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Urban Bodies: Communal Health in Late Medieval English Towns and Cities


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"Carole Rawcliffe continues with her mission to clean up the Middle Ages. In earlier work she has already given us scholarly yet sympathetic portrayals of English medicine, hospitals, and welfare for lepers. Now she widens her scope to public health. Her argument is clear, simple and convincing. Through the efforts of crown and civic authorities, mercantile élites and "popular" interests, English towns and cities aspired to a far healthier, less polluted environment than previously supposed. All major sources of possible infection were regulated, from sounds and smells to corrupt matter - and to immorality. Once again Professor Rawcliffe has overturned a well-established orthodoxy in the history of pre-modern health and healing. Her book is a magnificent achievement." Peregrine Horden, Royal Holloway University of London.

This first full-length study of public health in pre-Reformation England challenges a number of entrenched assumptions about the insanitary nature of urban life during "the golden age of bacteria". Adopting an interdisciplinary approach that draws on material remains as well as archives, it examines the medical, cultural and religious contexts in which ideas about the welfare of the communal body developed. Far from demonstrating indifference, ignorance or mute acceptance in the face of repeated onslaughts of epidemic disease, the rulers and residents of English towns devised sophisticated and coherent strategies for the creation of a more salubrious environment; among the plethora of initiatives whose origins often predated the Black Death can also be found measures for the improvement of the water supply, for better food standards and for the care of the sick, both rich and poor.

Carole Rawcliffe is Professor of Medieval History, University of East Anglia.


Rawcliffe has long been one of the clearest and loudest voices on the topic of medieval health. . . . A broad range of medievalists will find Urban Bodies pleasing to read, even without a strong background in medical history and its literature. COMITATUS

A masterful study. ... This volume portrays medieval life in the raw and is history at its very best. THE RICARDIAN

Superb and deeply researched..a very valuable and important study. ANTIQUARIES JOURNAL

A crowning achievement in the distinguished career of one of Britain's foremost historians. ENGLISH HISTORICAL REVIEW

Rawcliffe's significant research should send a new generation of scholars in exciting directions, and, at four hundred pages and with almost two thousand footnotes, this book will be the standard text in the field for decades to come. ISIS

This handsomely produced book systematically dismantles a stubborn Victorian-era notion: that medieval England was squalid, unhealthy, and devoid of sensible medical approaches to protect the public's health. AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW

A wide-ranging book that makes a substantial contribution to existing scholarship through its comparative approach across locations and over time. Medieval historians will benefit from the nuanced analysis of the interaction between cultural, religious and political attitudes to health care. All historians of medicine will appreciate the opportunity to re-evaluate the medieval period. SOCIAL HISTORY OF MEDICINE

Vividly written, clearly argued and meticulously researched, [it] represents a significant milestone in the revision of public health history ... [and] will remain a key work for scholars of urban and medical histories for many years to come and, it is to be hoped, an inspiration for further study of this important topic. URBAN HISTORY

Archaeologists will gain much from reading it. MEDIEVAL ARCHAEOLOGY

An excellent study of 'communal health' in late medieval English towns. ... The text is very well organised and clearly written. ... A very important book. NORTHERN HISTORY

[An] elegantly written account. CHOICE

Vividly written, clearly argued and meticulously researched, Carole Rawcliffe's volume represents a significant milestone in the revision of public health history. ... It will remain a key work for scholars of urban and medical histories for years to come. URBAN HISTORY

Groundbreaking. HISTORY TODAY


First Published: 17 Oct 2013
13 Digit ISBN: 9781843838364
Pages: 445
Size: 23.4 x 15.6
Binding: Hardback
Imprint: Boydell Press
BIC Class: HBLC1

Details updated on 18 Jan 2016


  • 1  Introduction
  • 2  Less Mud-Slinging and More Facts
  • 3  Urban Bodies and Urban Souls
  • 4  Environmental Health
  • 5  Water
  • 6  Food and Drink
  • 7  Sickness and Debility
  • 8  Conclusion
  • 9  Appendix: National and Urban Epidemics 1257-1530
  • 10  Bibliography

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