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Study information


Module titleDisease
Module codeHIH3629
Academic year2024/5
Module staff

Professor Dora Vargha (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks



Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

Almost everyone experiences disease at some point in their lives. Yet ‘disease’ is a slippery concept. Why do some societies see diseases such as ‘lovesickness’ or ‘hysteria’ where others do not? Why do some societies experience especial problems with epidemics, and others with the diseases of old age? How do we analyse the experiences of sufferers, families and doctors? This module will explore the ways in which different societies have defined and explained diseases, and how they have responded to them. It will also encourage you to apply these broad questions to the history of particular diseases such as plague, leprosy, madness, or venereal disease.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module is designed to enhance your understanding of recurring themes in the history of disease over a time scale extending from the Middle Ages to the twenty-first century. It will be taught by two or three different tutors, and its exact chronological and thematic focus will depend on which tutors are teaching the module in any given year. You will evaluate closely key topics such as ‘What is a disease?’, patterns of disease in different societies, explanations of disease, and ways of managing disease. In the second half of the course you will also be encouraged to focus on the history of particular diseases. In this way you will trace key developments in the subject, and think about these comparatively across time and space. The module will also introduce you to some of the theoretical issues involved in studying the history of disease, such as how disease was defined and identified in past societies, and to a variety of different historical source materials, including patient narratives, medical treatises and representations of disease in literature. By using a combination of tutor-led seminars and lectures, student-led seminars and independent study, the module will enable you to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of taking a comparative approach to the study of disease. In this way you will learn to draw thematic comparisons between material from different sources, show awareness of contrasting approaches to research, and demonstrate an enhanced understanding of some of the philosophical questions arising from research into large historical themes. You will also learn to present some of these complex issues to the rest of the class by leading a seminar in the second half of the course.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Analyse developments in the history of disease and compare its relationship to other phenomena such as science, medicine, and religion across a variety of historical time-periods and contexts
  • 2. Compare and explain key historiographical developments in the history of disease across different societies and periods, and relate them to an overall conception of the subject
  • 3. Evaluate carefully and critically the approaches that historians and scholars working in other disciplines have taken to disease
  • 4. Define suitable research topics for independent study/student-led seminars in the history of disease, evaluating different and complex types of historical source and historiography.
  • 5. Demonstrate the possibilities and limitations of comparative methodological approaches in historical research more generally

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 6. Identify and deploy correct terminology in a comprehensible manner; use primary sources in a professional manner; present work in the format expected of historians, including footnoting and bibliographical references
  • 7. Assess critically different approaches to history in a contested area

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 8. Work both in a team and independently
  • 9. Digest, select and organise material to produce, to a deadline, a coherent and cogent argument, developed through the mode of assessment

Syllabus plan

While the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • What is a disease?
  • Models of Disease – can include Humoralism, Scientific Medicine.
  • Patterns of Disease – can include Epidemics vs. Chronic Disease; Measuring Disease; Global Patterns of Disease.
  • Managing Disease – can include Diagnosis, Treatment, Expectations of Treatment, Preventative Medicine, Holistic Medicine.
  • Narratives of Disease – can include Cultural Constructions of Disease, Writing about Illness (by patients, doctors, and observers), Representations of Disease in eg. Literature, Oral History.
  • Plague,
  • Leprosy
  • AIDS
  • Venereal Disease
  • Madness
  • Allergies
  • Reproductive Diseases
  • Obesity
  • Anorexia
  • Old Age
  • Cancer
  • Occupational Diseases
  • Lovesickness,
  • Possession
  • Epilepsy
  • Depression/Melancholy
  • Hysteria. 

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching1111x 1 hour lectures
Scheduled learning and teaching126 x 2 hour tutor led seminars
Scheduled learning and teaching105 x 2 hour seminars, each led by a group of 2 or 3 students. Topics should be chosen from a menu of subjects agreed in advance by tutors. While tutors give guidance and a basic reading list, students are responsible for designing seminar activities and identifying further reading materials.
Guided independent study267Students prepare for seminars, essay, final report and exam through reading and research; they also work in groups to lead seminars based on projects that have been developed.

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay plan500 words1-7, 9Verbal and written

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay303000 words1-7, 9Oral and written
Student-led seminar [comprising: leading a student led seminar (36%) and participation in student-led seminars (4%)]40To be delivered online or in person. If the Covid-19 crisis continues it is expected that these student-led seminars will be one hour. However, if the pandemic is over and the situation permits it, these seminars will be two hours in length. 1-9Oral and written
Assignment302000 words1-7, 9Oral and written

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay1-8, 10Referral/deferral period
Student-led seminar and participation2500 words (written by student individually) describing and reflecting on the proposed seminar activities and materials equating to one person’s contribution (c. 45 minutes), plus proposed handout or powerpoint from seminar (not more than 2 sides of A4) and seminar reading list (not more than 1 side of A4)1-11Referral/deferral period
Assignment (2000 words)Assignment (2000 words)1-8, 10Referral/deferral period

Re-assessment notes

The re-assessment consists of a 3000 word essay and 2000 word assignment, as in the original assessment, but replaces leading and participating in student-led seminars with a written seminar plan and reading list that corresponds to one student’s contribution to such a seminar. The plan should outline how the seminar is to be structured and organised as well as detailing the material to be used. This will enable a reader to gain a sense of what the student intended to do in the seminar, the rationale for this activity, and when this activity / discussion would take place.

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Beier, Lucinda McCray, Sufferers and Healers: The experience of illness in seventeenth-century England (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987).
  • Burnham, John. What is Medical History?  (Oxford: Polity Press, 2005).
  • Bynum, W. F., and Roy Porter, Companion Encyclopaedia to the History of Medicine (London: Routledge, 1993).
  • Hamlin, Christopher. Cholera: the Biography. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  • Healy, David. Mania. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).
  • Healy, Margaret, Fictions of Disease in Early Modern England: Bodies, Plagues and Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).
  • Jackson, Mark. Asthma: the Biography. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  • King, Helen, The Disease of Virgins: Green sickness, chlorosis and the problems of puberty (London and New York: Routledge, 2004).
  • Porter, Roy, Disease, Medicine and Society in England 1550-1860 (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1987).
  • Porter, Roy and Porter, Dorothy, In sickness and in health: the British experience 1650-1850 (London: Fourth Estate, 1988).
  • Porter Roy (ed.), The Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  • Porter, Roy, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (London: HarperCollins, 1997).
  • Porter, Roy (ed.), Patients and Practitioners: Lay Perceptions of Medicine in Pre-Industrial Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
  • Rawcliffe, Carole. Leprosy in Medieval England. (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2006).
  • Veith, Ilza, Hysteria: The History of a Disease (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1965).
  • Wear, Andrew, Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Disease, Health, Medicine, Medical History, Plague, Leprosy

Credit value30
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


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Last revision date