Healthy Living in Pre-Modern Europe: The Theory and Practice of the Six Non-Naturals (c.1400-1700)

September 13-14, 2013, Institute of Historical Research, Bloomsbury, London

This conference seeks to bring together scholars working on topics related to the role played by the six Non-Naturals in health maintenance in the late-medieval and early modern period. It is well-known that health was thought to depend on the regulation of the six key factors affecting body functions: the air one breathes, sleep, food and drink, evacuations, movement and emotions. In pre-modern medicine careful management of these spheres of life was regarded as crucial if one wished to prevent disease. Yet the study of the Non Naturals has been neglected, as scholars have focused on the development of the concept in medical thought rather than on the advice regarding the individual non-naturals. The only exception concerns the recommendations related to food and diet while the other Non-Naturals have been the object only of general surveys. Even less attention has been paid to the relationship between preventive advice and practice. This conference intends to address these gaps. Moreover we hope to stimulate discussions which will enable us to compare different regions and countries and to explore changing approaches to the Non-Naturals (and to the underpinning humoural principles) over the period under consideration.

More specifically the conference aims to:

-Compare the contents of medical advice about the Non-Naturals (how these activities should ideally be performed) and the actual practices associated with keeping healthy. What relationship did practices bear to prescription? In order to address these questions scholars might use a range of ‘extra-medical’ sources, such as letters, diaries, literature and imagery.

-Explore change within the body of medical theory on the Non-Naturals. Were definitions of what was regarded as harmful or beneficial to health modified over the period? And is the idea of the body and its vulnerabilities that underpins these views subject to any transformations?
It has widely been assumed that humoural theory was essentially static and unchanging during the early modern period. Is this view in need of revision?

– Explore the extent to which both recommendations about healthy living and the preventive measures adopted in everyday life changed over time. And were these transformations medically or socially driven? In other words were they a consequence of shifting ideas about the working of the body or of changing lifestyles?

– Stimulate comparisons between different regions and countries. For example, did the medical traditions in different countries place different emphases on the six Non-Naturals? Did they all conceptualise the humours in similar ways? Were there different lay approaches to keeping healthy in different national contexts? Did people focus on any particular Non-Naturals – giving more weight to diet, for example, or to taking exercise – in order to maintain their health?

Please e-mail the Organizers with any questions: and

Call for papers

Papers will be 30 minutes long with discussants for groups of papers.

Papers must be submitted at least two weeks before the conference to facilitate the work of the discussants.

Please send an abstract of no more than 500 words by March 24, 2013 to the conference secretary, Tessa.

Deadline: March 24, 2013

Posted: September 12, 2013