Medicine at the Margins: Conference on Medicine Beyond the Orthodox, 1500 – 2000

Shortly before Easter, the University of Glamorgan hosted an interesting one day conference on ‘medicine at the margins’, exploring ideas, knowledge and practice within aspects of medicine that have been considered (or portrayed) as beyond the boundaries of acceptability and legitimacy. Between 1500 and 2000, such borders have frequently shifted; thus, speakers looked at the way the status of such concepts as folk lore, magical healing, ‘quack’ remedies and herbal medicine have held a very different status at various times, as well as the ways certain illnesses or injuries, for example neuropathic pruritus or self-harm, can serve to put patients outside the limits of “respectability”.

Certain concepts have fallen at the crossroads between medicine and myth. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century French ethnographers collected supernatural tales of ordinary peoples’ experiences concerning werewolves. These were often dismissed as psychological delusions by contemporary commentators, as indicated by the inclusion of “lycanthropy,” as a “striking example of the superstructure of psychdopathy on fable” in Daniel Hack Tuke’s 1892 Dictionary of Psychological Medicine. Yet speaker Will Pooley argued that these stories can provide a much richer understanding of French rural life than either contemporary medicine, or modern historiography, has indicated, including villagers’ fears of duplicity, but also a deep underlying pity for those, like the supposed werewolf, perceived to have transgressed the limits of the community.

In addition to the academic papers at the conference, researchers from CISSMI (Collaborative Interdisciplinary Study of Science, Medicine and the Imagination, a group from Cardiff University and the University of Glamorgan) introduced an exhibition that will form one of the outcomes of their “Off Sick” project. This project explores the role of narrative in understandings of illness, incorporating historical and literary research to explore the experiences of people and families who have been affected by severe or long-term illness in South Wales. The project particularly concentrates on the experiences of carers, a much neglected area in the history of medicine and literature. To find out more about the project, visit:

http://literatureandscience.research.glam.ac.uk/cissmi/offsick/about/

To read abstracts of the conference papers, visit: http://history.research.glam.ac.uk/margins/

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