesday 29th June, 2.00, Brunei Gallery, B204
Chair: Sandra Cavallo

Chris Bonfield (UEA) The First Instrument of Medicine: diet and regimens of health in late Medieval England

Silvia De Renzi (OU) ‘Eggs and fish made him sick …’: negotiating fasting in Counter Reformation Rome

Maria Pia Donato (Cagliari) Saving lives: medical discourse on sudden death and lifestyle in the 17thand 18th centuries



Bill MacLehose (UCL)
Sleep, Health and Pathology in Medieval Medicine

From Late Antiquity onward, western medicine viewed sleep as essential for the proper maintenance of health, and as one of the six variables in each individual’s physical status. With the revival of Galenic medicine in Western Europe beginning in the late eleventh century, the category of sleep became a source of increased interest and concern. Medieval medicine viewed the state of being asleep as having the potential to either benefit or damage the physiological and psychological state of the individual. This paper explores the understandings of sleep by later medieval medical practitioners, who in different ways recognised and elaborated upon the positive and negative effects of sleep on the general maintenance of health. The primary purpose of sleep lay in the physiological process of digestion of food, which occurred predominantly while the body rested. The body’s strength was revived not from rest per se, but from the production of renewed nourishment for each of the body’s parts, through a series of processes in which the food was concocted (‘cooked’), purified, and spread throughout the body.
At the same time, other internal processes related more to the brain than to the stomach or liver brought with them intrinsic dangers. Just as the external parts of the body rested during sleep, so also the rational faculty, the individual’s ability to use reason and to choose to act properly, was inoperable during sleep. Instead, the mental processes were ruled by sensations and images stored in the imagination, a part of the brain that remained active even during sleep. The sleeper’s imagination, unrestrained by reason, often produced nonsensical and violent images, and led to reactions of fear, pleasure or anger. Thus sleep, which was physiologically necessary for digestion and health, at the same time led too easily to mental processes that could damage both body and soul.


Tessa Storey (Royal Holloway)
Managing the passions and comforting the spirits: medical advice and lay experience on Italy 1470-1700

Italian healthy living guides published in the vernacular between the late fifteenth and late seventeenth centuries invariably contained advice on the management of the passions of the soul, which constituted one of the six ‘non-naturals’. The authors of these popular tracts sought to explain the complicated relationship between the passions, the spirits, the soul and inner heat and how these affected health. They also offered advice on how to regulate the passions so as to avoid sudden death and promote longevity. This included the use of medicines, fumigations and a wide range of activities, such as singing, pleasant conversations and listening to music. The advice offered was neither uniform nor static and over the period examined, the content, emphasis and the approach of authors towards their readers shifted. This paper will consider some key changes in advice on the passions, and in the different conceptual models adopted by doctors in their attempts to convey the mechanics of this complex aspect of early modern medical thought to the lay reader. It also explores evidence of lay perspectives on the passions, which can be compared to medical theory. Using letters and contemporary accounts it examines how lay people perceived the effects of the ‘passions’ on their health and the ways in which they sought to regulate their own or others’ passions as part of the daily practice of healthy living.


Sandra Cavallo (Royal Holloway)
Gentle exercise and genteel life: movement and health in medical advice and lay practice in 16th and 17th century Italy.

Exercise was traditionally regarded as a key component of a healthy lifestyle. In humoural theory exercise was seen as a way to ease the expulsion of the superfluities that built up in various parts of the body during the three physiological digestions whereby food was turned into physical matters. If this residual waste was not removed it could severely damage the body, causing blockages, pain, fevers and other ailments. A comparative examination of the health advice literature published in Italy between 1500 and 1700 and of its medieval and ancient predecessors reveals however that what was meant by ‘exercise’ varies considerably over time: from the late sixteenth century onwards this was increasingly associated with various types of moderate physical movement rather than with sports. Taking issue with representations of the health advice literature as inherently static and insensitive to social and cultural change, the paper will relate these transformations to the rise of new ideals of genteel life and new definitions of masculinity visible also in other genres of conduct literature. Moreover, the paper will address the problematic issue of the relationship between advice and practice. Using the family correspondence of members of the Roman nobility it will examine lay accounts of the effects of immoderate exercise upon the body, showing that considerable convergence existed between the ideas of medical professionals and the concerns of laypeople. In the seventeenth century the view that exercising regularly but gently was key to wellbeing occupied central stage in the everyday practices of genteel people. 


Christopher Bonfield (University of East Anglia)
The First Instrument of Medicine: diet and regimens of health in late Medieval England.

