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Medical Summaries in Antiquity

Summaries in Greek literature

Arabic Galen summaries are part of a continuous tradition of “auxiliary” texts (Dubischar 2010, 39, 43) stretching back to antiquity. While more frequent in other fields such as history, philosophy and grammar, they also played a role in Greek medicine (Opelt 1962; Raible 1995, 58–61; Gärtner and Eigler 1997; van der Eijk 2010, 526, 534–535). Medical summaries were more than mere recastings of their source texts, they afforded authors the opportunity to add their own views about practice and shape readers’ expectations (van der Eijk 2010, 521, 553).

The ‘School of Alexandria’ and the ‘Alexandrian Summaries’

The link between summaries and medical teaching became particularly prominent in the late antique ‘school of Alexandria’, the most important centre of medical teaching and writing in antiquity. In the sixth century CE its medical curriculum focussed on a core set of sixteen books by Galen, the so-called “Sixteen Books”. Students were to read these in the form of commentaries and digests to make medicine more accessible and to help them deal with Galen’s difficult writings (Gutas 1999, 174). The ninth-century physician al-Ruhāwī, a younger contemporary of Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, explained the introduction of the Sixteen Books and the teaching texts based on them as follows:

“When the virtuous, learned physicians of Alexandria came together, gathering the students of medicine, they realized that the events of their time did not permit most of them to read all of those books, especially those which Galen composed. In order to bring the medical art to the students, they organized the books of Galen as sixteen books, and the collectors gathered them in order to abridge them.” (Levey 1967, 84a)

The new curriculum proved so successful that it was soon exported to other centres of medical teaching (Overwien 2012, 161).

The Alexandrian teaching texts offer several different types of summaries, including three series of summaries of the Sixteen Books. Key for the subsequent Arabic tradition are the ‘Alexandrian Summaries’, originally written in the sixth century in Greek but only extant in Arabic translation (Bürgel 2016, 140–162; Garofalo 2003; Overwien 2013). They present teachings systematically, often using material from other texts, and were read alongside lecture courses (Overwien 2013, 190; 202–203).

A shorter, contemporary set of Greek summaries, also only preserved in Arabic, goes under the name of John the Grammarian or Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī, a late Alexandrian medical teacher (Gannagé 2012, 554–558, 562–563; Garofalo 2000; Overwien 2012). These are concise abridgements reflecting the medical syllabus (Pormann 2003, 238, 243).

Representative of a third type of Alexandrian teaching text are the ‘Tabulae Vindobonenses’ (Gundert 1998; Overwien 2013), Greek diagrammatic tables that are related to the Alexandrian Summaries and were created around the same time. These tables define and explain Galenic concepts and ideas by division into subconcepts from the general to the specific to aid memorisation (Overwien 2015, 330; Gundert 1998, 106–108).