Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.19

Anne Van Arsdall, Timothy Graham (ed.), Herbs and Healers from the Ancient Mediterranean through the Medieval West: Essays in Honor of John M. Riddle. Medicine in the medieval Mediterranean, 4.   Farnham; Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2012.  Pp. xv, 377.  ISBN 9781409400387.  $124.95.  

Reviewed by Courtney Roby, Cornell University (


John Riddle’s work on the history of medicine and pharmacology, which ranges from the ancient to the medieval periods (and somewhat beyond), and from the western to the eastern Mediterranean, and to elsewhere in Europe, presents an unusually challenging subject for a Festschrift. Anne van Arsdall and Timothy Graham have taken on that task sincerely and energetically in preparing Herbs and Healers from the Ancient Mediterranean through the Medieval West: Essays in Honor of John M. Riddle, and the result is a collection of essays that hew closely to the tradition of work Riddle established, even as they encompass territory so broad that the collection occasionally toes the edge of incoherence. Nevertheless, the volume makes plain the profound impact Riddle has had on this discipline, and it is very successful as a celebration of that work.

A resurgence of interest in medieval medicine has made many primary texts readily available for the first time (including critical editions, translations of individual texts, and translated collections like Wallis’s 2010 sourcebook), as well as yielding a rich secondary literature on both the textual and material evidence for medieval medical practices. The “Medicine in the Medieval Mediterranean” series in which this volume appears is one of the more recent additions to this growing corpus, as the first entry in the series was published in 2010. In terms of the chronology and geography it covers, the present volume represents something of a departure from the previous books in the series, which comprise two books on Byzantine Crete and one edition and commentary on an Arabic translation of Galen’s De diebus decretoriis. Herbs and Healers, by contrast, is much more preoccupied than its fellows with the medieval west. Like its fellow series members, however, it is not so much an introduction for beginners as a tool for those with targeted interests to deepen their study.

The eleven essays in this volume are arranged roughly chronologically. Alain Touwaide’s introduction characterizes the ordering as “an itinerary in four stages”: antiquity; the medieval Mediterranean world; the pharmaceutical tradition in later medieval central Europe; and finally a single chapter on the quite modern problem of creating an online database for the Medieval Plant Survey (Portal der Pflanzen des Mittelalters).

It is a testament to the breadth of Riddle’s work that essays in each of these sections draw heavily on his work or reflect it in other ways. Touwaide’s “Quid pro Quo: Revisiting the Practice of Substitution in Ancient Pharmacy” appeals frequently to Riddle’s work on substitutions; this is of course most obvious in its title, a reference to Riddle’s own Quid pro Quo.1 Touwaide goes beyond Riddle’s work on this subject to discuss the combinatorial methodology of substitution in the pseudo-Galenic treatise De succedaneis. This essay includes a detailed appendix charting the Greek names of approved substitutions and equivalences from Galen's text, which promises to be very useful. This essay and Scarborough’s piece on materia medica at the court of Cleopatra are the sole representatives of pharmacology in the ancient world, and so perhaps the most likely to be of interest to readers of BMCR. Scarborough’s chapter combines his typically deeply learned approach to materia medica (including a lengthy excursus on “fish glue,” ichthyokolla) with a vivid yet critical account of how later sources including Plutarch and Galen treated the social history of court physicians. The chapter is informative and a joy to read, though its connection with Riddle’s own work is less obvious.

The next three essays form a coherent set of approaches to transformations of pharmacological texts in the medieval period. Florence Glaze’s work on translation and glossing at Salerno, which centers on Gariopontus of Salerno’s Passionarius but refers as well to more familiar works like the collection known as the Articella and the Constantinian collection Pantegni, will be of interest not only to historians of medicine, but to anyone with a broader interest in the translation of technical terminology or the accretion of new features like interlinear glosses and glossaries to texts in the process of translation and commentary.

The Articella and Pantegni appear as well in Faith Wallis’s study of a twelfth-century commentary to the Liber graduum, a work generally believed to be by Constantine and incorporated into the Pantegni. Wallis argues that the commentary was written by Bartholomaeus of Salerno, perhaps best known for his commentaries on the Articella. She observes that the commentary to the Liber graduum is found alongside his Articella commentaries in all the manuscripts, but that the Liber graduum itself was never acknowledged as a part of the Articella, remaining what Wallis calls a “ghost in the Articella.” Wallis includes an edition of the commentary, collated from the four main manuscripts Ba, Be, Br, and M and including an apparatus criticus, at the end of the chapter.

