Magic and the material culture of healing in early modern England

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Thwaite, Ann-Sophie 

This dissertation questions how people used objects to preserve health and cure illness in early modern England. Each chapter focuses on a different object or group of objects, to make interventions in the history of contemporary healing, and to demonstrate what we can learn about early modern healing from a study that places things at the centre. I bring together items that vary according to material, size, shape, function and application, to reveal the diverse range of things used for cure and protection in this period. Some were everyday, relatively worthless things, while others were expensive, coveted rarities, and I use both types of object to investigate the complex relationship between value and power. Throughout, this thesis explores how modern research, and trends of collecting and categorisation, have affected our interpretation of the physical evidence of early modern healing, and shows how objects can be resituated within medical contexts. It analyses how and why learned, elite men in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries criticised what they saw as erroneous medical belief and practice, and the crucial role played by objects in these condemnations. In comparison, it examines how, despite religious and societal changes, laypeople continued to use a variety of healing objects, even in the face of theological denunciation and diabolical threat. My research contributes to recent scholarship that advocates object-focused histories, and provides a model of how to examine objects on their own terms, regardless of whether or not textual evidence exists. As a study of magic and the material culture of healing, it contributes to histories of household medicine, recipes and secrets, magic, ritual, superstition, demonology and witchcraft, medical politics, curiosity and wonder, and collecting.

Kassell, Lauren
medicine, early modern, magic, material culture, objects, healing, astrology
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Wellcome Trust (108566/Z/15/Z)
Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Studentship