Grey Room

Nicholas Barbon’s De febre ardente: Medico-philosophical Grounds of Fire Insurance?

Matthew C. Hunter, Mackenzie Zalin

Nicholas Barbon, Disputatio medica inauguralis de febre ardente (Inaugural medical disputation on burning fever) (1661). Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.


Nicholas Barbon (1637/40–1698) is well known to historians of early modern architecture as a theorist of trade and a leading speculative builder in the wake of London’s 1666 great fire. Less has been known about the medical credentials stressed by Marx in our epigraph. This introduction offers critical and histori- ographical context for the recently rediscovered “inaugural disputation” that Barbon delivered to the medical faculty at the University of Utrecht in 1661— a doctoral thesis that Mackenzie S. Zalin has translated into English for the first time. At the very least, the disputation anticipates the full-throated embrace of global trade and the vision of the city as heart of commerce voiced in Barbon’s later writings. More boldly, we propose, the text can be read as a kind of medico-philosophical prolegomenon to another concern with which Barbon was intimately connected: fire insurance. Reckoning with Barbon’s early med- ical writing thus sheds instructive light on logics of underwriting dismissed as so much shifty legerdemain by standard interpretation.