Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.09.27

Philippe Mudry, Medicina soror philosophiae. Regards sur la littérature et les textes médicaux antiques (1975-2005). Réunis et édités par Brigitte Maire.   Lausanne:  Editions BHMS, 2006.  Pp. 542.  ISBN 2-9700536-0-8.  €32.00.  



Reviewed by Vivian Nutton, The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL (v.nutton @ucl.ac.uk)
Word count: 1385 words

Philippe Mudry, who retired in 2004 from the chair of Latin at Lausanne, which he held for over twenty years, well deserves the tribute of this volume of his collected papers. Always elegant and charming, he has delighted his friends by his wit and learning, even as they have regretted their inability to consult some of his academic publications hidden in local journals or lost within the confines of the acts of distant conferences. They will therefore rejoice in having them brought together in an accessible form, so that they can gain a wider view of a man who could, like his hero Celsus, be termed a medicus amicus.

Mudry is best known for his work on ancient medicine, and particularly for his edition of, and commentary on, the Preface to Celsus' De medicina, Geneva 1982, which ranges far more widely than its title suggests. He was also, along with his friends Jackie Pigeaud and Innocenzo Mazzini, instrumental in founding the triennial series of conferences devoted to Latin medical texts, which has done much to stimulate interest in both medicine and Latin during the Later Roman Empire. He has been jointly responsible for editing the acts of several of these conferences, as well as those of the 1981 Colloque hippocratique, held at Lausanne. Many of these essays also show how active he has been in promoting the study of classics in Switzerland, as well as in collaborating with historians of medicine in Geneva and Lausanne.

The re-publication of essays written over a span of thirty years presents tricky problems of perspective, not least when they are organised in reverse chronological order, beginning with the most recent. It is difficult now, when faced with an ever-growing interest in ancient medicine from classicists around the world and with an abundance of editions, conference proceedings, and monographs, to imagine how different things were when Mudry began his academic career. Many of the technical aids today's researchers take for granted had not been invented, many editions were hard to locate, and many basic guidelines had yet to be established. Historical accounts of ancient medicine were often little more than jejune antiquarianism, based on a few well-known texts and often sharing the prejudices of the Elder Cato and Pliny the Elder. A valiant handful of specialists, often working in isolation, devoted their attention to classical Greek medicine, and the Colloques hippocratiques had only just begun. How far we have come can be judged from the increasing sophistication in Mudry's own publications, as well as by their more extensive bibliographies.

To devote one's scholarly career mainly to the elucidation of medicine in Rome required then enormous courage, for it was almost universally acknowledged that after the heady days of early Alexandria medicine had entered on a swift decline, degenerating into charlatanry (exemplified by Greek doctors in Rome, especially the Methodists), pedantry (Galen), and sterile ignorance (the compilers of Late Antiquity). The feminist interest in matters gynaecological drew attention to Soranus and a few texts in the Hippocratic Corpus but left Latin medicine untouched, for it dealt only rarely with specifically female maladies. The skewed chronological distribution of surviving Latin medical texts, most of which postdate 350 A.D., only added to the problem, for a professor whose duty was to teach the best classical Latin was unlikely to be attracted to Caelius Aurelianus or ps. Apuleius. The four relevant texts from the late Republic and Early Empire, Cato's De agricultura, Celsus' De medicina, Pliny's Historia naturalis, and Scribonius Largus' Compositiones, were, for a variety of reasons, left unstudied, or at best ransacked for the information they could provide about their earlier Greek predecessors.

Philippe Mudry's achievement has been to change this perspective, not least by placing Celsus centre stage. Many of his essays invite us to consider Celsus for himself, not just as a repository of earlier learning, but as an intelligent, shrewd and practical adviser, a Latin stylist but also a man of practical ambition. The standard dichotomies of the early Mudry are now replaced by a much fuller and richer understanding of medical life in the Roman world. The city of Rome presented a very different medical, social, and intellectual world from that of earlier Greece. Life in the mega-city, with its own problems of hygiene and illness, challenged ancient doctors as well as modern medical historians. Mudry demolished the notion that Roman practitioners were content merely to parrot (in inadequate translation) hackneyed ideas that had been present centuries earlier in Greece by showing how Celsus in particular modified the best of earlier therapies to take into account a new social situation. He even had a good word to say about the Elder Pliny, whose moralising account of contemporary Roman medicine exercised a baleful influence for centuries.

At the bottom of Mudry's interest in Celsus lies a fine discrimination for the Latin language. This is most obvious in the essays that deal with the meaning and use of specific words, but almost every paper shows the results of a close engagement with the text and with Mudry's own determination to tease out precise meanings, a valuable corrective to those who rely mainly or entirely on the translations of others. He invites us to consider the words used for disease, not just in medical texts but in their wider employment by a range of Latin authors. (He says little about Greek, and more about Hippocrates than Galen or Rufus, perhaps wisely, but the Greek epigrammatists of the Roman period are worth studying for what they can tell us about Martial, another of Mudry's favourite authors, and one should never forget that Imperial Rome, and much of Italy, was a bilingual, even multi-lingual society.)

Words, as he himself says, p. 8, are rarely innocent. They often reveal the prejudices of their author, or of a wider social group. The history of language can become the history of ethics. This shift is most evident in Mudry's own writings over the last fifteen years, and constitute his most individual voice. Historians of medical ethics have quoted (usually wrongly) the Hippocratic Oath, and passed quickly on to more contemporary concerns. Where they have looked at ethics in Galen or Rufus of Ephesus, they have taken the doctors' own affirmations at face value. Mudry challenges this view in two ways. He seeks to understand the wider context of the ethical terms used by doctors, by comparing, say, Scribonius Largus' remarkable Preface with Roman ethical writers, and, secondly, by setting these ethical considerations with the constraints of ancient medical practice. He seeks to investigate the overlapping and changing connotations of `misericordia', or of Hippocratic ethics, against a broad background that includes Christian as well as pagan texts. Medical knowledge, as he knows from his links with contemporary doctors, is not just about the application of appropriate therapies. It involves a whole range of skills, from the evaluation of evidence to the choice of words with which to address a patient. Celsus and Scribonius have much to say about this, but so do some of the less familiar authors from Late Antiquity, such as Caelius Aurelianus. The way in which Celsus and Caelius write their treatises reveals much about their moral ideas.

This is the theme of the final essay in the volume, Mudry's 2004 valedictory lecture as professor of Latin. It treats a familiar topic, the Roman assimilation of matters Greek, and uses many familiar texts, from Cato and Pliny to Horace and Juvenal. But it stresses the importance of wider ethical values, as well as the achievements of Romans in coming to terms with what, for many, were antipathetic ideas on almost everything. Surprisingly, Celsus is not mentioned in this essay, although Celsan influence can be easily detected, but instead Mudry seeks to engage our sympathy with those Romans engaged in a struggle to retain what they thought was the essence of Romanitas. It is a dilemma in today's global world not confined to the ancient Romans, or the Swiss.

This volume will be a welcome addition to the shelves of all interested in ancient medicine, not just because of the previous inaccessibility of some of its contents but because of its reminder of a very distinctive, attractive, and humane (one of Mudry's favourite words) voice. May it continue to be heard for many years to come.

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