Call for Papers: ‘Medicine in Early Modern Italy: Between Theory and Practice, 1500-1700’, Palazzo Alberti, 19 November 2021 (Deadline 16 September 2021)

Traditionally, the history of medicine in early modern Italy was a field divided sharply into the study of theory and the study of practice, yet this separation was neither equal nor historically justified. Whereas serious attention was given early on to the intellectual foundations of the discipline, far less attention was directed to the consideration of how and when this body of knowledge was translated into practical expressions such as recipes, cures, procedures, and public measures (and vice-versa). A corrective to this imbalance has emerged in the past decades, with scholars adopting, for instance, patient-centered perspectives an exploration of the role of the body, emotions and gender, and the full range of formal and informal practitioners. Further opportunities for understanding the practice of medicine have arisen whenever historians of medicine have engaged with other disciplines, including art and architectural history, religious studies, environmental history, book history, and economic history.


The aim of this conference is to redress the historiographic bifurcation of studies of medical theory and studies of medical practice. We seek papers that reveal the entangled interrelationship between these two realms in a period that was characterized by the rise of empirical experimentation, as well as the growing need to incorporate novel drugs and unfamiliar diseases into the hoary paradigms of professional medicine. The following are examples of the questions that animate interest in this topic: Did physicians’ casebooks make reference to either the utility and/or limitations of medical theory? In what contexts do we encounter recipes that indicate implementation and modification of a theory, such as Galenic humoral medicine or Paracelsian iatrochemistry? What were the challenges and impact on theory and practice of the importation of new medicines through the growth in global trade? What consequences did the academic debate around the influence of Arabic writings have for medical practice? To what degree did an understanding of medical theory matter in the licensing of apothecaries? With the emergence of the printing industry, did the tension between practice and theory expand or shrink? Did prevailing medical theories facilitate or hamper the integration of new discoveries in anatomy and medical botany into the physician’s practice? To what degree was penning a theoretical treatise a catalyst to a lucrative career as a court physician? Did empiricists and quacks ever find it beneficial to adopt the language and concepts of medical theory? Did religious reforms make their impact felt differently in theory versus practice? To what degree could a prince-practitioner eschew theory yet maintain credibility in elite circles?


The conference organizers (John Henderson, Sheila Barker and Rose Byfleet) invite proposals for 25-minute unpublished papers in English or Italian that address the tensions and interplay of practice and theory in medicine, with reference to a wide range of early modern actors and contexts:

  • Botanical Gardens
  • Court physicians
  • Nurses, barber surgeons, wet nurses, midwives, etc
  • Domestic Medicine
  • Apothecaries
  • Recipe Books
  • Hospitals
  • Monasteries and convents
  • Medical Guilds and licensing boards
  • Hippocratic non-naturals and manuals on healthy living
  • Cosmetics and cosmeceuticals
  • Lapidaries and the historical use of gemstones


Confirmed participants: Evelyn Welch, David Gentilcore, Sandra Cavallo, Paolo Savoia, Lavinia Maddaluno, and Sharon Strocchia (pending Covid-19 university policy regulations).

To apply: please prepare a single .pdf document that contains the following items in this sequence: your name, contact information, and institutional affiliation; a one-page summary of your presentation topic; and a maximum of a one-page CV that highlights relevant publications or conference papers. Please send this to education@medici.org by 16 September 2021.

For complete information, visit https://www.medici.org/theoryandpractice/

Published by charlottecook

Charlotte Cook graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in European History from Washington & Lee University in 2019. In 2020 she received her Master’s degree in History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art, earning the classification of Merit. Her research explores questions of royal patronage, both by and in honor of rulers, in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England. She has worked as a researcher and collections assistant at several museums and galleries, and plans to begin her PhD in the autumn of 2022.

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