The Liber graduum recurs in the third of these chapters, where Winston Black examines versifications of Constantine’s work and other herbals. While he focuses on a small group of texts, he takes care to set the discussion within the context not only of the history of versifications of the Liber graduum, but medical verse more generally. Black provides comparative passages from the verse texts, some of which contain only brief intermittent passages drawn from the Liber graduum, while others use it for most of their source material. These comparisons help to clarify some of the most important points Black makes about the complex tradition of translation and transformation, as it involves so many different texts and approaches. Indeed, this topic could easily have made up an entire book, as it already does parts of others (e.g. Schnell and Crossgrove’s 2003 Der Deutsche “Macer”: Vulgatfassung), but Black gives perhaps the best treatment possible at this length. He also includes an appendix listing herbal poems in Latin which are substantially based on Constantine’s work. These are listed alphabetically by the name of the poem or (more often) by the name of the herb referenced, so this appendix will be most useful to those looking for more information on a specific plant. Many of these are available in edited works, but a few are still only available from the manuscripts, though Black has provided folio numbers and incipits to make these as easy to find as possible.

Several of the remaining chapters are connected not so much in terms of common subject matter as in the way they echo and expand on problems addressed in Riddle’s work. Maria D’Aronco’s re-evaluation of the identity of the plant known in Old English herbals as elehtre recalls not only the thorny questions about glossing raised in Glaze’s chapter, but indirectly Riddle’s own work on amber, beginning with his own dissertation.2 Karen Reeds’ examination of sixteenth-century texts on Saint John’s wort, generally referred to as hypericum, gives a plant of particular interest to context in a new historical period.3 The various claims for this plant’s effectiveness made at different times are clearly a subject of longstanding interest for Reeds, and her extensive reference to modern pharmaceutical literature on the topic (unusual in this volume) strongly recalls an approach favored by Riddle. Finally, John Crellin’s chapter on abortifacients offers a chance to reconsider Riddle’s 1997 “Eve’s Herbs,” perhaps his best-known work; Crellis here focuses on a particular eighteenth-century case which figured there as well.

Other chapters have a more tenuous connection to Riddle’s work, though they are certainly interesting in their own right. Linda Voigts’s work on Middle English satirical works on herbal therapies and Gundolf Keil’s study of the Oberschlesische Roger-Aphorismen demonstrate the breadth of possibilities for transforming medical texts into new forms in the medieval period. The book’s final essay is yet more of an outlier, focused as it is on the project of constructing a web-based portal to the Medieval Plant Survey (Portal der Pflanzen des Mittelalters). The speed with which digital humanities projects can evolve means that the long-term utility of this essay will not be so much the description of the project’s current state but the model it can provide for future projects. Klug and Weinberger’s account of the challenges such projects face, such as how to respect the copyright boundaries on manuscript images while enabling the enrichment such images provide, is instructive; so is their application of psychological “activity theory” to analyze usage of knowledge-management tools.

The breadth of topics featured in the essays in this volume has its advantages and disadvantages. The book is for the most part not suitable for entry-level students of ancient or medieval medicine, though it could certainly introduce a casual reader to some of the ongoing debates within this subdiscipline. It will be more useful to those who already have some background in the area and a targeted interest in learning more, for example, about the Constantinian textual tradition over the longue durée. Many of the essays include extra features, like Touwaide’s collection of substitutions or Wallis’s edition of the commentary to the Liber graduum, which will be very useful references; the authors have done a great service by making them newly accessible to interested readers. The book is certainly a fitting tribute to the wide-ranging scholarly interests of Riddle himself, and these essays will open up new corners of the territory for readers who already have some background in ancient or medieval pharmacy.


1.   Riddle, John M. Quid Pro Quo: Studies in the History of Drugs. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 1992.
2.   Riddle, John M. “Amber: An Historical-Etymological Problem,” in Gyles, Mary F, Wallace E. Caldwell, and Eugene W. Davis. Laudatores Temporis Acti: Studies in Memory of Wallace Everett Caldwell, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, by His Friends and Students. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1964; Riddle, John M. “Pomum Ambrae: Amber and Ambergris in Plague Remedies.” Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften. 48.2 (1964): 111-122; Riddle, John M. “Amber in Ancient Pharmacy: the Transmission of Information About a Single Drug: a Case Study.” Pharmacy in History. 15.1 (1973): 3-17.
3.   Riddle, John M. “Historical Data as an Aid in Pharmaceutical Prospecting and Drug Safety Determination [Personal Commentary].” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 5 (1999): 195-201; Riddle, John M. “History as a Tool in Identifying ‘New’ Old Drugs,” in Buslig, Béla S., and John A. Manthey. Flavonoids in Cell Function. New York: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, 2002.

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