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Q&A with Stanford Humanities Center fellow Guy Geltner

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This aerial shot of a late medieval domicile in Budrio, Italy reveals a drain cutting diagonally through the urban space indicating that medieval city dwellers were thinking about how to expel dirty water from the city.
Photo Credit: 
Image courtesy of Guy Geltner

Guy Geltner, a professor of medieval history at the University of Amsterdam, is interested in figuring out what medieval cities were actually like. His research primarily builds on the rich records of several Italian city-states, which he uses to explore diverse issues in social, legal, cultural and political history. 

He has written three other books, Flogging Others: Corporal Punishment and Cultural Identity from Antiquity to the Present (Amsterdam University Press, 2014); The Making of Medieval Antifraternalism: Polemic, Violence, Deviance, and Remembrance (Oxford University Press, 2012); and The Medieval Prison: A Social History (Princeton University Press, 2008). Each monograph challenges misconceptions of medieval history from punishment to imprisonment.
Geltner has spent his year at the center working on a book project called “Healthscaping Medieval Italy: A Study in Urban Biopower, 1200-1500.” In it, he attempts to historicize public health by tracing theories, policies and practices of preventative healthcare in medieval Italian city-states. He seeks to develop an insider perspective on how earlier societies defined population-level health risks and the resources they developed to reduce them.

What is the focus of your current research?

I’m looking at one form of premodern healthscaping: how urban dwellers in medieval Europe defined challenges to their wellbeing and health, and what they did to address them. It is often assumed that medieval people were apathetic to such pressures, or if they weren’t, they lacked the tools to deal with them. But urbanization (then as now) brings some pretty evident risks such as crowdedness, violence, pollution and moral ambiguity, and my working hypothesis was that all this must have dawned on most city residents at the time. Luckily, it wasn’t just a pipe dream, and the sources I’ve discovered, mainly in Italian archives, support this.

What drew you to work on healthscaping medieval cities?

As in previous projects a combination of curiosity about how things used to work and what exactly separates earlier practices from still earlier societies on the one hand, and modernity and our own times on the other. Europe set a world trend with urbanization, but it happened far earlier than people tend to think. 90% of Europe’s cities today were founded by the year 1200. That brought with it many changes in social, economic and political structures. But it also redefined relations between humans, animals and their living and working environments. At a more abstract level, I use medieval society to push against an accepted pre/modern divide, which is used in Euro-America today to self and other in ways that don’t help intercultural dialogue.

How do you conduct your research?

I’m an archive rat. The more time I spend there (which is mostly in Italy), the happier and more productive I am. This also means that my research is predominantly source-driven. The questions tend to form later, as I work through new material. This project too emerged from a special series of court records in Lucca, which opened a new world to me. The main challenge was to find parallels in other cities and regions. Of course, the search is only half the fun, and luckily it didn't end there. I was fortunate enough to find more case studies and enough material to justify a book project, and even develop a larger grant proposal for a group of researchers. We will kick this project off in Amsterdam next year.

What would people be surprised to learn about the topic you are working on?

As I’ve already hinted, the degree to which premodern people were aware of health risks and the strategies they developed to reduce them run counter to a common perception of earlier societies as perennially filthy and ignorant when it came to population-level health. If you look at the right sources openly, medieval public health no longer seems like an oxymoron...

Why is it valuable to study medieval healthscapes? 

If you’re curious about what urban life meant and how it transformed through the ages, this type of research exposes a new facet. And if you're sensitive enough to know that “medieval” is most often used as a slur, and that this slur is rooted in a certain kind of colonial ideology, this work may help you recognize some key planks in that ideology and resist them.