Medicine of Words

medicine of words

Words, whether in poetry or prose, have a power beyond their meaning. They are capable not simply of expression but also of action; they can hurt or they can heal. Throughout the Middle Ages the potency of words, their effect and force upon the mind, body, and soul is explored and engaged with, poured over and focused upon not simply by the arts of grammar and rhetoric, but by poetry and theology, by medicine and psychology. Medieval texts are pieces of linguistic craft and intention, their words chosen and arranged with a purpose in mind. Poems in this period can be as crafted as theological treatises, their meters and rhymes as intentional and purpose driven as any medical instrument. Words, whether spoken or heard, emerge from the mind and feed back into it through the senses. They possess a power over the body as well as the soul, and can manipulate the emotions as easily as speaking can manipulate the breath. Potentially medicinal or malign, words in the Middle Ages are seen as tools to be used to persuade, to please, to heal or to harm.

This conference will explore the interconnection between literature, medicine, and theology throughout the Middle Ages. Possible texts for exploration include prayers, charms, narratives of illness and health, medical manuals, texts of contemplation and religious instruction, devotional materials, accounts of conversion and healing, saints lives and prognostications, and texts that evoke and direct the emotions in Old and Middle English.

Possible topics for exploration include the ideas of narrative medicine; medieval poetic theory; the arts of grammar and rhetoric; medical manuscripts and medical humanities; science and literature; the medicalised body; the humors; the impact of the plague on the poetic imagination; the use of words to heal; the power of rhythm, metre, and cursus; and the connections between sin and sickness, and heaven and health during this period.

We welcome papers of 20 minutes addressing the issues outlined above. Please send a 300 word abstract to by January 31st 2015.

Please click here to download the call for papers.


Plenary Speakers include:

Mary Carruthers (NYU, All Souls Oxford)
Vincent Gillespie (Oxford)
Ralph Hanna (Oxford)
Peregrine Horden (Royal Holloway)
Denis Renevey (Lausanne)
John Thompson (Queen’s University Belfast)

Special Plenary Panel - Hearing the Voice Project - Charles Fernyhough, Corinne Saunders, and Hilary Powell (Durham University).


Conference Committee Members:

Dr Laura Ashe
Dr Mishtooni Bose
Dr Kantik Ghosh
Dr Francis Leneghan
Dr Daniel McCann
Dr Marion Turner



We would like to thank The Leverhulme Trust and the Wellcome Trust for generously supporting the conference.


Oxford Medieval Studies

Contact name: Sophie Marnette
Contact email:
Audience: Open to all