Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.03.18

Paul T. Keyser, review of John M. Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge, MA/London 1992), BMCR 4.4 (1993) 291-294. [= e-BMCR 04.04.08]

Response by Brent Vine, Princeton University.

In his informative and stimulating review of what does indeed sound like a "work of great importance", P. Keyser comments, in the following terms, on Riddle's "conspicuous omission" (Riddle's own acknowledgment) of information about China and India: "the texts are very difficult of access (the Indian "herbal" Charaka Samhita, so far as I know, is available in English only in a privately-published, unindexed version by A.Ch. Kaviratna: Calcutta 1897-1912)" (BMCR 4.4 [1993] 293). The following brief reaction -- which focuses on ancient India -- is offered in the spirit of fostering the kind of interdisciplinary approach that seems fundamental to studies such as Riddle's and to their proper evaluation.

Keyser's general point, at least with respect to ancient India,1 could have been strengthened: a book that purports to discuss its subject "from the Ancient World", and which does not take into account the voluminous ancient Indian medical writings, is at best mistitled. Whether or not the texts themselves are "difficult of access" (more on which shortly), Riddle could have consulted any number of readily-available secondary works in this well-studied field, ranging from earlier treatments like H. Zimmer's Hindu Medicine (Baltimore 1948) and J. Filliozat's La Doctrine classique de la médecine indienne (Paris 1949), to handbooks like P. Kutumbiah's Ancient Indian Medicine (Madras 1962, rev. ed. 1969, repr. 1974), and more recent studies such as those of K. Zysk, including Religious Healing in the Veda (Philadelphia 1985) and Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery (New York/Oxford 1991).2 Many of these works -- while not, of course, exclusively concerned with contraception and abortion -- are well-indexed, and would have provided Riddle with useful data (even if only of a negative sort, as Riddle found in his summary treatment of the Chinese evidence), at least for the purpose of preliminary comparisons.3

Even the briefest perusal of such works, moreover, would reveal that Keyser's information about the primary texts is inaccurate and misleading. In partial exoneration of Riddle's omission, Keyser cites only the "Charaka Samhita"4 (ignoring, incident ally, numerous other relevant texts5) as an example of a text that is "difficult of access" (cf. above).6 Keyser, to be sure, properly qualifies his statement ("so far as I know") about the alleged inaccessibility of this text; in fact, Zysk's bibliography in Religious Healing cites published English translations of the Caraka Samhita dating from 1949 and from 1976-7,7 and the bibliography of his Asceticism and Healing adds the three-volume edition (with translation) dating from 1981-1985.8 If one cannot reasonably expect all synoptic historians of "ancient medicine" to be conversant with Sanskrit (a debatable point, in my view), one at least hopes that steps will be taken -- in works like Riddle's (and, ideally, in reviews like Keyser's) -- to assess the nature of the field with some precision on the basis of available resources in English and other modern languages. In this brave new world of electronic access and vast databases, there is sometimes no substitute for a bit of time spent with a card catalogue, or in the stacks, or in consultation with a specialist outside one's immediate areas of expertise.


  • [1] Riddle in fact engages a few Chinese sources for several paragraphs (p. 154), but has almost nothing to say about Indian practice, and refers to no ancient Indian source material.
  • [2] Most recently, K. Zysk, "The Science of Respiration and the Doctrine of the Bodily Winds in Ancient India", JAOS 113.2 (1993) 198-213.
  • [3] Thus, for the Vedic period, see Zysk Religious Healing 51ff., 167f., 170 on abortion and miscarriage; for later periods, e.g. Kutumbiah 189ff.
  • [4] Sic; the antiquated transcription "Charaka" is itself potentially troublesome; properly "Caraka Samhita", "Caraka-Samhita", or "Carakasamhita".
  • [5] Especially the works attributed to Susruta (the standard English translations of which are extraordinarily well-indexed, see e.g. that of K. Bhishagratna [Varanasi, 2nd ed. 1963, 3 vols.]), cf. fn. 7 and 8 below.
  • [6] The translation of the Caraka Samhita to which Keyser refers with a date "1897-1912" is recorded by Zysk, with fuller bibliographical detail (including a co-author not named by Keyser), as "1890-1925".
  • [7] H. Sigerist's standard source A History of Medicine, v. 2: Early Greek, Hindu, and Persian Medicine (Oxford 1961; not in Riddle's bibliography) cites from the 1949 translation of the Caraka Samhita (183n2), and Sigerist is also well-informed about the Susruta Samhita.
  • [8] P. V. Sharma (ed., trans.), Caraka-Samhita: Agnivesa's Treatise Refined and Annotated by Caraka and Redacted by Drdhabala, 3 vols. (Jaikrishnadas Ayurveda Series, 36.1-3; Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia, 1981/1983/1985). The philosophical background of the Caraka Samhita is studied by A. Comba in Studies on Indian Medical History (ed. G. Jan Meulenbeld and D. Wujastyk; Groningen 1987) 43ff., and the first co-editor of that volume explores basic concepts of Indian pharmacology (including both Caraka and Susruta), 1ff.