Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.20

Louise C. Youtie, P. Michigan XVII, The Michigan Medical Codex (P. Mich. 758 = P. Mich. Inv. 21). American Studies in Papyrology, volume 35. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996. Pp. xxv + 87, 13 plates, indices. ISBN 0-7885-0276-X.

Reviewed by Dominic Montserrat, Department of Classics, University of Warwick,

This volume is an edition, with translations and extensive commentaries, of a fragmentary medical book copied on papyrus in Egypt in the fourth century CE. Thirteen leaves or twenty-six pages survive, containing recipes for medications for a wide variety of ailments, mostly ulcers and sores. The edition, by one of the doyennes of American papyrology, has its genesis in a series of articles she published in the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik between 1986 and 1987. Here the individual editions of the papyrus fragments are republished together, prefaced with an introduction (pp i-xxv) by Ann Hanson locating them in the broader context of both medical papyrology and the history of Graeco-Roman medicine.

From the beginning of the text edition, it is clear that Louise Youtie's work is a concise and elegant piece of scholarship which will be of lasting importance to papyrologists, historians of medicine, and those interested in the body in antiquity. As Hanson points out in her introduction, the Michigan medical codex is a document of exceptional interest on a number of counts. What struck this reviewer most forcefully is its status as a living text. Youtie comes to the conclusion that the codex itself was probably a private commission, copied by a scribe for a practicing physician, who sometimes added his own comments on treatments and corrected the copyist's numerous mistakes in the main body of the text. These adaptations can give a fascinating sidelight onto the working methods of medical practitioners in the late Roman empire, especially regarding how technical manuals were used. For instance, following a recipe for a plaster or salve for a skin complaint containing hyssop, the doctor seems to add, in his own handwriting, a report of his experiences with applying a medication intended to ease the pain of impacted bowels or constipation (pp 59-60). Such marginalia and corrections suggest that the Michigan medical codex was something regularly consulted, used and even updated by its owner in the course of his professional life. Papyrologists often forget that the texts they edit have specific, sometimes even reconstructible, conditions of production and use in which we can see the reflections of ancient individuals. A central project of the so-called post-processual school of archaeological interpretation has been a practical concern with existing monuments (present particularly in historical archaeology) where one can identify "real people" and relate them to traces in the archaeological record. Papyri are archaeological artefacts as well as being historical documents (another thing often ignored by papyrologists), and can be legitimately subjected to the hermeneutic approach suggested by archaeological theorists. It is good to see how the importance of context in Youtie's edition and commentaries implicitly reminds us of this.

Another point of importance about the codex is its relationship to other ancient medical texts, both vernacular and canonical. From what remains of the text it is impossible to establish whether the scribe was commissioned to produce a unique individual work by selecting recipes from a series of other authors or, which seems more probable, that he was copying directly from an existing exemplar. Whatever the original source, the fragments illustrate clearly how an individual recipe for a medication has a remarkable ability to preserve its textual integrity in spite of being repeatedly excerpted and copied --an integrity rendered even more remarkable when the responsive nature of the text to particular circumstances and situations is considered. This validity of the recipe as a text in its own right can be very useful in reconstructing damaged sections of the codex, as Youtie shows adroitly. For instance, an extremely damaged and lacunose section (Inv. 21 F verso, pp. 52-55) originally gave instructions for distilling the juice of date-palm wood and adding it to a medical preparation called phoinikine. It would have been difficult to make much sense of these lines of the codex had not parallel recipes for this process existed in Galen, Oribasius and Aetius of Amida. Youtie's commentaries discuss in considerable detail the other occurrences of the Michigan papyrus' recipes in the canonical medical writers. She shows that the codex was produced within the mainstream of medical and pharmacological knowledge, and that even in the provincial towns of Egypt, sophisticated treatments were available, comparable with those found in the major cities of the empire. The works of the principal pharmacologists, such as Heras of Cappadocia, were known to the owner of the codex in some form, perhaps from a medical library, as Hanson suggests in her introduction (xvii) or through circulating copies or excerpts. The fact that the owner-physician added his own recipes and observations to the bottom margins of the text again implies something about medical working practices in the fourth century CE. Physicians must have produced prescription catalogues by a mixture of copying earlier authorities and adding useful prescriptions that they had collected in the course of their work.

One matter that this reviewer would like to have seen addressed somewhere in the introduction or commentaries is the Michigan papyrus' status as part of the history of Egyptian medicine, rather than as part of the history of medicine in Egypt. Perhaps it is the very relationship between the codex's prescriptions and those found in the Greek medical writers that has led to this question being largely ignored: Youtie's commentaries always relate the recipes to their parallels in Galen and the later compendiasts Oribasius, Aetius of Amida and Paulus of Aegina. But what connections did these have with the indigenous medical traditions of Egypt? It would seem to me that an edition of an Egyptian pharmacological work such as the Michigan codex should at least consider this question. Ann Hanson, who wrote the introduction to Youtie's commentaries, has herself noted that "Greek pharmacology and its pharmacopoeia often resemble Egyptian antecedents. In some instances the debt may be a direct one: a strong case has recently been made for interaction and sharing between Egyptian herbal and medicinal information collected in temple libraries (with perhaps Memphis as ultimate source) and the works of Greek herbalists of Alexandria in the Ptolemaic and early Roman period."1 True, medical papyri in Egyptian are not the most tractable of texts, published editions of them are often difficult to use, and establishing a direct line of succession between Greek medicine and Egyptian antecedents is problematic, to say the least; but in a work like Youtie's which pays such attention to context, it is sad to see the medical traditions of the text's place of origin receiving so little attention.

Finally, some minor matters of presentation. When Youtie's original editions of the codex in ZPE were scanned to produce the copy for this book, the opportunity should have been taken to correct some mistakes. These are mostly typographical errors in the commentaries, but they are nonetheless quite numerous and detract irritatingly from the otherwise high quality of the publication. Some random errata noted by me are: "leichen" for "lichen" (30), "duCang" for "du Cange" (45), "erruptions" for "eruptions" (60) and "seive" for "sieve" (63). Also, to make the republications of these originally discrete editions more user-friendly, some cross-references might have been added into the margins, much as was done with the collected Kleinschriften of Youtie's late husband when they were published as the various volumes of Scriptiunculae. But all these are minor cavils at what is really a prodigious work of scholarship. Youtie has produced a scrupulous edition of an extremely demanding text, and solves convincingly many difficulties of reading and historical interpretation.  


1. A. E. Hanson, "Papyri of Medical Content," YCS 28 (1985) 27.