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Maaike van der Lugt: Exploring medieval history through science and medicine

Researcher portraits Article published on 31 January 2024 , Updated on 05 February 2024

Maaike van der Lugt is a professor of medieval history and director of the Heritage and Cultural Dynamics laboratory (DYPAC – Univ. Paris-Saclay, Univ. Versailles - Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines UVSQ) and Deputy Director of the Institute of Cultural and International Studies (IECI – Univ. Paris-Saclay, UVSQ). She specialises in the history of knowledge, science and medicine in the Middle Ages.

Dutch-born Maaike van der Lugt began her history studies at the University of Amsterdam. After obtaining her master's degree in 1992, she took a DEA (a post-graduate diploma) in France, attracted by the country's reputation for medieval studies. Indeed, France, considered the Holy Grail for medieval historians, offers a chance to pursue higher education at a reasonable cost, thanks to its public education system. "It's a major advantage of the French system that I think it's essential to retain."

Intersections between theology and science

In 1998, Maaike van der Lugt defended her thesis Le ver, le démon et la Vierge. Les théories de la génération extraordinaire au Moyen Âge (The worm, the demon and the Virgin. Theories of extraordinary generation in the Middle Ages), analysing medieval perspectives on generation without sexual intercourse. In this book, published in 2004, she examined theological, philosophical and medical debates ranging from the virgin conception of Christ to demonology, as well as natural conceptions without sexual intervention. She highlighted the crucial role of medieval theology, often underestimated, as a laboratory of diverse knowledge, contradicting the idea that religion holds back scientific reflection.

Exploring Aristotle's texts

She then pursued a post-doctorate for a year in the Netherlands, travelling throughout Europe, from the libraries of the Vatican to those of Paris, London, Oxford and Cambridge. Her project focused on studying the reception of Aristotle's Problems, a Greek work translated into Latin between 1258 and 1266. Maaike van der Lugt was particularly interested in how this knowledge, ranging from biology to mathematics, ethics and psychology, and initially intended for an intellectual and academic elite, was transformed and disseminated in more accessible forms, albeit still in Latin and for a less specialised audience. This period of nomadic research was to lead to the researcher publishing two articles.

The concept of heredity in medicine inspired by law

In 1999, Maaike van der Lugt joined Université Paris Cité, then known as Paris-Diderot, as an associate professor, a position she held until 2017. She was then recruited as a professor at Université Versailles - Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (UVSQ), where she carried out research on the history of the body and medieval discourses on human nature. With funding from the Action concertée incitative jeunes chercheurs (Concerted action to encourage young researchers), the forerunner of the French National Research Agency (ANR), she led a project on the concept of heredity, culminating in the publication of a pioneering collective book in 2008: L'hérédité entre Moyen Âge et époque moderne. Perspectives historiques. (Heredity between the Middle Ages and modern times. Historical perspectives.) "I studied the concept of hereditary disease, demonstrating that it was medieval physicians that came up with it, drawing inspiration from law to transpose the notion of transmission of property to medicine."

Passing on a passion for medieval history

Maaike van der Lugt taught medieval history from first year to master's and PhD levels, aiming to share her passion for original sources. She underlined the importance of the materiality of historical documents, often overshadowed by digitisation. To offer an authentic experience, she organised partnerships with libraries, enabling students to consult manuscripts. "I want to make medieval history more tangible and interesting, to encourage them to take on the challenges of a scholarly field requiring skills in philology, Latin, palaeography and iconology."

Study of morality and medicine

From 2007 to 2013, Maaike van der Lugt worked at the Institut Universitaire de France (University Institute of France) on a research project studying the concept of nature and its moral and normative authority. This project led her to spend a semester at Princeton University, where she explored how knowledge about nature as well as legal and social norms converged or diverged in the Middle Ages. Her work led to the publication of a series of articles and a collective book in 2014, entitled La nature comme source de la morale au Moyen Âge (Nature as the Source of Morality in the Middle Ages). She was also interested in complex medical issues, such as the neutral state, which questions the distinction between health and illness.

Complexion: between health and character

From 2014, Maaike van der Lugt began studying complexion, a key medical concept in the Middle Ages. Complexion perceives health as a balance between elemental qualities and humours, varying according to individuals, sexes and peoples. The lecturer was interested in how this concept integrates physical appearance, psychological character and state of health, as well as its ability to describe a person's evolution over the course of their life, considering both stable and changeable elements.

Studies on the foetus and the female experience in medieval medicine

In 2016, Maaike van der Lugt obtained her Accreditation to Supervise Research, which focused on the foetus and is the subject of a forthcoming book. In it, she summarises her research, crossing medical and philosophical perspectives, as well as their moral and normative implications. Her works focus on subjects such as the causes of similarities and disparities between parents and children, abortion and the question of "medieval eugenics". In particular, they look at how scholars of the time planned to modify or influence the generative process, and how they integrated, ignored or rejected women's knowledge and experience of pregnancy and childbirth.

Popularisation and the vernacular: disseminating knowledge

In 2019, the lecturer embarked on a project on the popularisation and vernacular translation of medical texts from the 12th to the 16th century. She was particularly interested in the first medical text in French, le régime de santé (The regime of health), written by Aldebrandin de Sienne. In it, he tackled subjects such as food, sexuality and sleep, at the intersection of medicine and ethical precept. This highly successful text has been translated into several languages and in some cases has been richly illustrated. "With a team of colleagues across Europe, we're analysing these translations and their cultural appropriation, as well as the sociology of their reception."

Director of the DYPAC laboratory and Deputy Director of IECI

In 2018, a year after arriving at UVSQ, Maaike van der Lugt was made Director of the Heritage and Cultural Dynamics laboratory (DYPAC), part of the Institute of Cultural and International Studies (IECI), of which she became Deputy Director in 2020. The laboratory stands out for its dynamism in the search for funding and in building the Humanities – Heritage Science Graduate School and two of Université Paris-Saclay's interdisciplinary programmes: Palabre, focusing on heritage, and SCult, concentrating on scientific knowledge, culture and knowledge mediation. "These initiatives are essential for developing research projects," concludes the lecturer.