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Classicism and Traditionalism in Medical Systems

17 May 2007
Organisers: Centre for the History of Medicine, and Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Warwick

Osler McGovern Centre
13 Norham Gardens
University of Oxford

In order to open up a debate about ideas of what constitutes the ‘classical’ and ‘traditional’ in different medical systems, we are holding a preliminary workshop organised by the Warwick Centre for the History of Medicine and the Department of Classics and Ancient History on 17 May 2007. We are inviting interested scholars and students to join in this discussion by offering presentations of no more than 15-20 minutes on any aspect of what is, or can be understood, as ‘classical’ and/or ‘traditional’ in any medical system, past or present. If there is sufficient interest, we hope that these preliminary discussions will lead on to a more detailed project on the relationship between Classics and the History of Medicine.

A number of ideas and examples suggest themselves to us. For instance, recent scholarship on Indian medicine has pointed to the crucial role that rhetoric on ‘classical’ and/or ‘traditional’ medical pasts has played in the formation of India’s national identity. The discourse on Ayurveda, as an ‘indigenous’ medical tradition, was projected through the metaphors of a historicised past and served the reformist conceptions of a renewed moral/medical body of the community. Similarly, medical historians of China have argued that ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ is not so much a continuing tradition of the past, as a deliberate re-working of ancient concepts.

However, the quest for authenticity in particular healing activities and attempts to anchor these in the past is not restricted to contemporary societies. German medical historians in the early decades of the twentieth century, for instance, were convinced that teaching medical students the ‘roots’ of Western medicine in the classical past would help re-unify medical practice which they saw as sundered by specialisation. Also, what were Renaissance scholars seeking when they celebrated ancient (mainly Greek) medical texts and authors? And how did the Greek and Roman ‘classical’ authors themselves understand their healing activities? How have notions of tradition and classicism informed Islamic medicine and its claims for medical authenticity?

As these examples suggest, the notion of the ‘classical’ and/or ‘traditional’ in medicine (and they may be very different, if interrelated, concepts) can serve many masters, and it is far from clear what is meant when these labels are applied to medical practices and ideas. Historicised claims to ‘authenticity’ and ‘truth’ often convey both the idea of a distinct and unified system of healing and specific moral and political values. But, how can we reconcile these ideas with recent studies on medical revivalism and professionalisation grounded in the understanding of ‘traditional healing cultures’ as inherently plural and constantly adapting to changing social, environmental and political contexts? What are the moral, political and epistemological agendas accompanying such claims in different historical times and in various societies?

This half-day workshop brings together scholars from different disciplines (Anthropology, Classics and Ancient History, History, Italian Studies, Medicine) to explore the many ways in which notions of the ‘classical’ and ‘traditional’ have been used in medicine, past and present. Participants of our workshop have the opportunity to participate in the workshop “Embodiment, Ritual, and the Sacred Landscape in Tibetan Healing” (17-18 May 2007), organised by the Anthropology Research Group Oxford on Eastern Medicines and Religions, which will be held at the same premises and will begin in the afternoon (1-6.30 pm; and 9am–1.30pm the following day). If you wish to do so please contact the organisers Patricia Bassini and Elisabeth Hsu ( Please note the Warwick organisers will not meet any of the expenses related to this separate workshop. What will be covered are the costs of lunch and (reasonable) travel expenses for speakers at our morning workshop.

If you are interested in attending the workshop, or would like further details, please contact Dr Claudia Stein by 7 May 2007 (