Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.04.15

Luc Brisson, Marie-Hélène Congourdeau, Jean-Luc Solère (ed.), L'Embryon: formation et animation. Antiquité grecque et latine, traditions hèbraïque, chrétienne et islamique. Histoire des doctrines de l'Antiquité classique 38.   Paris:  Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 2008.  Pp. 290.  ISBN 9782711619573.  €32.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, The Netherlands (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Ever since Erna Lesky published her classic work Die Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren der Antike und ihr Nachwirken in 1951, ancient embryological theories have remained on the agenda of historians of ancient medicine, but a comprehensive new work on the scale of Lesky's has not been published so far. For that reason it is good to have a volume in which one finds assembled a number of important essays in which developments in research since Lesky are presented.

The volume to be reviewed here contains the papers read at a conference on ancient and medieval embryology in Paris in 2005. In the opening essay, Jacques Jouanna discusses three short embryological treatises from late antiquity (two pseudo-Hippocratic, one by Alexander the Sophist) that have come to light only recently. He demonstrates among other things that these treatises often are nothing but excerpts from works in the Hippocratic corpus, but also that in one of them one finds a novel combination of a non-Hippocratic single-seed embryology with the doctrine of the four humors and their corresponding characters. In an appendix, Jouanna presents critical editions of the pseudo-Hippocratic On the Generation of Man and on Seed and of Alexander the Sophist's On the Generation of Man (the other pseudo-Hippocratic tract, On the formation of Man, had already been published by him in 2006).

Next Pierre-Marie Morel discusses the reasons why Aristotle formulates his embryological theory in constant opposition to Democritus. For instance, Democritus' pangenesis doctrine clashes with Aristotle's teleology: "La doctrine de la pangenesis ne permet pas de comprendre la véritable nature de la semence comme possédant les parties en puissance, car ses tenants semblent croire que le corps est présent en acte dans la semence. (...) La doctrine de Démocrite est incapable d'appliquer à l'embryologie la nécessaire distinction de la puissance et de l'acte" (55-56). And Democritus' epikrateia principle assumes a much too active role of the female contribution to the formation of the embryo.

In the third chapter, Jean-Baptiste Gourinat deals with Stoic theories of the animation of the embryo. The Stoa holds that the embryo does not have a soul but is rather (like) a plant (with a 'vegetative' breath). However, "à partir de la naissance, la nature cède la place à l'âme" (69) because by its sudden confrontation with cold air the vegetative breath is transformed into a real soul (Note the etymological wordplay psyche-psychros). This sudden transformation, however, is prepared slowly during pregnancy because the seed contains "des caractères psychiques héréditaires."

In the next chapter, Véronique Boudon-Millot discusses Galen's theory of the origins of life. She first reviews the widely differing views of his predecessors (Empedocles, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics) and pays attention to the almost insoluble translation problems as far as terms like Greek kuêma (embryo) and embruon (foetus) are concerned. She finally argues that in Galen's (and others') view an embryo does have life from the beginning but that is a form of life 'in potency' that only gradually develops into life in the full sense of the word. Stages in that development are, e.g., the beginning of heartbeat and of movements, and the final stage is of course breathing that is only reached at birth.

In the only essay in English, Ann Ellis Hanson deals with the same topic, which she calls 'the gradualist view of fetal development,' but her treatment ranges wider and surveys an impressive number of texts that advocate the idea of a 'gradual animation' of the embryo. Fascinating is her brief treatment of magical amulets to induce a quick and easy birth (ôkytokia) in which the fetus is sometimes addressed and thus is supposed to be able to hear the spell.

Véronique Dasen contributes a fascinating chapter about twins and focuses on the debate about astrology, because the latter has often been discredited on the basis of the argument that twins never have an identical fate (see, e.g., Sextus Empiricus, Adv. Math.).

Next, Tiziano Dorandi discusses the textual history of Ad Gaurum, a work formerly attributed to Galen, but since Kalbfleisch's edition of 1895 to Porphyry. This important treatise is wholly dedicated to the question of how an embryo is ensouled, but has been preserved in only one manuscript. Dorandi traces the indirect tradition of the text in the form of quotations and paraphrases in later authors such as John Philoponus and Michael Psellus and assesses their value as textual witnesses.

Gwenaëlle Aubry also focuses on Ad Gaurum but deals only with its concept of epitêdeiotês: the embryo is said to be a plant in actu but also a living being in potency kat' epitêdeiotêta, which she translates by 'according to receptivity.' "Si l'on peut, selon Porphyre, dire de l'embryon qu'il est animal en-puissance, c'est donc en un tout autre sens que celui qu' entend Aristote: ce n'est pas parce qu'il serait capable, déja comme embryon, et à un certain stade de son evolution, de developper par lui-même les facultés distinctives de l'animal, mais parce qu'il est, à la naissance, et à terme seulement, apte à recevoir l'âme animal" (155).

