Leeds Centre for Medical Humanities

An interdisciplinary collaboration between the Faculties of Arts and Medicine & Health at the University of Leeds

Dr Iona McCleery

Lecturer in Medieval History

+44 (0)113 3434500


In many ways my background has profoundly shaped my research and teaching interests. As I am the child of a doctor and nurse and sister of another nurse, my family think it ironic that I opted to do history at university but ended up specialising in medical history. I was born in Malawi in East Africa and spent three years of my childhood living in Sudan and this I think has spurred on my growing interest in the world beyond northern Europe. I became fascinated by the Middle Ages while still in my teens, partly because of the historical and fantasy literature I enjoyed.

I did both my undergraduate degree (1994) and my PhD. (2000) in medieval history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. I broke up my time there with an Erasmus year in Spain, research time in Portugal and a year out doing voluntary and paid care work in different places. It was probably my year in Spain that inspired me to do research on the Iberian Peninsula, opting for Portugal as the more neglected and thus more rewarding country. I have since spent many happy months exploring Portuguese archives, meeting a wide range of people and indulging in cakes and port wine.

After leaving St Andrews (where I had worked as a post-doctoral tutor), I taught courses in both modern and medieval history for the Open University, the University of Durham and Edinburgh University, before returning to Durham in 2005 to carry out a major research project on late medieval Portuguese medicine funded by the Wellcome Trust. I am still a visiting fellow of the Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease at Durham, but in 2007 I took the opportunity to move to Leeds and build on my experience in teaching and researching medieval European history.

Research interests

My Ph.D. thesis was a study of the life and legend of a Portuguese physician and Dominican friar, Gil de Santarém (d. 1265), who probably studied medicine in Paris, rose to high office in his order, translated medical works from Arabic into Latin and later was remembered as both a saint and a necromancer. I have since explored the relationship between religion and medicine in Portugal further by looking at saints’ cults, royal health and lifestyle, images and attitudes in chronicles towards health and disease, and the careers of medical practitioners, especially in urban society. I have moved later in time, concentrating now on the period between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. This allows me to consider a wider range of sources, including those drawn from material and visual culture, and also allows me to examine key episodes in Portuguese history: e.g. the expulsions of Jews (many of whom were physicians) at the end of the fifteenth century, and the impact of an Atlantic and then global empire on health from the early fifteenth century. I am particularly interested in North and West Africa and islands such as Madeira. My aim is to show how medicine was an integral part of this vibrant, complex and (to us) troubling world, and also to show how a study of Portuguese medicine informs wider themes and trends in medical history. As well as researching medical themes, I also study Portuguese religion and society more generally, placing them in a comparative European perspective.

Current Research Project

You are what you Ate: Food Lessons from the Past

Wellcome Trust Society Award: engaging science grant no. 092293

How did food affect our ancestors? How can we learn from the past to improve our health? This new collaborative project encourages discussion of modern nutrition in the Yorkshire region by presenting archaeological, visual and textual evidence from the medieval and early-modern periods (12th-17th centuries) to initiate public debate and reflection on eating behaviours.

Through innovative schools and youth activities, exhibitions, festival attendance, cooking demonstrations, and bone workshops this project explores the concept of a balanced diet in history, encouraging participants to engage with issues that affect their health in the 21st century: obesity, alcohol consumption, dental care, nutritional disorders, growth, famine, the impact of food processing and preservation techniques on diet, the significance of climate change and eating in season, the cost of food, the influence of social status, feasting and fasting, the appearance of food and the concept of taste. The project brings research from biomedical science, bioarchaeology and medical history to a new audience, working with schools, festivals and museums within the region of Yorkshire and engaging with as much of the local community as possible. It encourages discussion of the global context of eating (learning about foods from the New World and past European famines widens awareness of current crises). The project creates opportunities for collaborative research and further partnerships with team members from the School of Food Science and Nutrition here at Leeds and co-applicants Jo Buckberry of Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford and Vicky Shearman, Senior Cultural Officer of Wakefield Council. See project website

Physicians of the body and physicians of the soul: medicine and religion in medieval Portugal

My main project at the moment is based on my Wellcome-funded fellowship (held at Durham and Leeds 2005-2008) entitled: ‘Physicians of the body and physicians of the soul: medicine and religion in medieval Portugal’ (grant no: 076812). I am writing this up into a monograph with the provisional title: Reintegrating Body and Soul: Medicine and Community in Late Medieval Portugal (c.1320-c.1520).

