Dr Iona McCleery

Dr Iona McCleery


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 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, projects and publications

In recent years, my research has increasingly focused on three strands: the history of food, miracle narratives, and health and illness in the early Portuguese empire, especially in West Africa and the Atlantic islands. I try to combine these strands where possible. I am also involved in a long-term international translation project to produce English editions of the chronicles of Fernão Lopes, the main source for late medieval Portuguese history (to be published by Boydell). Recent publications include:

  • Iona McCleery, ‘Escaping justice? The politics of liberation miracles in late medieval Portugal’, in Sari Katajala-Peltomaa, Jenni Kuuliala and Iona McCleery (eds), A Companion to Medieval Miracle Collections (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 249–73. 
  • Iona McCleery, ‘Food: from healthy regimen to consumption and supply’, in I. McCleery (ed.), The Cultural History of Medicine in the Middle Ages (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), 39–61.
  • Iona McCleery, ‘Introduction: The cultural history of health’, in I. McCleery (ed.). The Cultural History of Medicine in the Middle Ages (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), 1–19. 
  • Iona McCleery, ‘Holy but not healthy? Fish-eating in the Middle Ages’, Medieval Yorkshire, 2nd series 5 (2018), 49–63.
  • Iona McCleery, '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.
  • Iona McCleery, 'Medieval miracles and occupational health'Remedia: the History of Medicine in Dialogue with its Present, 23 June 2015. 
  • Iona McCleery, '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.
  • Iona McCleery, '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.
  • Iona McCleery, '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), 127–154. Open access via White Rose Research Online.

Between 2010 and 2014 I ran a multidisciplinary project called You Are What You Ate: Food Lessons From the Past. This project was funded by a Wellcome Trust Engaging Science award (grant no. 092293). The collaborative project encouraged discussion of modern nutrition in the Yorkshire region via archaeological, visual and textual evidence from the medieval and early-modern periods (12th-17th centuries).

Through innovative schools and youth activities, exhibitions, festival stalls, cooking demonstrations, and bone workshops we explored the concept of a balanced diet in history, encouraging participants to engage with issues that still affect 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's co-applicants were Jo Buckberry of Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford and Vicky Shearman, Senior Cultural Officer of Wakefield Council.

  • Iona McCleery, 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
  • Jo Buckberry, Alan Ogden, Vicky Shearman and Iona McCleery, ‘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. 

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. It led to the following publications:

  • Iona McCleery, '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.
  • Iona McCleery, '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.
  • Iona McCleery, 'Saintly physician, diabolical doctor, medieval saint: exploring the reputation of Gil de Santarém in medieval and renaissance Portugal ', Portuguese Studies, 21 (2005), 112–25.
  • Iona Mccleery, '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. 

After my PhD I continued to explore the relationship between religion and medicine in late medieval Portugal by looking at saints' cults and miracles, royal health and lifestyle, life cycle and gender, the role of health and medicine in chronicles,  and the careers of medical practitioners. Some of this research was carried out as part of my Wellcome Trust post-doctoral fellowship held at the Universities of Durham and Leeds (grant no: 076812) in 2005-8 and led to the following publications:

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

Postgraduate Supervision

I would particularly welcome applications from potential students on the following themes (13th to 16th centuries):

  • the history of medicine (especially sickness and healthcare in daily life, healing miracles, medical practice and the doctor-patient relationship)
  • the history of the Iberian Peninsula (especially Portugal) and early European expansion
  • 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, gender and family, the body, saints' cults, travel, queenship, religious beliefs. Note that co-supervision of medieval PhDs is normal at the University of Leeds. If you would like to study with me please send me a full CV and research proposal.

Current Ph.D. students

  • Hannah MacKenzie (2019– ) Consume or be Consumed: Encountering Anthropophagy in Narratives of the Crusades (co-supervised with Catherine Batt, School of English).
  • Quinty Uitman (2022- ) Anatomical and Surgical Diagrams in the Late Middle Ages (co-supervised with Eva Frojmovic, School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies).

Completed students

  • Joanna Phillips (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).
  • Sunny Harrison (2019) 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 (2019) Child Substitution – New Approaches to the Changeling Motif in Medieval European Culture (co-supervised with Alaric Hall, School of English).
  • Alice Toso (2019) Diet in Medieval Portugal: Exploring Inter-faith and Social Dynamics through Stable Isotope Analysis (co-supervised with Michelle Alexander, Dept of Archaeology, University of York).
  • Anna Valent (2019) Early-Modern Anglo-Iberian Food and Recipes: Transmission, Reception, Identity (co-supervised with Helen Smith, Dept of English and Related Languages, University of York).
  • Amy Devenney (2020) Miracles and Medicine in the Norman Kingdom of Sicily (co-supervised with Graham Loud, School of History, and Paul Oldfield, University of Manchester).
  • Rachael Gillibrand (2020) The Material Culture of Physical Impairment: Assistive Technology in Northern Europe,1400-1600 (co-supervised with Eva Frojmovic, School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies).
  • Sarah Ortega (2021) The Liber Vaccae/ Kitāb al-Nawāmīs: Magic and Text in Motion (co-supervised with William Flynn, Institute for Medieval Studies).
  • Jack Litchfield (2021) Aspects of Embodiment in Fifteenth-Century English Chivalric Culture (co-supervised with Catherine Batt, School of English).
  • Kayla Kemhadjian (2022) The Semantics of Self-killing in Old English Language, Literature and Culture (co-supervised with Alaric Hall, School of English).

WRoCAH studentship network 'Faith in Food, Food in Faith' (2014–2017)

I set up this studentship network funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities. The network brought 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 investigated the relationships between food, health, religion, social status, migration and identity from different disciplinary and chronological perspectives. Each student was based at a different university of the White Rose Consortium. For further details please visit the blog

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 sessions on medieval cooking, stable isotopes and palaeopathology. To see what fun we had read this YAC blog, where you can also download a resource pack aimed at youth leaders.

Public talks

I have given many talks on aspects of medieval food, disease, miracles and daily life. Please contact me if you would like me to give a talk to your society or organization. 

<h4>Research projects</h4> <p>Any research projects I'm currently working on will be listed below. Our list of all <a href="https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/dir/research-projects">research projects</a> allows you to view and search the full list of projects in the faculty.</p>

Student education

I teach on several undergraduate and postgraduate modules in the School of History and the Institute for Medieval Studies, focusing in particular on health, the body and disease, and the Global Middle Ages. I also contribute to the Liberal Arts degree programme.

Research groups and institutes

  • Centre for Medical Humanities

Current postgraduate researchers

<h4>Postgraduate research opportunities</h4> <p>We welcome enquiries from motivated and qualified applicants from all around the world who are interested in PhD study. Our <a href="https://phd.leeds.ac.uk">research opportunities</a> allow you to search for projects and scholarships.</p>