Late medieval regimina repeated ad nauseam the Galenic maxim that diet was ‘the first instrument of medicine’. Certainly, diet normally constituted the biggest chapter in such works, and the virtues and dangers of specific types of meat and drink, and which foods to eat in what season, were discussed at length. This paper will investigate what dietary recommendations appeared in English translations or copies of regimina, either in manuscript or print, between c.1348-1600. It will ask if these recommendations were either affordable or obtainable. Particular attention will also be paid to what extent vernacular self-help guides, which appeared after the Black Death when there was an upsurge in the amount of practical advice in the English vernacular, might have shaped broader notions of preventative health and well being.
The paper will focus on Thomas Paynells’ Regimen Sanitatis Salerni, first printed in 1528 and reprinted in several editions throughout the course of the century. It drew heavily upon Galenic and Aristotelian medical theory, and the majority of the text sets out the various meats, fish, vegetables, fruit and drinks considered to be wholesome for the body. It provided one of the most exhaustive list of foodstuffs and drinks that appeared to that date, either in Latin or English. Evidence will be drawn also from a representative sample of regimina and associated texts, such as the Secreta secretorum (Secret of Secrets) and John Lydgate’s Dietary.


Silvia De Renzi (Open University)
‘Eggs and fish made him sick …’: negotiating fasting in Counter-Reformation Rome

Following the council of Trent, regulation of devotional fasting was made stricter, but a space was also opened up for negotiating the new discipline. Individuals sought exemption on grounds of health and, as historians have shown, physicians were asked to provide the required justification. So it was that food, one of the non naturals, could become a bone of contention between medicine and devotion, not least because diet was understood as quintessentially individual while the religious precept was universal. But we still know little about the arguments commonly used to avoid or mitigate fasting and how physicians responded. Was fasting (mainly in the form of abstention from meat) ever good? What properties (cold, hot, wet and dry) were associated with the allowed food, and could they be the cause of health troubles? More broadly, negotiations over fasting can help us throw new light on widespread perceptions of food as a means to a healthy life and individuals’ control over it. Here I contribute by looking at how the Roman physician Paolo Zacchia, the founding father of legal medicine, engaged with the issues in his Il vitto quaresimale (Lenten food), which he deliberately published in Italian in 1636. To help ‘people who make mistakes’ in this matter, he examined the quality of Lenten food and the diseases that allowed partial or total exemption. Despite condemning abuse in the matter, including physicians’ laxity, Zacchia was in fact providing them as well as lay-people with ready-made excuses. Historians too can benefit, as his detailed discussion allows us to reconstruct how under historically and culturally specific pressures a centuries-old medical tradition on the properties of food intersected with more common perceptions and practices surrounding this non-natural.


Maria Pia Donato (University of Cagliari)
Saving lives: medical discourse on sudden death and life-style in the 17th and 18th centuries

Sudden death has always been a particularly frightening event and a major challenge to medicine. Traditionally, emphasis was put on the life-style and the six non-natural things as a direct cause for sudden death; life-style was also considered as the best and possibly only means to prevent somewhat that was not properly a disease and yet threatened life and spiritual salvation.
In the course of the 17th century, humoralism gave way to new chemical and mechanical explanations of the operations of the body, which enhanced a new perception of health and disease as well as definitions of life and death. Yet, medical discourse on sudden death continued to revolve around life-style and the non-naturals: does life-style play a role as a direct or as a predisposing cause and how? Can it prevent sudden and unexpected death? Which one of the non-naturals (food, air, passions of the soul, etc.) is more important?
A close analysis of the 17th- and 18th-century medical literature reveals significant distinctions. Some authors restyled traditional ideas and precepts with a different, fashionable language, using chemical and mechanical metaphors in order to impress their public and reassert their professional authority. Other authors blended it with modern physiological theories and methods of inquiry (such as post mortem investigations), aiming at creating a true “Hippocratic” environmental medicine.
I therefore argue that medical discourse on sudden death is an excellent standpoint from which one can assess continuity and change in the notions of health and prevention, on medical authority, and on the doctor-patient relationship in early modern society.

March 2011: Institute of Historical Research: Seminar on Early Modern Italy: 'Taking exercise, delighting the eyes and pleasing the soul: Gardens, the passions and maintaining one’s health in Early Modern Italy'

Date: 17 March 2011
Papergiven by Tessa Storey - Taking exercise, delighting the eyes and pleasing the soul: Gardens, the passions and maintaining one’s health in Early Modern Italy'

March 2011: 2nd HERA Workshop, Fashioning the Early Modern: Creativity and Innovation in Europe, 1500-1800, HCAS, University of Helsinki

Date: March 2011
Marta Ajmar-Wollheim, ‘Beds, Bedding and Bed Clothes: the Material Culture of Sleep between Health and Fashion in the Early Modern Italian Interior’, 2nd HERA Workshop, Fashioning the Early Modern: Creativity and Innovation in Europe, 1500-1800, HCAS, University of Helsinki.

