Profile of a FWIS: World of Medieval Medicine

FWIS 150: The Medieval World of Medicine

An Interview with Claire Fanger, Instructor

What do you think is interesting/distinctive about this FWIS course?
I try to teach in experiential ways because I find this most productive for my own thinking; among other things, it contributes to my research by helping me get inside the minds of historical actors. I think students find it useful for the same reason. What I personally enjoy about teaching this course is that it offers more opportunities than many of my other courses to do that, to get inside past and present actors and practices and relate them. So for example the course gives students opportunities to put themselves in the place of medieval healers and think about how diagnoses might be performed; how would students place themselves in medieval schemes of understanding the body? Are they more sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, or melancholic? How would they figure this out, with respect to their own sense of themselves, or with respect to another person in the class?  How rich the questions asked and answered of medieval patients seem to be compared to the questions we are asked now by our own physicians!  We also compare things like modern (generally Protestant) and medieval Catholic exorcism practices (this by means of video - we don't actually exorcise each other!). 

How did you get interested in this particular topic?
I'm broadly interested in the ways different forms of knowledge are produced by different practices.  As a medievalist and as a member of religion department, I study the ways religious knowledge, even in mystical and prophetic forms, is retained, remembered, stabilized and given form by an array of specific embodied practices that are collective.  What is interesting to me in thinking about medicine, especially pre-modern medicine, is the way it also bridges individual and collective knowledge about the body. What can medieval disciplinary practices teach us that remains relevant now? I follow philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend in feeling that it is a great advantage to us as individuals to immerse ourselves in as many modes of knowledge as we feasibly can – regionally distant and past forms of knowledge as well as present and domestic ones. I do expect students to put their necks under the yoke of medieval Christian knowledge practices a little bit, to see what knowing such things might feel like, how it might change you.

What is one thing you hope students draw from this FWIS?
I hope they bring away a new respect for the forms of knowledge medieval people had of health and sickness, and a more accurate sense of medieval Christian ideas about the body and the cosmos generally. I hope students will begin to understand how complex and sophisticated their knowledge was.