There are many reasons and circumstances (most of which deemed to remain unclear) explaining the survival of ancient texts. Some works 0f little literary merit made it to our day, some remarkable pieces didn’t. Usefulness is one of the main causes that explain the success of technical works, among which medical treatises. Medicine didn’t really fall out of fashion, on the contrary; epidemics, eye diseases, hernias and wounds didn’t end with antiquity. Moreover, the ideas of the likes of Hippocrates, Rufus of Ephesus, Galen, Oribasius and many others remained valid in the eyes of the majority of physicians well into the modern era! It could be argued that remarkable rhetorical displays helped ancient physicians retain their attraction for centuries. From a modern viewpoint, some of their descriptions come close to ecphrasis, the description of art works. However, that is a modern perception; but how was perceived Galen, for example, as a writer, in the middle ages and beyond?
Well, we don’t know that much. In fact, studies about Galen’s transmission being in their infancy, and modern editions and translations, still rare, the reception of Galen is a largely unexplored field. One thing we know is that, just like any other ancient author, Galen was not always popular. A recognised authority in the field of medicine, and at times also in philosophy, Galen posed serious challenges to subsequent readers: style, logic, technical terminology and prolixity were (and still are) some of the obstacles to a smooth reading of his works. When Galen was gradually rediscovered in Byzantium, in the 9th c., Photius expressed his appreciation of one single text by Galen, his short piece On medical schools (De Sectis). But he couldn’t hide his annoyance at the rest of his prose, saying: ‘In diction and syntax [the De Sectis] is obviously pure and clear; Galen always gave thought to such matters. However, in many of his writings he burdens his text with irrelevancies, digressions and lengthy periods, which confuse and obscure the meaning of the text. This somehow breaks up the structure, and the verbosity makes the reader indifferent. But at least the work under discussion avoids such faults.’ *(Bibliotheca, II, 164, tr. N. Wilson). Photius was an extremely well-read scholar, and he was an expert in the subtleties of rhetoric. Ancient Greek had no secrets for him. Nevertheless, he was put off by Galen’s writing style. From what we can gather from a later Byzantine scholar’s letters, those of Michael Choniates in the early 13th c., even for a keen reader of technical texts, Galen proved challenging: Choniates reveals that he had to read Galen’s works *On the doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato, and On the anatomical method (Proced. anat.?), with the help of a physician friend of his, Nikolaos Kalodoukes. Choniates didn’t aim at becoming a doctor: he just wanted to understand Nature a little better, he says, with the help of Galen – and, in order to understand Galen, he needed the help of… Aristotle! This gives an idea of the difficulty of Galen’s prose, but also of the close connections between both authors’ frameworks and language. It also demonstrates that medical works in Byzantium were not just for doctors.
Sitting in the Vatican Library today, I was made to think of the frustrating fate of the few manuscripts that have transmitted Galen’s works to us. Finding manuscripts of Galen wasn’t easy already in Choniates’ time; we have only a few dozens of Greek manuscripts prior to his letters. Not all works were available and known at the time. For the treatise I am studying, titled On simple drugs, a major work of ancient pharmacology in eleven books, our evidence is, comparatively, tiny: we have nine manuscripts datable to the 10th-14th c., all of which are either incomplete or, more often, fragmentary. Reconstructing their story is not an easy task: often, we don’t even know where they were made and who copied them. Nevertheless, each tells us a little about the way Galen was read in Byzantium. One of them, the Vaticanus gr. 284 (thoroughly studied by specialists of Dioscorides and Byzantine art), is a 10th c. specimen that was made in Constantinople by someone who thought the treatise imperfect. The scribe in effect made a new text, using Galen’s catalogue of simple drugs (books VI-XI) as his basis, and supplementing Galen’s information with bits of Dioscorides’ De materia medica. In doing so, he was more or less following Galen’s advice in book VI, where he states that no one has ever written a more thorough and accurate account of simples than Dioscorides. Presumably, he meant to produce a useful book of pharmacy for his contemporaries, but he made my own task more difficult! I can still trace some large chunks of authentic Galen in his manuscript, though… and the read is made pleasant by the lovely illustrations of plants added by another, 14th or 15th c. scribe.
The manuscript I read today, the Palatinus gr. 31, has another story to tell. But that would be the subject of a new post!
Michael Choniates. Epistulae, recens. Foteini Kolovou, Berlin, 2001
Photius. The Bibliotheca, tr. and notes by N. G. Wilson, London 1994
A. Touwaide, ‘Un recueil de pharmacologie du Xe siecle illustre au XIVe siecle: le Vaticanus graecus 284’, in Scriptorium 39 (1985), 13-56
N. G. Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium, London, 1983