Project outline

Medicine, health and disease were experienced and understood in profoundly different ways in late medieval Portugal compared to northern Europe due to the distinctive political and religious make-up of the kingdom. Portuguese medicine had much in common with that of medieval Spain, but differed due to the presence of large, more stable Jewish communities which were tolerated through until the end of the fifteenth century and provided around 80% of physicians. Portugal’s creation of the first global empire by 1500 was also significant, leading to new sources of knowledge, the intense commercial production of sugar, the spread of plague, participation in the slave trade and health problems caused by long-distance voyages. There were relatively few university-trained physicians and the fluid social organization of Portuguese towns meant that barbers were higher status medical practitioners than elsewhere in Europe. Religion played a very important role in binding together Portuguese communities, and the spiritual connotations of health and disease had a profound effect on explanations for disease and the development of public health. Ideas about medicine, health and the body – often presented through religious language and symbolism – played a key role in shaping perceptions of the self and the state which were to prove long-lasting. This project will see the publication of the first major study of medicine in medieval Portugal. Interest in Portugal is increasing within the context of the EU and the history of the Atlantic, and therefore this book will act as a timely reminder that a country which might seem small and peripheral can play an important role in the global history of medicine.

Future projects

My current project will lay the groundwork of future research on medical stereotypes, the history of the body and the history of death. I intend to continue to work on Portugal and its empire but will probably also increasingly work on Castile, France and England for a comparative perspective. I am involved in an international translation project to produce English editions of the chronicles of Fernão Lopes, the main source for late medieval Portuguese history. I also plan to write a history of medieval Portugal.

Postgraduate Supervision

I would particularly welcome applications from students interested in working on the following themes in late medieval European History (12th to early 16th centuries):

The history of medicine (especially sickness, medical practice and the doctor-patient relationship)
The history of the Iberian Peninsula (especially Portugal)
The history of women
The history of food and eating behaviours
I would also be interested in applications that address other aspects of late medieval culture and society: e.g, daily life, family, saints’ cults, magic, travel, queenship and monarchy, religious beliefs.


Undergraduate Modules

Medieval and Renaissance Europe (HIST1090)
Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe (HIST2160)
Patient Voices: Medicine and Healthcare in the Middle Ages (HIST2170)
Before Columbus: Conquest, Culture and Exploration in Late Medieval Spain and Portugal (special subject) (HIST3350)
Magic and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages (MEDV3310)
All these modules relate to my research into the history of medicine, healthcare, religion and disease in some way. The module on queens links to research I have done on royal saints’ cults and to the fact that these women are amongst the best-documented medieval sick people. The special subject allows me to place my research into the wider context of the history of Spain and Portugal, especially in the era of Atlantic exploration. Encounters between different groups of people in new worlds were in many ways a practical application of and a challenge to medieval theories about bodies, minds and spirits.

Postgraduate Module

Lifecycles: birth, death and illness in the Middle Ages (HIST5875M)
This module combines my interests in the history of medicine with the wider political and cultural contexts of the sick people whom I study. The premise of the module will be that health and illness and the human lifecycle of birth, death, relationships and accidental events all affect political events or are often presented as doing so in the sources that historians use to reconstruct these events. This is a theory that directly arises from my research on royal health and concepts of the body and the state in Portugal but can be applied to other kingdoms, especially England. I offer this module on the MA in Medieval History and the MA in Medieval Studies.


‘Medical perspectives on death in late medieval and early modern Europe’, in C. Krötzl and K. Mustakallio (eds), Old Age: Approaching Death in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), 277-91.

‘Medical ’emplotment’ and plotting medicine: health and disease in late medieval Portuguese chronicles’, Social History of Medicine 24 (2011), 125-41. OPEN ACCESS http://ukpmc.ac.uk/abstract/PMC/PMC3063956

‘Both “illness and temptation of the Enemy”: melancholy, the medieval patient and the writings of King Duarte of Portugal (r. 1433-38)’, Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 1:2 (2009), 163-78. OPEN ACCESS http://ukpmc.ac.uk/abstract/PMC/PMC3158133

Review essay: ‘A sense of the past: exploring sensory experience in the pre-modern world’, Brain: A Journal of Neurology 132 (2009), 1112-7.

‘Isabel of Aragon (d.1336): model queen or model saint?’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 57 (2006), 668-92.

‘Saintly physician, diabolical doctor, medieval saint: exploring the reputation of Gil de Santarém in medieval and renaissance Portugal ‘, Portuguese Studies 21 (2005), 112-25.

‘Multos ex medicinae arte curaverat, multos verbo et oratione: curing in medieval Portuguese saints’ lives’, in K. Cooper and J. Gregory (eds), Signs, Wonders, Miracles: Representations of Divine Power in the Life of the Church, Studies in Church History 41 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005), 192-202.

‘The Virgin and the devil: the role of the Virgin Mary in the Theophilus legend and its Spanish and Portuguese variants’, in R. Swanson (ed.), The Church and Mary, Studies in church history 39 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004), 147-56.

‘Opportunities for teaching and studying medicine in medieval Portugal before the foundation of the University of Lisbon (1290)’, Dynamis 20 (2000), 305-29.

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