The next contribution, by Bernard Pouderon, is about Aristotle's influence on the embryological theories of the early Church Fathers (Justin, Theophilus, Athenagoras, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, etc.). He demonstrates that a single-seed theory (Aristotle) much better fitted in with the christological and mariological interests of these Fathers than a double-seed theory (Hippocrates, Galen) which assumed an active role and important contribution of women in the embryogenesis. He also shows the consequences of the Aristotelian and other influences for the patristic views on abortion and resurrection. It is strange that twice Pouderon says that the biblical Paradise story figures in the book of Exodus.

Marie-Hélène Congourdeau, too, like Dorandi, deals with the Byzantine reception history of Porphyry's Ad Gaurum, especially in John Philoponus (who uses it as one of his sources for opposite arguments), Michael Psellus (who by and large agrees with Porphyry), and the 14th century anonymous author of Hermippus sive de astrologia (who combats Porphyry's embryological ideas). There is some overlap with Dorandi's piece here, but only to a limited degree, for Congourdeau is more interested in the Byzantines' philosophical argumentation than in their value for textual criticism.

In the last four contributions we move outside the world of classical antiquity. Etienne Lepicard deals with the rabbinic literature of late antiquity. In this Jewish literary corpus, one will look in vain for a systematic treatise comparable to Ad Gaurum or De generatione animalium, but some of the topics raised in the Greek medico-philosophical writings on embryology are nevertheless broached in passing in rabbinic debates on religious law. It is regrettable that Lepicard does not address those rabbinic passages where one finds unmistakable influence of the Greek debates on the question of whether only males or also females produce seed and where one can see that some rabbis even developed their own variant of a double-seed theory.1

Carmela Baffioni describes how via Arabic translations of works of Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen, a wide variety of Greek embryological theories (including the theory of female sperm) came to the notice of Islamic scholars who adopted and modified them in the light of their religious convictions. For instance, Averroes and Avicenna created their own adaptations of Aristotle's embryology, while others relied more upon Hippocrates and Galen.

Maike van der Lugt discusses the questions concerning the ensoulment of the embryo according to Christian Medieval authors. She focuses on the 12th and 13th centuries and traces some of the important developments in this medieval discourse, against the background of ancient Graeco-Roman theories.

Finally, Jean-Claude Dupont shows how in the 17th and 18th centuries the embryological debate moves from the philosophico-theological field to that of biology, with special attention for the pioneering work of Caspar Friedrich Wolff.

This is an interesting collection of essays most of which deal competently with major aspects of ancient and medieval embryology. Anyone interested in new developments in the research of ancient embryologies since Lesky can ignore this volume only to one's detriment. What is lacking in it, however, is a treatment of the ancient debate on the (non-)viability of seven-months' and eight-months' embryos, a discussion of biblical data, however scarce these may be (see Leviticus 12:1 and Hebrews 11:11), and a survey of the relevant material in post-biblical Jewish literature (Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Philo). The book is concluded with indexes of ancient texts, authors, and subjects.

Table of Contents:

J. Jouanna, La postérité de l'embryologie d'Hippocrate dans deux traités pseudo-hippocratiques de la médecine tardive
P.-M. Morel, Aristote contre Démocrite: Sur l'embryon
J.-B. Gourinat, L'embryon végétatif et la formation de l'âme selon les Stoïciens
V. Boudon-Millot, La naissance de la vie dans la théorie médicale et philosophique de Galien
A.E. Hanson, The gradualist view of fetal development
V. Dasen, Naïtre jumeaux: un destin ou deux?
T. Dorandi, Pour une histoire du texte du traité Ad Gaurum attribué à Galien
Gwenaëlle Aubry, Capacité et convenance: la notion d'epitêdeiotês dans la théorie porphyrienne de l'embryon
B. Pouderon, L'influence d'Aristote dans la doctrine de la procreation des premiers Pères et ses implications théologiques
M.-H. Congourdeau, La postérité Byzantine de l'Ad Gaurum
E. Lepicard, L'embryon dans la literature rabbinique ancienne
C. Baffioni, L'embryologie islamique entre héritage grec et Coran
M. van der Lugt, L'animation de l'embryon humain dans la pensée médiévale
J.-C. Dupont, Un autre embryon? Quelques relectures classiques de l'embryologie antique


1.   See P.W. van der Horst, "Sarah's Seminal Emission: Hebrews 11:11 in the Light of Ancient Embryology," in D.L. Balch, E. Ferguson & W.A. Meeks (eds.), Greeks, Romans, and Christians: Essays in Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 287-302.

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