March 2011: The Art Fund Lecture Series, Wallace Collection, London

Date: March 2011
2Marta Ajmar-Wollheim, ‘Singing parrots, dark green spectacles and beautiful prospettive: moderating the passions of the soul in the Italian Renaissance home’, The Art Fund Lecture Series, Wallace Collection, London.

February 2011: Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa

Date: 19 February 2011
Sandra Cavallo presented a paper entitled 'Indoors: spaces, families and communities (16th-18th centuries)', at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa, 18-19 February 2011.

February 2011: ‘Body in Bed’ seminar series, Centre for the Study of the Body and Material Culture, Royal Holloway

Date: 23 February 2011
The seminar series ‘The Body in Bed’, will runs at Royal Holloway, 11 Bedford Square, in the Autumn and Spring terms. It explores ideas of healthy sleep, sleeping arrangements, sleep and space and the material culture of sleep.

On 23 February 2011 Marta Ajmar-Wollheim gave a paper in the series titled "From scented sheets to canopy beds: the material culture of healthy sleep in the early modern Italian interior"

January 2011: Southampton University : History Department Seminar: '“The Greatest cause of ills…Darkening the heart, peturbing the mind and upsetting the body.” : Worrying about the Air in Early Modern Italian Health Advice Manuals'

Date: 31 January 2011
Paper to be by Tessa Storey - '“The Greatest cause of ills…Darkening the heart, peturbing the mind and upsetting the body.” : Worrying about the Air in Early Modern Italian Health Advice Manuals'

London Women’s Studies Group: 1535-1837: ‘Cosmetics, Poisons, Alchemy: Gender, Potions and Material Culture in Seventeenth-century Rome'

Date: 29 January 2011
Paper given by Tessa Storey - ‘Cosmetics, Poisons, Alchemy: Gender, Potions and Material Culture in Seventeenth-century Rome'

University of Sheffield, History Department Research Seminar: ‘Keeping in good health in early modern Italy: Evidence from family letters’

Date: 7 December 2010
Sandra Cavallo will present some new findings of the project in the paper: ‘Keeping in good health in early modern Italy. Evidence from family letters’ at the University of Sheffield, History Department Research Seminar, on the 7th December 2010.

Anglo-American Conference of Historians 2010: Environments

Date: 1 July 2010 - 2 July 2010
Next July the Institute of Historical Research's flagship annual event, the Anglo-American Conference of Historians is taking as its theme Environments. Over the last two decades environmental history has developed at an amazing pace, broadening and deepening our understanding of human interaction with nature, climate, landscape and resources across two millennia. Abstracts of two papers by 'Healthy Homes, Healthy Bodies' researchers are included below

'“Just a change in the weather is often the cause of death, or of good health” : The Environment and Health in Early Modern Italy' (Tessa Storey)

According to Humoralism, which dominated medical thought in early modern Europe, the external environment played a crucial role in health. Three texts from the Hippocratic corpus; Airs, Waters, Places and Epidemics I and III, outlined the ways in which such factors as air quality, prevailing winds, water supplies and topography affected the humoral balance of the body, seriously compromising or promoting health.

Reflecting this, discussions of the environment played a significant role in the health advice books (Regimen), circulating in Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. An extremely popular genre, these drew on classical texts to explain how to manage one’s relationship to the physical environment, thereby minimising the risks it posed. These typically included sections on the ideal site, aspect and internal design of houses with respect to local topography, climate and prevailing winds. They even contained advice on such details as the position of beds and the type of wall-coverings best suited to stave off such environmental hazards as damp night air.

Regimens were also printed specifically for the inhabitants of certain cities, thereby explaining local environmental peculiarities and how best to respond to them. As part of a Wellcome funded project, “Healthy Homes and Healthy Bodies in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy” this paper considers the advice in texts by Petronio, Paschetti and Viviani, writing on Rome, Genoa and Venice. It compares advice with evidence of practices drawn from architectural treatises, building plans and inventories to explore whether, or to what extent such advice was heeded.

'Objects and Wellbeing in the Early Modern Italian Home' (Dr. Marta Ajmar-Wollheim)

How to keep the domestic environment healthy and how to lead an healthy life at home were important concerns in the early modern period, when much attention was placed on preventing, rather than curing, disease. A wide range of vernacular texts – from regimens to household management treatises aimed at the bride – provided detailed advice on how to eat, dress, sleep and take exercise, thus involving a wide spectrum of objects in the everyday performance of domestic wellbeing. As much attention was paid to how to make the home a salubrious environment. The design of domestic spaces and architectural features such as fireplaces were seen as having a key impact on health. Of equal importance was the material culture of the home and its everyday management and deployment. From lining the walls of rooms with tapestries to absorb the air’s excessive humidity to preserving food and clothing through appropriate cleaning and storage, furnishings and objects were brought to the fore in the daily rituals aimed at staying healthy. Part of a larger collaborative research project exploring the prevention of disease in the early modern Italian home (Healthy Homes, Healthy Bodies, supported by the Wellcome Trust), this paper will activate a dialogue between objects and a variety of written and visual sources – from inventories and advice books to broadsheets and votive plaques – to explore the complex relationship between prescriptions and practices in the creation and maintenance of healthy domestic environments.

