BMCR 2000.03.06

Western Medical Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages

, Western Medical Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. viii, 478. $49.95.

This welcome compilation of authoritative essays on Greco-Roman, Islamic, and medieval European medical thought appeared first in Italian ( Storia del pensiero medico occidentale I: Antichità e medioevo, Rome and Bari 1993) and was almost immediately translated into German ( Die Geschichte des medizinischen Denkens: Antike und Mittelalter, Munich 1996). Now English-speaking readers have easy access to this well-known and often-consulted volume. Those familiar with the earlier versions will find nothing new in its English incarnation; those to whom the work is unknown will be glad to have on their shelves a summary of the current state of work, especially by continental scholars, in ancient medicine, even though its bibliography contains nothing more recent than 1994.

The essays themselves fall into two groups. After an introduction by Grmek, six essays treat the history of medical thought in rough chronological order: Jouanna on Hippocrates and the Hippocratic Corpus, Vegetti on Hellenistic medicine and the great Alexandrians, Gourevitch on medicine in the Roman world, Strohmaier on the Byzantine and Arabic tradition, Agrimi and Crisciani on “Charity and Aid in Medieval Christian Civilization” (only the specialized focus of this essay makes it seem a little out of place in the collection), and Jacquart on medicine in the medieval universities. Five essays then take up general aspects of medical thought and survey them from the fifth century B.C. (with occasional glances at earlier periods) through medieval times. Grmek writes on “The Concept of Disease,” Touwaide on drugs and pharmacology, McVaugh on surgery, Gil Sotres on regimen and dietetics, and Biraben on the evolution of the European pathocenosis.

Grmek himself introduced that concept, which refers to the ensemble of pathological states present in a given population at a given time, in Les Maladies à l’aube de la civilisation occidentale (Paris 1983 = Diseases in the Ancient Greek World, Baltimore 1989). Its appearance highlights the influence of Grmek and his circle — if that is not too strong a word — on the essays in this volume. All show the same concern to construct generalized theoretical models that will illuminate the evidence for ancient medical thought and practice, very much in the tradition of the Annales school. (It may be worth noting that of the thirteen contributors, three are from the École Pratique des Hautes Études, two from the University of Paris, and one from the Institut National d’Études Démographiques.) This common approach to the history of medicine gives this collection a unity that volumes by a variety of contributors sometimes lack. It can serve, in fact, as a history of European medical thought, and students who are aware of the collection’s intellectual heritage will find it useful and stimulating.