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Looking to the future

April 14, 2011

By Vivian Nutton. Professor Nutton is a world authority on Galen and has greatly influenced the study of ancient medicine. To mark his retirement, he reflects on how the field has developed and on changes yet to come. In Wellcome History issue 46 (spring 2011), colleagues share their assessments of the man and his work.

Vivian Nutton and Galen

Left: Vivian Nutton speaking at a seminar. Right: portrait by J Faber (after P P Rubens) of an antique marble bust of Galen. Wellcome Library

In 1962, in my first undergraduate essay, I declared that, except for papyri, new discoveries of classical texts were now unlikely. My supervisor, Geoffrey Lloyd, commented in the margin: “except for medicine”.

Like most students, I suspect, I took little notice of that correction – until I came across it again when clearing out some old papers 30 years later. Nor did I realise that my supervisor was at the very forefront of new developments in the study of ancient science that would radically alter classicists’ perceptions of an area that long continued to be regarded as eccentric. Even in 1979, when I organised the first ever conference on Galen, those present – who included almost anyone from anywhere in the world with an interest in him – could easily fit into a smallish lecture room. Today, all this has changed, and one can hardly keep up with the variety of essays and books being produced on the subject, and texts forgotten for centuries are being made available for almost the first time since they were written.

One catalyst was the realisation by philosophers that ancient writers of medicine and science had valuable things to say, and that those who came after Hippocrates and Aristotle, and especially Galen, were independent thinkers of considerable merit. Feminists also discovered ancient medicine, particularly Hippocratic gynaecology and the much later Soranus. Metrodora, whoever she (or he) was, and Mustio enjoyed a reputation that had not been theirs for centuries. Historians, of whom I was one, took a little longer to appreciate the abundance of information in ancient medicine texts; demographers were to the fore. Doctors, too, started to see that Galen was neither the fool nor the obstacle to progress that traditional judgements had suggested.

Experts on Greek and Latin also began to hold regular conferences to discuss the problems of editing authors whose writings, even if printed, had never been properly edited. When in 1979 I published my first edition of a Galenic text, I made many errors, simply because this was pioneer work, clearing the way for others to follow. Hippocratic editors, too, were still establishing the guidelines that today’s editors now take almost for granted. Latinists also discovered that the Latin of surviving medical texts, many written after 300 CE, was far from being as barbaric as had once been claimed, and that it revealed a vibrant intellectual world that had been previously unsuspected by those whose concerns for purity of language had restricted their gaze to a few earlier centuries.

New texts have been constantly turning up from libraries far and wide, some in Greek (including a spectacular find in Thessalonica), some in the original Latin, but more often in a variety of translations into Syriac, Arabic, Hebrew and medieval Latin. They include Galen’s medico-philosophical autobiography, first edited in part from translations but recently revealed entire in its original Greek, and his complete bibliographical treatises, forgotten medical handbooks and even a missing sentence from the Hippocratic Oath (although few now believe it to be by Hippocrates himself). The recently retrieved Avoiding Distress is not just a major contribution to ancient medicine and to Galen’s biography, but the most important work on culture in Rome to have been published since the Renaissance. This proliferation of new texts has revealed two things: first, the great variety of medical ideas and practices in Antiquity, and secondly, the continuation of learned debates and discussions well down into what had been considered the Dark Ages or the scholastic Middle Ages.

Vivian Nutton

Vivian Nutton with an edition from 1500 of Galens Therapeutica/Therapeutica ad Glauconem. Wellcome Library

All this is now discussed in conferences worldwide, by young students as well as by greybeards, and by scholars whose interests range from texts to archaeology, and from demonstrative logic to animal dissection. We now know more than we did even ten years ago about Hellenistic medicine and about the ways in which Galen’s personal experimentalism developed in Late Antiquity into a more didactic Galenism. With so much new material, ancient medicine seems likely to flourish for a few years yet.

But there are clouds forming. The growing interest in Arabic and the opening up of major Arabic collections will certainly provide new texts in translation, but it may not balance a decline in a competent knowledge of Greek and Latin, particularly at school and university, which is already having its effect. This is being felt most strongly in medieval and Renaissance studies, where few can now read with ease the high academic Latin that was for centuries the European lingua franca, and where attention is thus overwhelmingly focused on material in translation or in the vernacular original. Once-familiar names such as Bernard of Gordon or Matteo Corti are now forgotten because their works exist only in Latin, and, what is worse, sometimes only in manuscript.

Instead, we are going to rely more and more on translations into English. (Non-English studies, including even the excellent French translations in the Budé series, remain largely unread on the shelves of Anglophone libraries, to the detriment of Anglophone scholarship.) Some of my concerns will be addressed in a new Cambridge series of English translations, sponsored initially by the Wellcome Trust, which from 2011 will include many works by Galen never previously translated into any European language. It is debatable whether this will entirely replace the hard editorial and manuscript work that, over the last two decades, has produced so much fruit, but it is likely to attract others with different skills who will lead the study of ancient medicine in new and fascinating directions.

As the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner said on the completion of his The Buildings of England, readers should not just concentrate on what has been achieved: they should look forward eagerly to its revision.

Professor Vivian Nutton is Fellow of the British Academy and Professor Emeritus, UCL.

In Wellcome History issue 46 (spring 2011), Professor Nutton’s colleagues share their assessments of the man and his work.

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