Dr Iona McCleery

Dr Iona McCleery

Associate Professor in Medieval History

+44 (0)113 343 4500

Summary: Medieval Iberian History; history of medieval medicine; healing miracles; medieval food and eating.



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. 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 and complex 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 religion and society more generally from a comparative European perspective., especially miracles and the Cult of the Saints. Most recently I have become known as a food historian, with an interest in diet, lifestyle and regimen, as well as eating behaviours, food shortages and food-related health problems.

Current Research Project

You are what you Ate: Food Lessons from the Past (2010-2014) 

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 collaborative project encouraged 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 explored 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 brought 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 encouraged 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 created 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 has long been based on my Wellcome project grant (2007-2008) 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: Medicine and Community in Late Medieval Portugal (c.1320-c.1480).

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 expansion into the Atlantic from 1415 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 lays the groundwork of future research on medicine in the Portuguese empire (c.1480-c.1540), especially West Africa. I continue to work on medieval miracles and the history of food. 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. It is intended that these volumes will be published by Boydell in 2019.

Postgraduate Supervision

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

  • The history of medicine (especially sickness, healing miracles, 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, travel, queenship, religious beliefs. Note that co-supervision of medieval PhDs is normal at the University of Leeds.

Current Ph.D. students

Amy Devenney (School of History Bursary, part-time, 2012- ): 'Miracles and Medicine in the Norman kingdom of Sicily' (part-time, co-supervised with Graham Loud, School of History, and Paul Oldfield, University of Manchester).

Sunny Harrison (University of Leeds Anniversary Scholarship, 2014- ): 'Jordanus Ruffus and the Late-Medieval Hippiatric Tradition: Animal Care Practitioners and the Horse (co-supervised with William Flynn, Institute for Medieval Studies).

Rose Sawyer (School of History Bursary, 2014- ): 'Medieval Child Substitution (Changelings)' (co-supervised with Alaric Hall, School of English).

Alice Toso (WRoCAH studentship network 'Faith in Food, Food in Faith', 2014- ) 'Food and Faith in Medieval Portugal' (co-supervised with Michelle Alexander, Dept of Archaeology, University of York).

Anna Valent (WRoCAH studentship network 'Cultures of Consumption', 2014- ): 'Cultural Encounters from the Ambassador's Court to the English Kitchen: Anglo-Iberian Networks and the Exchange of Medical and Culinary  Knowledge' (co-supervised with Helen Smith, Dept of English and Related Languages, University of York).

Rachael Gillibrand (University of Leeds Anniversary Scholarship, 2015- ): 'Medieval Disability Aids' (co-supervised with Eva Frojmovic, School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies).

Sarah Ortega (University of Leeds Anniversary Scholarship, 2016- ): 'The Liber Vaccae and the Practical Applications of Cosmology' (co-supervised with William Flynn, Institute for Medieval Studies).

Jack Litchfield (WRoCAH/AHRC, 2016- ): 'Perceptions of Wounds and Scarring in the Fifteenth Century' (co-supervised with Catherine Batt, School of English). 

Completed students

Joanna Phillips (AHRC, 2017), 'The Impact of Health and Disease on Military Campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean at the Time of the Crusades (1095-1291)' (co-supervised with Alan Murray, Institute for Medieval Studies).

WRoCAH studentship network 'Faith in Food, Food in Faith'

I set up this studentship network funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities. The network brings together three students and six research supervisors in the fields of molecular archaeology, nutritional epidemiology, zooarchaeology, history of food and medicine and artefactual archaeology. Each researcher investigates the relationships between food, health, religion, social status, migration and identity from different disciplinary and chronological perspectives. Each student is based at a different university of the White Rose Consortium. Alice Toso (University of York) is working on the bioarchaeology of food and faith in medieval Portugal, Holly Hunt-Watts (University of Leeds) is working on food and nutrient intake in low income families in the 18th and 19th centuries and Veronica Aniceti (University of Sheffield) is working on animal husbandry in Sicily during the Islamic-Christian transitions of the central Middle Ages. For further details please visit the students' blog https://historicfoodscapes.wordpress.com/about/. The five other supervisors involved are Umberto Albarella (Sheffield), Michelle Alexander (York), Janet Cade (Leeds), Martin Carver (York) and Dawn Hadley (Sheffield).

I also belong to another WRoCAH studentship network 'Cultures of Consumption' (led by Cathy Shrank, Sheffield) which explores the transmission, interpretation and transformation of texts, beliefs and practices about food, drink, dietary ideas and consumption during the early-modern period with especial emphasis on the transfer of food and ideas between England, Italy and the Iberian Peninsula. See http://www.emodconsumption.co.uk/ for more details.


Undergraduate Modules

  • Medieval and Renaissance Europe (HIST1090)
  • Patient Voices: Medicine and Healthcare in the Middle Ages (HIST2170)
  • Cultural Encounters: Spain, Portugal and the Wider World in the Late Middle Ages (HIST3352)  

All these modules relate to my research into the history of medicine, healthcare, religion and disease in some way. 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, souls, diet, disease, race and gender.

I also contribute to the new Liberal Arts degree programme, co-convening the strand Living Histories and Heritage with Helen Graham (School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies).

