Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.02.49 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.02.49

Elizabeth M. Craik, The 'Hippocratic' Corpus: Content and Context.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2015.  Pp. xxxvi, 307.  ISBN 9781138021716.  $49.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Katherine D. van Schaik, Harvard University (


The ‘Hippocratic Question’ – which works of those traditionally attributed to Hippocrates were written by the same author – has been answered differently by successive generations of scholars. In the 20th century alone, Edelstein, Lloyd, and Jouanna, among others, have all approached the question and its answers differently.1 Elizabeth Craik’s book, The ‘Hippocratic’ Corpus: Content and Context, contributes to this ongoing dialogue by reframing the question and the content that is used to answer it. She addresses her approach to the Hippocratic Question in her comments about enclosing ‘Hippocratic’ in quotation marks in her title. In the first paragraph of her preface she writes, “the use of inverted commas (‘Hippocratic’) is intended to indicate that none of these very numerous and highly diverse texts can be definitely associated with the historical Hippocrates, though he did live in the classical period when most of them were written” (ix). She explains that, through this book, she aims to create simultaneously a “general introduction” and a “reference work” (ix).

In the main body of her book, each work of the Corpus (or, in some cases, a related group of works) is presented with an individual summary, comment, contextual analysis, a suggested date of composition, and the endnotes for the sources to which she has referred in her discussion of that work or group of works. Craik notes in the Introduction that Appendix 3 of Jouanna’s Hippocrates informed how she presents each text: her book has expanded and elaborated upon Jouanna’s method of arranging information. Most treatises are considered individually in one of the fifty-one chapters, with the exception of texts that are strongly related in content. For example, one chapter is devoted to Epidemics 1-7, though distinctions among the seven books are explicitly maintained. She does not combine Diseases 1-4 into a single linked unit, instead separating the books into four discrete chapters, and both On the Nature of Man and On Regimen in Health appear in the same chapter (somewhat contentiously, she acknowledges, p.208-209). At the end of each chapter, Craik provides dates for each treatise, sometimes giving explicit justification for the assigned date range (as she does for Diseases 1, 2, and 3, for example), sometimes not (On Fractures/On Joints, for example).

The chapters in the main body of the book are preceded by a list of abbreviations, a map of the ‘Hippocratic’ world, and an introduction that outlines the historical context of Greek medical thought, Hippocrates, and the Hippocratic tradition, as well as how the later scholarly tradition (from Erotian to Littré to the present) has grouped and explained these diverse yet somehow cohesive texts. Craik offers her own system of seven categories for grouping the texts: “scientific principles”, “anatomy and physiology”, “nosology, pathology and therapy”, “surgery”, “cases and signs”, “gynaecology and embryology”, and “guidance and ideals” (p.xxvi-xxvii and p.287-288). In her conclusion, Craik revisits this classification scheme, using it to suggest treatises that might share an author or authors: this is her contribution to addressing the Hippocratic Question. The conclusion is followed by a glossary that links Greek words with translations or, when translation is problematic because of a relationship between the Greek word and a modern medical term, with transliterations and descriptions. The bibliography appears next, followed by an index of authors and texts and a general index.

The book contributes to ongoing questions of ‘Hippocratic’ authorship by allowing all of the relevant texts to be compared and contrasted with one another conveniently and concisely. Craik’s detailed approach to analysis makes her arguments for authorship persuasive, as she grounds her claims in the linguistic, chronologic, and thematic evidence she has systematically presented throughout the book. Though she does offer her own answer to the Hippocratic Question, the particularly innovative aspect of her book is that its structure does not limit readers to its author’s interpretations of textual relationships. She still permits readers to ask and to answer their own questions about affinities.

As both general introduction and reference work, Craik’s book succeeds admirably. Particularly commendable, and much-needed within ‘Hippocratic’ scholarship, is the effort she devotes to less-studied texts. The attention she gives to these lesser-known texts, alongside more traditionally studied texts, is another unique aspect of the book. Her summaries of each treatise are succinct and carefully referenced back to specific sections of the text, allowing for easy concordance. Her commentaries discuss in detail particularities of language, style, grammar, authorial voice, and, especially, vocabulary. Of particular importance for both beginning student and advanced scholar are the precise chapter-and-section references she includes for these parallels (p.80 features a helpful concordance of similar patient cases in Epidemics 5 and Epidemics 7, for example). She also helpfully links the ideas of the ‘Hippocratic’ treatise under consideration with related ideas found in other ancient texts, such as the works of Aristotle, Plato, and others (as she does on p.39 and p.47).

Craik’s glossary is praiseworthy for the way that it connects Greek terms consistently with English equivalents, when such translation contributes to clarity of concept. When translation does not aid understanding, Craik’s transliterations and English descriptions are useful: τέτανος, for example, is transliterated as tetanus, italicized to emphasize that it is a transliteration and glossed as “a disease marked by stiffness and spasms” (p.294) in order that a reader may distinguish this term from its modern counterpart, which describes the pathology caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani. In some cases, however, evidence in support of particular descriptions (καρκίνος as “karkinos (a systemic disease ~ cancer)”) would be helpful. Additionally, for both beginning and advanced readers of the Corpus – and especially for the former – the lack of footnotes and explicit bibliographic reference to certain arguments and claims could be frustrating. 2

The ‘Hippocratic’ Corpus: Content and Context is a much-needed text, and Craik achieves her goal of providing simultaneously a general introduction and a reference work. This concise and comprehensive book is a useful tool both for those interested in learning more about the ‘Hippocratic’ Corpus and its component parts, and for scholars investigating research questions. Without any assumptions of authorship, Craik’s systematic descriptions of the content, context, and date of each text allow readers to make their own judgments about relationships between and among those texts. She advances scholarship on the Hippocratic Question by expanding the way scholars and students approach the texts. Her thoughtful and thorough book focuses on the ‘Hippocratic’ works themselves, and the interpretive opportunities afforded by her approach ensure that The ‘Hippocratic’ Corpus: Content and Context will be an indispensable resource for years to come. ​


1.   Ludwig Edelstein, “The Genuine Works of Hippocrates,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 7 (1939): 236-48; G.E.R. Lloyd, “The Hippocratic Question,” The Classical Quarterly 25 (1975):171-192; Jacques Jouanna, Hippocrates, English translation of French original, 1992. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).
2.   For example, while scholars familiar with the Greek medical tradition know, as Craik says, that, “Egyptian medicine surely exhibited an influence on early Greek medicine” (xxix), it would be helpful to cite a source like Heinrich von Staden, Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

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