Since writing my latest post (an insanely long time ago!), I delved into more ugly manuscripts and… I even found uglier specimens than the ones I commented on in that post… In fact, all I have been working on is pretty ugly. And yet it’s fascinating stuff! So I thought ‘Ugly Manuscripts’ deserved a ‘follow up’ post, even though I originally planned to write on totally different things, such as ancient prognostic, recent publications on ancient medicine, and the distant link between Galen and yoga. But that can wait.

The material about which I wrote last time was in part connected with an apparently small side project: a paper for a conference held in Procida last June. That conference was part of a justifiably famous (well, among us Hippocrates- and Galen- people) cycle of conferences about ‘editing ancient medical texts’, especially Greek ones. Between us, we call that cycle ‘ecdotica’, according to the Italian term – and there we talk and talk about medical texts and the manuscripts, many or few, ugly or beautiful, that have transmitted them to us. The conference is held every 3-4 years, either in Paris or Naples (and, in the future, I am told, Hamburg). It gathers about three-four dozens geeky manuscripts people (= philologists) who devote their lives to editing ancient medical texts from manuscripts, a daunting task that is absolutely necessary to help researchers in the history of medicine. They are the unsung heroes of the history of medicine; among them, only a few have time to spare for proper medical-historical work. They also work at the margins of proper codicology and palaeography: many of the manuscripts they look at, as you will have understood, happen to be uninteresting material for wide-ranging specialists of medieval manuscripts as cultural objects. As I said last time, there are notable exceptions, such as the Vienna 1 copy of Dioscorides, etc, etc.

While I felt satisfied with my work on a couple of manuscripts for the purpose of my presentation, I soon realised I wouldn’t be able to produce a decent article without putting in a significant effort to complete my research on the transmission of book VI of Galen’s treatise on Simple drugs. One of the most interesting passages in book VI is the proem: in this little preface of about 10 pages, Galen outlines the key contributions to the field of simple medicines. In other words, he gives a brief presentation of the bibliography on the subjects to his readers, highlighting the most significant outputs (such as Dioscorides’ De materia medica), and destroying the works of unworthy charlatans such as Pamphilus (and a few others!), who mix up true knowledge on plants with Egyptian and Babylonian astrology… This text is a precious account of the history of pharmacology down to Galen; it is also often referred to as one of the key ‘rationalist’ statements by Galen on pharmacology; according to many, Galen here unambiguously rejects the hybrid works that rose to prominence in Hellenistic Egypt, of which some traces are found in the Hermetic corpus as well as in popular Latin works (such as Pliny’s Natural History). Naturally, Galen’s position is more complex than that, and, more importantly, it changed over the course of his 70-year long career. Many passages of the same work on simple drugs show that Galen could accept some remedies that didn’t belong strictly to the field of ‘rationalist’ medicine. In any case, the proem of book VI is a fascinating text, and I thought it would be nice to focus on those 10 pages as a possibly significant sample of edition for the whole of book VI (at least).

What makes it even more exciting is the recent work (in progress) from specialists of Syriac on a new, very important testimony of the text: a palimpsest of which the inferior script contains a very large part of Galen’s treatise on Simple drugs in the translation of Sergius of Res’haina (conveniently called the Syriac Galen Palimpsest). That very arduous and slow work may not yield any significant results for a while, but it is a promising manuscript, since the Syriac translation largely predates the oldest of our Greek manuscripts… But let me focus here on the Greek side of things.

I suggested last time that the Palatinus graecus 31, from the Vatican Library, would deserve a whole post. Indeed, there is no study available about that manuscript; and why would there be any scholarship on such an ugly manuscript, containing part of Galen’s Simples, and nothing else? The two scribes have equally regular, but inelegant handwritings, roughly datable to the 14th c. The page is densely covered in writing, and there are no illustrations, no attempt at decorating the manuscript. Besides, the original (probably Byzantine) binding is gone. A few clues about early modern owners are scattered here and there, so that the manuscript can be partially traced back in history and potentially connected with an intellectual milieu in the Renaissance (more in my article!). But the names of the scribes, the milieu in which the manuscript was produced, will all remain in the dark.

Another interesting candidate for the ugliest manuscript of the year is a manuscript from Milan that I had not seen in nine years: the Ambrosianus A 81 inf. (I would rather not comment on its ‘cousin’ E 105 sup, equally ugly – a friend became interested in it recently!). When I first wrote on that manuscript (in two papers published in 2009 and 2010), I wasn’t interested in the parts of the text it contains (at this stage I should perhaps make clear that no old or relatively old manuscript contains the whole of Galen’s Simples). But now, I am – because it has the proem of book VI. I bravely spent three days in the Ambrosiana library, abstaining from food and drink in order to collate as much as I could of the manuscript (reproductions being too expensive to buy). This was an even more frustrating experience, as the book is in a terrible state. The pages are damaged by worms, the poor quality paper has absorbed much of the ink, etc. Again, no margins or decorations; and a modern binding that doesn’t give away a single clue on the origin of the manuscript. A codicology expert friend also went to the Ambriosiana recently and kindly had a look at it for me: she was sorry to say that there was not much to gather from what is left… and suggested  that ‘no one is interested in those things’. Ah, well.

Such are the important manuscripts for the edition of Simple Drugs… Without those damaged, broken pieces, there is no text to be reconstructed. And yet, they will probably be the last to be digitised, because too few people are interested, and there are no beautiful paintings to show off.

The last manuscript I wish to share with you is, again, a palimpsest (Plut. 74, 17): but here, Galen’s work is in the superior script, not the inferior – a Jewish religious codex was scraped and recycled into a medical collection, in which we find a fragment of Galen’s Simples (book X, with the end of book IX and the beginning of book XI). You should recognise some characteristics of the above-mentioned books. How ugly is it? I leave you judge for yourselves!

My article will appear later this year, with information on the connections between the Greek manuscripts of Galen’s Simple drugs (book VI and slightly beyond) – it also discusses the relationship of the Greek with the Syriac and Latin translations.

Select bibliography:

S. Bhayro/R. Hawley/G. Kessel/P. E. Pormann, ‘The Syriac Galen Palimpsest: Progress, Prospects and Problems’, Journal of Semitic Studies 58-1, 2013, 131-148

S. Bhayro/S. Brock, ‘The Syriac Galen Palimpsest and the Role of Syriac in the Transmission of Greek Medicine in the Orient’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library vol. 89 Supplement, 2013: Ancient Medical and Healing Systems: Their Legacy to Western Medicine (ed. R. David), pp. 25-43

C. Petit, ‘La tradition manuscrite du traité des Simples de Galien. Editio princeps et traduction annotée des chapitres 1 à 3 du livre I’, in A. Roselli et al. (eds), Histoire de la tradition et édition des médecins grecs, Napoli, 2010, 143-165

C. Petit, ‘Théorie et pratique: connaissance et diffusion du traité des Simples de Galien au Moyen age’, in A. Ferraces Rodríguez (ed.), Fito-zooterapia antigua y altomedieval : textos y doctrinas, La Coruña, 2009, 79-95

C. Sirat, ‘Rouleaux de la Tora antérieurs à l’an Mille’, Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, Nov.-Dec. 1994, p. 861-887