University of Arkansas, Fayetteville


Hospitals and individual caregivers helped meet the physical and psychological needs of medieval people, just as they do today. My overall objective is to explain social and individual responses to disease within the context of Christian theology and the urban community, focusing on England and Germany in the period between 1250 and 1450. First I investigate social responses to disease, including hospitals and public health ordinances. Christianity mandated the care of the afflicted, yet physical and mental illness was associated with sin and divine punishment. Urban authorities often attempted to deal with plague outbreaks by imposing quarantines and strict regulations on minorities and outsiders. In addition to these more immediate concerns, the experience of plague permeated every aspect of medieval European culture, from the philosophy of health care to artistic representation. Next I discuss individual encounters with disease, focusing on the ambivalent positions that female and Jewish physicians occupied within the medical profession. Women were perceived as nurturers with natural healing abilities. In spite of restrictions on formal university education, many women trained privately under male physicians. Jewish physicians exerted a considerable influence on the medical profession, even though religious and racial discourse pervaded popular perceptions of their work in the medieval urban community. Yet municipal authorities occasionally engaged the services of Jewish physicians, and Jewish doctors often treated Christian patients. The roles of minority medical practitioners illustrate tolerance as well as prejudice, one aspect of the ambiguity that characterizes medieval views of health care and disease.