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 is that the events of the human lifecycle affects political events or is 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. I offer this module on the MA in Medieval History, the MA in Medieval Studies, the MA in Social and Cultural History, and the MA in History of Health, Medicine and Society.


(with Vicky Shearman and Jo Buckberry), ‘You are what you ate: consuming the past to benefit the present’, Imago Temporis: Medium Aevum (2017), 385-412. Open access via RACO

'Getting enough to eat: famine as a neglected medieval health issue', in B. S. Bowers and L. M. Keyser (eds.), The Sacred and the Secular in Medieval Healing: Sites, Objects, and Texts, AVISTA Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science and Art (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), 116-139. Open access via White Rose Research Online.

(with Jo Buckberry, Alan Ogden and Vicky Shearman) ‘You are what you ate: using bioarchaeology to promote healthy eating’, in K. Gerdau-Radonić and K. McSweeney (eds), Trends in Biological Anthropology 1 (Oxford: Oxbow, 2015), 100–11.

'What is "colonial" about medieval colonial medicine? Iberian health in global context, Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies, 7 (2015), 151-175. Open access via the journal and PubMed.

'From the edge of Europe to global empire: Portuguese medicine abroad (thirteenth to sixteenth centuries)', in Marianne O'Doherty and Felicitas Schmieder (eds), Travel and Mobilities in the Middle Ages: From the Atlantic to the Black Sea (Brepols: Turnhout, 2015), 55-90.

'Christ more powerful than Galen? The relationship between medicine and miracles', in Matthew Mesley and Louise Wilson (eds), Contextualizing Miracles in the Christian West, 1100-1500: New Historical Approaches (Oxford: Medium Aevum, Monograph Series 32, 2014), 127-54.

'Medical licensing in late medieval Portugal', in Wendy J. Turner and Sara M. Butler (eds), Medicine and the Law in the Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 196-219. A pre-print version can be accessed at here.

'Wine, women and song? Diet and regimen for royal well-being (King Duarte of Portugal, 1433-1438)', in Sari Katajala-Peltomaa and Susanna Niiranen (eds), Mental (Dis)Order in Later Medieval Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 177-96. A pre-print version can be accessed here.   

'Medicine and disease: the female 'patient' in medieval Europe', in Kim M. Phillips (ed), A Cultural History of Women in the Middle Ages (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 85-104.   

'Medical perspectives on death in late medieval and early modern Europe', in Christian Krötzl and Katarina 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 via the journal and PubMed

'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 via the journal and PubMed.  

Review essay: 'A sense of the past: exploring sensory experience in the pre-modern world', Brain: A Journal of Neurology 132 (2009), 1112-7. Open access via the journal.

'Isabel of Aragon (d.1336): model queen or model saint?', Journal of Ecclesiastical History 57 (2006), 668-92. Open access via Durham Research Online

'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 Kate Cooper and Jeremy 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 Robert 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. Open access via the journal.

Selected blog and website e-publications

'Medieval miracles and occupational health', Remedia: the History of Medicine in Dialogue with its Present, 23 June 2015.

'What would you have eaten for Christmas in medieval times?', The Conversation, 16 December 2014.

'Figgy facts: find out more about figs', You Are What You Ate website, February 2014.

'Exhibition planning for beginners: from idea to execution', Wellcome Trust blog, 30 April 2013.

Recent public talks and outreach activities


Health: Looking at Life from Cradle to Grave. I coordinated this Wellcome-Trust funded collaboration with colleagues Alex Bamji, Mike Finn, Laura King, Jessica Meyer, Jamie Stark and my student Rachael Gillibrand. This mobile exhibition looked at birth, illness and anti-aging methods between the 15th and the 20th centuries. It was on tour around libraries and hospitals in Wakefield and Leeds for a year from February 2016. See us in action via #healththroughtime including a roadshow at Pindersfield Hospital in Wakefield in May 2016.

Young Archaeologists' Club (YAC) Leaders' weekend:

I was invited by YAC to help organize a youth leaders' training weekend in Wakefield in April 2016 on the theme of food. This project became part of the legacy of You Are What You Ate, involving some of the same ideas and people, especially Jane Howroyd, my co-organizer. We ran medieval cooking sessions on the Saturday at St George's Community Centre in Lupset. On the Sunday at Sandal Castle, my student Alice Toso led a session on stable isotope analysis, drawing on her own research, and on palaeopathology, drawing both on her own expertise and that of Laura Castells Navarro from Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford, and Holly Hunt-Watts at Leeds. To see what fun we had read this YAC blog.

Public talks:

- 'Holy but not healthy? Fish-eating in the Middle Ages' - given at the Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society in Leeds in November 2017

- 'The 'healthy' medieval diet' - given at the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds in March 2016 and at Blackfriars Restaurant in Newcastle in October 2015.

- 'Disease and diet in early European empires' - given at Café Humanité in Ilkley in January 2016, and Grimsby Historical Association in March 2015.

- 'Feast and famine: medieval food in season' - given at Leeds Town Hall in December 2015. 

I would be delighted to give talks on many aspects of medieval food, disease, miracles and daily life.