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Water Medicine. Medical uses of mineral waters (1300-1850)

Deadline for proposals: May 21st, 2021


This new issue on the history of mineral waters offers to step out of the retrospective idea of the “thermal craze” from the second half of the 19th century, which tends to focus on the commercialisation of leisure. In line with the recent history of therapeutics, we would like to replace mineral waters in the theoretical and practical contexts of health, following up on the work of scholars who have shown their gradual medical appropriation, starting with Italian doctors at the end of the medieval period. The specific use of waters, between drugs and regimen, is a good entry to explore the practice and knowledge dynamics of the medical world.

The history of mineral waters needs to be examined in the longue durée, hence the broad chronological span chosen for this call. Some characteristics of mineral waters present continuities that defy strict periodisation. Our objective is to explore the reconfigurations and persistence of questions and debates around mineral waters in a transhistorical and transnational perspective.

Mineral waters can be perceived through the lens of medical knowledge, by exploring their efficiency, their evolution and the complex relationship between the composition of mineral waters and their therapeutic use, as well as their specific application for some diseases in specific diseases. These spas were geographically situated and embedded within a broader economic realities: waters have a locus which becomes their identity, yet they could also be reproduced artificially. The frontier between the places of care and cure, and those of transgression or leisure was regularly blurred, and a source of concern for local authorities. Watering places were places of ephemeral sociability reconfiguring various professional and social groups.

Healing waters

  • Waters and knowledge: knowledge on mineral waters started with their composition and their origins, with elements of natural philosophy, mineralogy, geology or chemistry. It was structured by various institutions in which the observations, experiments and theories were collected, edited and published. These epistemological processes implied a great variety of actors (medical doctors, apothecaries, natural philosophers, alchemists, chemists…) as well a great variety of medical and literary genres (treatises, catalogues, dictionaries, guides…).

  • Health and medicine: prescription, advice and self-prescription of mineral waters can be studied at various levels. As they were recurrently prescribed for chronic diseases, the study of mineral waters opens up new accounts of lived experience of the chronically ill. Moreover, the great variety of indications listed in some mineral water treatises are an invitation to consider the relationship between water analysis and commercial strategies.

Places of therapeutic encounters

  • Coexistence and overlap: in spa towns, big or small, all actors are gathered in the same urban space and usually share a regulated schedule. Therapeutic relationships can thus be considered in a complex manner, encompassing patients and healthcare givers, as well as families, friends and intermediaries, all implying various degrees of social, medical and economical issues. This includes, but is not limited to, the variety of professionals on site, the relationships between the sick and the healthy others, between military and ordinary civilians. Spa towns were also related to each other at local, national and international levels – by the travellers and their guides, as well as networks of medical doctors who compared them, building and undoing a spa’s reputation.

  • Places: the geographical study of watering places in Europe revolves around hierarchy and distribution. The smaller spas, of second or third rank, are worth investigating as places where urban planning and development was launched around the economy of health. Spa towns, which are often designed around naturalist aesthetics, are a good place to investigate the history of environmental medicine. Many spa halls, baths, and pump-rooms also partake of a colonial aesthetic that is mirrored in colonial spas.

Water, health and politics

  • Health economics: How are mineral waters distributed and owned? Initially considered as common resources, waters were increasingly appropriated and thus their use and management entered the field of political and economic debate. What are the relationships between land ownership and medical exploitation of the waters? Who invests in urban planning around baths, pump-rooms and the landscape design of spa town gardens and promenades? Public and free access to the waters is also a growing concern after the middle ages, especially for local people or travelling paupers. On another level, the competition between spa towns, which is documented in primary and secondary sources, could be an object of investigation. The sale of bottled water and the emergence of artificial waters represents yet another example of how the economy of mineral waters was reconfigured (?) in the modern era.

  • Medicine and religion: medical doctors are not the only ones to heal with water. The use of holy wells and mineral springs overlapped, and spurred several processes of appropriation and reinvention, while religious practices or folk traditions persisted. Case studies of holy wells and small mineral spas can illustrate such processes, and scholars are invited to examine coexisting practices and competing discourses around healing waters.

  • Environmental medicine: the study of mineral waters makes a contribution to the history of environmental medicine since water is an essential agent of environmental health and disease, and even beyond this, because the therapeutic exploitation of mineral waters and their accessibility pertains to environmental politics and engages with contemporary discussions related to the history of the commons.

Reopening the question of mineral waters requires to approach the current mapping of primary sources, their availability, and establish a typology and cartography of these resources. In this perspective, contributions to the “Sources et documents” section would be particularly welcome. The editors are inviting submissions of critical editions of material, visual or textual sources. In this perspective, a rather long working schedule has been planned to enable new areas of research, and archival work to be completed for the article.


Proposals for articles (c. 5000 characters, including bibliographical references), in English, Spanish or French, should be sent by May 21st, 2021 to the following addresses: Sophie Vasset (sophie.vasset [@] and François Zanetti (francois.zanetti [@]

The authors of the selected contributions will be invited to participate in a preparatory workshop early July to identify common objects, individuals, groups, issues and methodologies.

The journal publishes articles in English, Spanish and French (30,000 characters/5,000 words, including spaces). Guidelines and stylesheet available at


  • May 21, 2021: submission of proposals for articles

  • June 4, 2021: selection of the proposals

  • July 2, 2021: preparatory seminar

  • Mid-October 2021: half-day workshop (individual papers discussed with respondents)

  • Mid-January 2022: submission of the first versions of the articles


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