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The cultural history of public health in early modern Europe

This project explores the new discourses on public health emerging in the 17th and 18th century. The project is thus not primarily an investigation of actual medical practice or institutions, but rather of the discourses that surrounded them, the ways they were debated, advocated and contested.

"The Cow-Pock" or "the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!" Published June 12, 1802 by H. Humphrey. Illustration: wikipedia

About the project

During the 17th and 18th century, new discourses on health and the public emerged. Europe saw the last of the great epidemics of plague in the seventeenth century. Their disappearance was partly due to the success of more effective quarantine regulations. Hunger was beginning to be conceived as a social problem, and new hospitals work houses and bureaux des pauvres  – institutions of charity or discipline, depending on the perspective  – were established.

During the eighteenth century, inoculation against smallpox represented the first effective health regulation to be propagated on a mass level. Health information directed towards the lay public developed as a new genre of public discourse, and the services of physicians, midwifes and surgeons were made more effective as well as more generally available.

This project explores the new discourses on public health emerging in the 17th and 18th century. The project is thus not primarily an investigation of actual medical practice or institutions, but rather of the discourses that surrounded them, the ways they were debated, advocated and contested. We do of course not want to reduce poverty, hunger or fatal disease to "mere words" or texts, but do, however, insist that the ways things are spoken (or written) about, are vital in making them active in society.

Our material is texts which have been parts of a public discourse on health, disease, health care or nursing: Pamphlets and journals, manifestos, announcements and declarations, as well as books and leaflets of medical information or instruction directed towards a lay public.

Objectives

Our main focus is how the relation between health and the public is articulated in the discourse. We do not only want to explore health in society from a historical perspective, but examine  how historically changing notions of medicine, health and health care have interacted with likewise historically changing ideas of "the public" and "the public sphere". The ways in which these two terms have met and intersected, as well as the interface between them, will be explored.

Financing

  • UiO (Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Humanities)
  • The Norwegian Non-fiction Writers And Translators Association (NFF)

Start - Finish

August 2012- August 2015

Published Sep. 20, 2013 1:47 PM - Last modified Feb. 2, 2016 11:08 AM