Understandings of the human body, and of diseases and their cure, are shaped and informed by a range of religious, cultural, environmental and intellectual factors. Medical theories, practices and materials, therefore, rarely cross over linguistic, cultural or other boundaries unchanged. Communicating the concepts underpinning a medical theory in a new linguistic and cultural space means not only translating these ideas into a new language, but also explaining them so that they make sense within existing local systems of medical belief.
Materials—including drugs, amulets, and surgical tools—can also change as they cross cultural boundaries: varied and changing beliefs about their meaning, proper use and their effectiveness cause them to be reimagined and reused in a range of new situations. As a result, complex systems of translation have developed to enable the flow of knowledge about the human body across the global world.
What kinds of knowledge easily crossed linguistic and geographical borders? What were the points of resistance and tension? How did epistemic, social, political and economic structures impact upon “translation”? How did our historical actors “translate” embodied knowledge and hands-on practices? What roles did visual images and material objects play in the transfer and appropriation of health-related knowledge?
Translating Medicine in the Pre-Modern World, a new multi-site collaborative project, aims to investigate and interrogate these questions by bringing together scholars with specialisms in the histories of scientific and medical exchange across the world c. 1350–1800.The project begins with two conferences in Berlin and London.
If you are interested in attending either please visit https://www.york.ac.uk/history/news/news/2017/translating-medicine-pre-modern-world/, and doctoral students who are members of the Society for the Social History of Medicine can apply to the Society for travel bursaries to attend the London conference. Details are available on the SSHM website.