Rethinking Retrospective Diagnosis in Pre-Modern Medical History
Pre-modern medical history poses what Professor Monica Green has deemed a “historian’s dilemma”: do we “reconstruct the world as historical participants perceived it”, or should we instead “use the methods and categories of modern science to find out what ‘really’ happened…?” (‘Taking Pandemic Seriously’, 2014). In this lecture, Dr Deborah Thorpe will explore the application of retrospective diagnosis—the use of historical texts to investigate health in the past— and will examine its pitfalls and promises in wider pre-modern history. She will argue that the practice presents a range of methodological and philosophical challenges—but also offers the promise of many rewards, including the potential to open new avenues of historical inquiry. Dr Thorpe offers the specialist perspective of a medieval palaeographer, arguing that handwriting offers particular insights into pre-modern health, sitting as it does at the intersection between what Green defines as “material substrate” (i.e. the material remains of a human body) and “cultural product” (i.e. the culturally-specific information preserved in the textual record). At the heart of this lecture is the message that, the focus of any pre-modern retrospective diagnosis should be on experiences rather than diagnoses, and on the individual and their own social realities—just as it should be in modern medicine.