University of California, Rome, Conference: 'Early Modern Rome, ca. 1341-1667'

A conference held at the University of California, Rome, Italy, 13-15 May 2010. Conference Organizers: Paolo Alei, Antonella De Michelis, Julia L. Hairston, and Portia Prebys. Conference sponsored by the Association of American College and University Programs in Italy (AACUPI) and the University of California, Rome with ACCENT.

Cosmetics, Poisons and Alchemy: The Gendering of Domestic Recipe Making in Seventeenth Century Rome (Tessa Storey)

Historians of early modern medicine have recently paid considerable attention to the making of medicines, cosmetics and chemical products in the domestic sphere, particularly in England and Spain. In particular they have documented the role played by elite women in the this domestic production and in the circulation of the recipes themselves. This paper shifts the focus to both men and women, of middling rather than elite social extraction, who made up recipes in seventeenth-century Rome. Drawing on criminal archives, but with reference to my work on Italian Books of Secrets, it will explore the practices of two people engaged in both licit and illicit recipe making. It examines the ways in which the making of certain products –and hence the specific knowledge and equipment-was gendered; considers how this knowledge was transmitted; and explores the social networks which sustained the domestic production of legal and illegal substances.

From Space to Place: The Spatial Dimension in History

Sandra Cavallo gave a paper on ‘Imtimacy, gendered service and body services in the early modern Italian palace’ at the conference `From Space to Place: The Spatial Dimension in History', organised by the Centre for Research in History and Theory, Roehampton University, 16 and 17 April 2010, German Historical Institute, 17 Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2NJ.

Renaissance Society of America Conference, Venice, April 2010:

Healthy Homes, Healthy Bodies in Late Renaissance Italy: From Texts to Objects (Sandra Cavallo and Marta Ajmar-Wollheim)

Preventing illness occupied an important place in Renaissance medical thought. Keeping healthy meant adopting a correct lifestyle. It was primarily in the domestic routine of the home that the precepts of healthy living, widely popularized in advice literature, were implemented. Household objects and spatial arrangements played a crucial role in the daily performance of preventative practices: from purifying the air to storing food and clothing correctly. Our paper will explore the physical forms taken by these instructions, considering both the objects primarily involved in health maintenance and those that simultaneously fulfilled demands associated with order, gender, display and status. Glass mirrors embodied a taste for novelty, yet were believed to be beneficial for the eyesight; high-backed chairs were new fashionable items of furniture but also kept the head up during the siesta. The focus on material culture can illuminate the ways in which the medical discourse intermingled with different sets of contemporary values.

Further details on the Renaissance Society of America Conference

The Medical Society of London

Date: February 2010
Marta Ajmar-Wollheim. ‘Emotions and Well-being in the Italian Renaissance Interior’, The Medical Society of London, London.

Sixteenth Century Studies Conference (SCSC), Geneva, Switzerland, May 28-30, 2009.

Session 79 Local Networks and Economies: (Friday 28.5.2009, at 10.00). Tessa Storey gave the paper: ''I Make Waters for Washing Women's Faces, as well as Oils from Herbs of all Kinds.' Domestic Remedies in Seventeenth Century Rome: Texts and Practices'

Session 123: Health and Home: vernacular books for the household in early modern England, Italy and Spain (Saturday 29.5.2009 at 8,30). Organiser: Sandra Cavallo (Royal Holloway, London)

Recent historiography has become increasingly interested in how health was maintained in the home. However, not many sources have been identified so far that can throw light on how these concerns articulated into practices, who were the agents, what were the sources of their knowledge. This panel makes us aware of a range of books in the vernacular and directed to household consumption that can help us address these questions. They concern three spheres of health-related activities taking place in the domestic environment: beautification, medical treatment and household cleanliness. Looking at different but related genres the three papers will explore contemporary understandings of beauty, clean and dirt, and more generally the ideas of the body and of the gendered body these texts reveal, discussing how these were affected by religious change and new medical views. By asking similar questions to material that relates to three different European countries the panel will provide further elements for comparison.


  • Elaine Leong (University of Warwick), ''Reading' for Health: Early Modern Interactions with Vernacular Medical Books'.
  • Montserrat Cabré (Universidad de Cantabria), 'A Textual Archaeology Of Human Beauty In The Spanish Early Modern Household'.
  • Sandra Cavallo (Royal Holloway), 'Filthy Homes And The Female Body In Renaissance And Early Modern Italy'.

Commentator: David Gentilcore (University of Leicester)