Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Medical Humanities and Greco-Arabic Studies

Galen and his legacy: covering new ground

The life and work of Galen of Pergamum (129-c.216 AD) are currently the focus of renewed scholarly attention. Galen’s work and legacy are fundamental to our understanding of the history of medicine (both ancient and in the long term). But Galen is also a towering figure in imperial literature and philosophy. He offers a wealth of information on Greco-Roman society of the imperial period and therefore now features prominently in studies on the Roman empire. At Warwick, we are particularly interested in Galen’s legacy across a variety of fields: history of ideas, history of literature, history of the book, history of teaching. We cover the ancient world (Petit, Swain, Thumiger), Islamic medicine and Arabic translations of Galen (Vagelpohl, Swain) and the Renaissance (Petit).

Galen’s growing importance in Roman history, in the history of science and in the history of literature is illustrated by Caroline Petit’s new books:

  • Galien de Pergame ou la rhétorique de la Providence : médecine, littérature et pouvoir à Rome, Brill, Mnemosyne Supplements 420, 2018. A comprehensive study of Galen’s rhetorical strategies, illustrating the power of Galen’s texts, their profound links with Greek literature and the Second Sophistic, and the genesis of modern medical and scientific rhetoric.
  • Galen’s peri alupias (de indolentia) in context : a tale of resilience, Brill, Studies in Ancient Medicine, 2018. A collective study of Galen’s De indolentia: an account of personal resilience and a philosophical enquiry into the workings of distress, written in 193 AD in the wake of Commodus’ assassination, by his own physician

In addition, Uwe Vagelpohl and Simon Swain have just published Galen’s commentary to Hippocrates’ Epid. II (preserved in Arabic) in the prestigious Corpus Medicorum Graecorum (Supplementum Orientale).

Ongoing projects

  • ‘Medical Prognosis in Late Antiquity’. Caroline Petit – Wellcome University Award 2013-2018

This project explores late antique evidence on diagnostic and prognostic tools and theories in order to assess the Hippocratic and Galenic legacy in this crucially transformative period for the history of medicine. Outcomes will include a monograph on ancient prognostic, and critical editions of several texts attributed to Galen on uroscopy, sphygmology and astro-medicine. In addition, a collective volume on pseudo-Galenic texts will appear in 2019.

  • ‘Rethinking Ancient Pharmacology: Galen’s treatise On simple drugs’. Caroline Petit - BA-Leverhulme Small Grant 2017-2019

This collaborative project involves colleagues from Bologna Matteo Martelli and Lucia Raggetti to explore the transmission and legacy of Galen’s fundamental treatise On simple drugs in Greek, Latin, Syriac and Arabic. Arising from an international conference held at the BSR in September 2017, a collective volume on the topic will appear in the Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Sciences.

  • Alchemy, Medicine, and Pharmacology in Medieval Islam: Rāzī's Twelve Books. Bink Hallum - Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship (2018–2024)

This project focuses on the reception of Hellenistic alchemy in the Islamicate world, and the contributions to medicine and pharmacy made by medieval alchemist-physicians following the Graeco-Arabic tradition. Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. Zakariyā al-Rāzī (d. ca 925) – arguably the greatest alchemist-physician of the classical Islamicate world – was steeped in the philosophical and scientific traditions of Late Antiquity made available through the efforts of the Graeco-Arabic translation movement of the 8th–10th centuries. His encyclopaedic introduction to alchemy, The Twelve Books, had an enduring influence not only on the history of chemistry, but also on medicine, pharmacology and even physics. It contains the most comprehensive overview of the early Graeco-Arabic reception of alchemy, covering such diverse topics as Rāzī’s library of Greek alchemical texts (many of which are lost in the original Greek), chemical substances and laboratory equipment and procedures, philosophical and theological defences of alchemy, social and ethical advice for practicing alchemists and the application of quantitative analysis to the products of alchemical transmutations. The encyclopaedia itself, however, fell out of favour in the centuries following Rāzī’s death, perhaps owing in part to Rāzī’s reputation as a heretical freethinker. For this reason, The Twelve Books has long been presumed lost and its cultural and scientific impact underestimated. Although no known single manuscript containing the entire Twelve Books is known, recent advances in Arabic manuscript cataloguing have made it possible to identify fragments of an estimated 80% of the original text dispersed in manuscripts held in archives across the globe. This project will reassemble and edit all the extant fragments for the first time in order to reconstruct Rāzī’s alchemical system, assess the integration of Rāzī’s alchemical and medical thinking and practice and survey the reception of Rāzī’s alchemical thought by later medical and pharmacological authors. An English translation and detailed commentary will demonstrate of the contribution of Graeco-Arabic alchemy to the development of medicine and pharmacy in both the Islamic world and Europe.

  • Streamlining Galen: Medical Summaries and the Transmission of Medicine in Medieval Islam. Uwe Vagelpohl and Simon Swain – Collaborative Award (Wellcome Trust)

What makes a doctor in medieval Islam? To answer this crucial question of medical authority and legitimacy, this project will study the production, transmission and control of medical knowledge through a ubiquitous but overlooked genre of medical writings: Arabic summaries of Galen.

In late antiquity and medieval Islam, the writings of the Roman physician Galen (d. 216 CE) formed the basis of professional medicine. Most of Galen's works were translated into Arabic in the ninth century. Arabic-speaking doctors then produced a flood of summaries to help their readers learn and reproduce Galenic science. These summaries reflected both the changing methods and priorities of their authors and the changing face of Galenic medicine itself and its role in Islamic society. Even though they were widely read, especially by students of medicine, summaries were also criticised by contemporary physicians because they sometimes distorted Galen's teachings and allowed quacks and impostors to pass themselves off as trained physicians.

These summaries are therefore an ideal source to shed light on the training and legitimisation of physicians and also on the transmission and transformation of medical knowledge in the Islamic world.

vivesection galen

Read more about Caroline Petit's research into the Medical Humanities on the

Medicine, Ancient and Modern