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New digital and critical tools for the history of medicine and religion

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By | Early Medicine, Events and Visits

The next seminar in the 2016–17 History of Pre-Modern Medicine seminar series takes place on Tuesday 17 January.

Chinese image showing Medicine Buddha.

Mandala of plants and minerals surrounding Medicine Buddha. Image credit: Michael Stanley-Baker.

Speaker: Dr Michael Stanley-Baker (Max Planck Institute, Berlin)

New digital and critical tools for the history of medicine and religion


Historians of medicine in China have increasingly come to recognise the role of religious actors in providing healthcare, and to acknowledge that they were much more accessible and widespread than classically trained doctors, particularly in the early imperial period. As specific hotspots of medical pluralism come into sharper view, it raises the question of how the medico-religious market was structured and what changes emerged over time. I argue in this paper that by studying the ways that different communities aggregated sets or repertoires of practices, we can better understand how these repertoires shaped identity, structured relations with other care providers, and served as sites for negotiating difference between the religious and the medical. Furthermore, this focus on repertoires affords more flexibility to explain how practices, materials and terminology circulated across supposedly distinct sectarian and epistemic domains such as Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism. This analysis underlies a digital project at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science to data-mine early Buddhist, Daoist and medical literature for therapeutic practices, and to model their distribution within textual corpora and across space and time. This year’s pilot project focuses on materia medica in textual corpora from c. 300 BCE to 589 CE, but can be used to study any set of practices, materials or terms, and can be scaled to encompass much larger textual sets.


Wellcome Library, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE.

Doors open at 6pm, seminar will start at 6.15pm.

The seminar series is focused on pre-modern medicine, which we take to cover European and non-European history before the 20th century (antiquity, medieval and early modern history, some elements of 19th-century medicine).

Further details on the seminar series are available in a previous post.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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