David Gentilcore

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2017/2018
discipline History
Professor of Early Modern History, School of History, Politics and International Relations (HyPIR), University of Leicester

Research project

The Best of All Things: Drinking Water in the Mediterranean, 1400-1900


"Water is the best of all things", according to Pindar’s First Olympian Ode (476 BC): on it all human life depends. It is a resource, but on a wide range of levels: economic, social, cultural and political. Water has a significance that is both local and transnational. It thus constitutes a privileged base from which to reconstruct the identity and self-representational forms of any population and culture.


The focus of the project will be on drinking water, placing it within the context of the much wider "water culture" of the Mediterranean during the early- and late-modern period. By "water culture", I mean both material aspects (such as hydraulic engineering or water legislation) and non-material features (such as beliefs and practices).

Drinking water, both as substance and as cultural and social practice, is the least studied aspect of water culture. The subject is notable by its absence in histories of the period.The difficulty for the historian is water’s very banality and ambiguity, meaning we have to look harder (and in different places) for references to it and interpret wisely. If we look at actual practices, water returns to the fore. Communities went to great lengths to procure clean water, from elaborate public works to the construction of public and domestic rainwater cisterns, to the everyday presence of water-sellers in towns. Water resources were everywhere carefully managed and distributed (and fought over).


The "Best of All Things" project will focus on the period beginning with the great resurgence in hydraulic engineering projects and medical interest in water consumption, ushered in by the Renaissance, to the pandemics of the 19th century and the resulting urban waterworks of the late nineteenth century. The approach will be interdisciplinary, bringing together anthropology, geography, archaeology and various branches of history (history of medicine, food history, architectural history).


In terms of the project’s geographical reach, the cultural unity of the Mediterranean has been most eloquently expressed by the French historian Fernand Braudel, for whom the relationship of man to his environment was the defining constant of human history. Water has a deep cultural and religious importance for all the countries that border the Mediterranean. Although all societies are in some sense hydraulic, dependent as they on water management and distribution; nowhere is this more important than the Mediterranean, where fresh water has always been unpredictable—short spells of overabundance alternating with longer periods of scarcity.






David Gentilcore is Professor of Early Modern History at the School of History, Politics and International Relations (HyPIR), University of Leicester. He holds a Ph.D in History from the University of Cambridge. His main research interests are the history of popular religion, the history of medicine and health, and the history of food and diet.




Selected publications

Food and health in early modern Europe: diet, medicine and society, 1450-1800, Bloomsbury, London, 2016.


'Louis Sambon and the Clash of Pellagra Etiologies in Italy and the United States, 1904-15’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 71, no. 1, 2015, pp. 19-42.


'Mais, miseria e 'mania pellagrosa': i pazienti del Polesine e Veneti nei manicomi di San Servolo e San Clemente a Venezia (1840-1910)', with E. Priani, in D. Gasparini (ed.), Il mais nella storia agricola italiana, iniziando dal Polesine, Minelliana, Rovigo, 2015, pp. 119-33.


''Con trattenimenti e buffoniane'. Ciarlatani, protomedici e le origini di un gruppo professionale’, in M. Conforti, A. Carlino & A. Clericuzio (eds), Interpretare e curare. Medicina nel Rinascimento, Carocci, Rome, 2013, pp. 189-209 & 369-73.


Mangiapatate. Fortuna e sfortuna della patata nel Belpaese, il Mulino, Bologna, 2013.


Italy and the Potato: A History, 1550-2000, Continuum, London, 2012.





junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
IMéRA, Aix-Marseille Institute for Advanced Study
discipline History
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2018/2019
IMéRA, Aix-Marseille Institute for Advanced Study
discipline Comparative Studies
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2016/2017
IMéRA, Aix-Marseille Institute for Advanced Study
discipline Archaeology
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2014/2015
IMéRA, Aix-Marseille Institute for Advanced Study
discipline Literature