Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.05.08

Diethard Nickel (ed.), Galen. Über die Ausformung der Keimlinge (de foetuum formatione). Corpus medicorum graecorum, V 3, 3.   Berlin:  Akademie Verlag, 2001.  Pp. 198.  ISBN 3-05-003691-5.  EUR 99.80.  

Reviewed by Rebecca Flemming, King's College London (
Word count: 907 words

After a lean period of some decades, the German based Corpus Medicorum Graecorum (CMG) has recently taken on a new lease of life. Productivity has not quite returned to its pre-second world war peak, but a pleasingly regular level of publication has been attained once more. The series is again making a major contribution to the important task it originally set itself: of replacing and supplementing the unsatisfactorily uncritical and incomplete (though impressively monumental) nineteenth century editions of the Hippocratic Corpus, the works of Galen, and assorted other Greek medical writers such as Rufus of Ephesus and the commentators of late antique Alexandria, with modern, more methodologically rigorous, versions, produced less for an audience of medical students and practitioners than students of the classical world.1 Indeed, if the contributions to this crucial enterprise are judged, not just by volume, but also by their standards of philological rigour and their production values, the CMG continues to lead the way.

The most recent product from this stable -- Diethard Nickel's edition, with German translation and commentary, of Galen's treatise On the Formation of the Foetus -- bears all the hallmarks of the CMG imprint. It provides an improved Greek text, clearly presented, with full critical apparatus and extensive Galenic cross-references below, and facing translation. Others are in a better position to judge the quality of this rendition into German: as a non-native speaker I found some parts rather less clear, and less close to the Greek, than others, but I hesitate to criticise.2 The extensive commentary that follows expands on the foundations already laid, discussing textual readings and construals in more detail, as well as offering further explication of the content of the work. The aim here (largely successfully accomplished) is essentially to locate specific points and arguments within Galen's wider system of thought, and, beyond that, within classical medical discourse more generally. Substantial indices complete the volume, and add still more to its usefulness.

The treatise itself, written (as N. confirms) towards the end of Galen's long and prestigious career, is short but fascinating, dealing with a number of deeper issues than its title might suggest. It aims to give an account of the development of the embryo in the womb that brings together understandings of the progression from seed to fully formed human foetus based, on the one hand, on medical dissection and observation, and, on the other, on philosophical conceptualisation and theorising; something Galen asserts no one had attempted before. This project is not just epistemologically interesting but also offers considerable insights into ancient debates about the cause and content of embryological formation: about what initiates, drives and governs the developmental process, and the order and physical detail of that process itself. While Galen claims to have definitively resolved some of these latter arguments (though this resolution famously involves his only admission of previous error), his causal conclusions are rather more limited. A lengthy review of the various possibilities is ultimately aporetic. The causal entity must possess a vast amount of skill and wisdom, capability and design, and needs the opportunity to put these qualities into action in living things, but beyond that there is no certainty, not even probability, in respect to its actual identity.

The text is based on systematic study of both the manuscript tradition and of previous editorial (and Latin translation) activities, as well as a general familiarity with Galen's oeuvre and specific knowledge of his thinking and writing on reproductive matters: N.'s edition of the short anatomical treatise by Galen On the Dissection of the Uterus appeared in the CMG series in 1971. These matters are all clearly set out in the introductory sections of this volume, together with brief discussions of the (unquestioned) authenticity and late date of the work, its language and style, and a summary of the contents; they also feed into the commentary.

Indeed, if there is a real criticism of this volume to be made, it would be that the commentary does not move much beyond these matters. The coverage is effective, but distinctly circumscribed. There is, of course, a lively ongoing debate about modern exegetical practice, about the functions of commentary and how best to fulfil them; scholarly agendas vary and cannot all be exhaustively catered for. It is none the less reasonable to expect an editor/commentator to keep the breadth of their potential audience's interests, the full range of issues the text raises, in mind; to provide at least some passing recognition of the different debates the work may contribute to, and some bibliographic indication of how those debates can be pursued. N.'s commentary, on the other hand, seems reluctant to acknowledge this kind of plurality, giving short shrift to, for example, some of the philosophical dimensions of the treatise (its epistemological ramifications for example), and ignoring the possibility of a readership that might wish to enquire into the role of gender in ancient understandings of human reproduction. These omissions are rendered more surprisingly by the recent growth in scholarly interest, as evinced by considerable publication, in both areas; the bibliography follows the commentary in its limitation, however.

Even those who are not served as well as they might like by the commentary will, however, welcome this publication, and use N's edition in future. They will probably not be able to buy their own copy--the philological rigour and high production values of the Corpus certainly do not come cheap--but all libraries should stock it.


1.   The key editions here are Emil Littré, Oeuvres Complètes d'Hippocrate 10 vols. (Paris, 1839-61) and Karl Gottlob Kühn, Galeni Opera Omnia 22 vols. (Leipzig, 1821-3).
2.   An English translation of the work by Peter Singer is included in his collection Galen: Selected Works (Oxford, 1997), 177-201.

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