Byzantine medicine, genres, and the ravages of time
By Vivian Nutton
Medical Books in the Byzantine World, edited by Barbara Zipser (Bologna, 2013)
Introduction: Byzantine medicine has never enjoyed an enthusiastic press. Owsei Temkin’s formulation, tradition and empiricism, although accurate, cannot compare with the praise lavished upon the much earlier Galen and, still more, upon Hippocrates, the father of medicine. Although it was adopted by John Scarborough as one of the guiding threads in his introduction to what still remains the only collection of essays dedicated to the medicine of this period, its vagueness does not encourage one to go further, since it could describe almost any medical system. There is also a worrying dichotomy between the views of scholars on the medicine in the Early Byzantine period, dened for convenience as ending with the conquest of Alexandria in 642, and on what followed. Much work has been done on the first period, which has become a focal point for recent research. By contrast, very little is known about medicine in Middle and Late Byzantium, which fits only with difficulty into a narrative of medical progress. A few new technical terms represent a meagre harvest, and even if pious Christians are credited with the invention of the hospital, the extent of that contribution, and its development within Byzantium alone, are both amply contested. It is true, as Stephanos Geroulanos has argued, that all the basic principles of modern surgery can be found in writings preserved in Byzantine manuscripts, and that some of the recommendations included there can only have come from surgeons who had put them into practice. But, at the same time, much of what is found in Paul of Aegina in the sixth century derives from surgeons of the time of Galen, four hundred years previously, if not from Hellenistic Alexandria half a millennium earlier. Preservation and continuity are both good things, but they cannot by themselves show that the practical advice, some of it clearly the result of experience, that could be found in a later book was actually followed.
Even if due allowance is made for the possible practical skills of Late Byzantine doctors and surgeons, they are often presented in ways that are calculated to deter all but the brave. Temkin’s comments are not untypical.
Greek medical manuscripts are replete with shorter or longer texts, badly composed, badly marked as to beginning or end and often transmitted anonymously or under pseudonyms […] We encounter the work [of John the Archiatros] in many manuscripts, usually in such disarray that one cannot help feeling deep sympathy with its future critical editor.