‘One does not learn remedies through books’ (Aristotle)

By Laurence Totelin

My first love: Pellaprat's classic cookbook
My first love: Pellaprat’s classic cookbook

I love reading recipes. I guess that won’t come as a surprise; after all I have been working on the history of pharmacology for over ten years now. But this passion goes very far indeed. My first favourite book was Pellaprat’s Cuisine familiale et pratique (1974), which I dutifully pored over – and tore apart – from the age of one. When I read a recipe book, I feel myself surrounded, at times assaulted, by imagined smells, tastes, and visions (of sugarplums). Of course, I could not have this type of experience without growing up in a family of great cooks; I did not learn culinary skills through books, but through observation and experimentation. Most of my memories of my grand-mother are culinary in nature; and I spent hours sat on a chair in our kitchen watching my mum cook.

When I read the philosopher Aristotle’s statement whereby one cannot learn remedies through reading, I can’t help but agree:

Indeed one does not appear to become skilled in the art of medicine through books. And yet they attempt to describe not only the cures, but also how they might cure and how it is necessary to treat each individual, distinguishing his condition. But while these things seem useful to men of experience, they are useless to the inexperienced.

[Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics10.9, 1181b2-6]

Reading practical literature is useful for those who already have experience, but pointless for others; this does pose an issue when teaching ancient pharmacology in the modern classroom. Still, I believe written recipes, for all their dryness, can offer a very good entry point into a variety of topics. One of my favourite example here is a recipe found in a play by the great comedian Aristophanes. The god of healing, Asclepius, is treating patients who have come to his sanctuary in Athens. One of them is the corrupt politician Neocleides, whom Asclepius is not willing to cure:

Stele from Oropos (near Athens) showing a healing hero (Amphiaros) healing a patient. Fourth century BCE. Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org
Stele from Oropos (near Athens) showing a healing hero (Amphiaros) healing a patient. Fourth century BCE. Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org

First of all, for Neocleides, a remedy:

Asclepius undertook to knead a plaster, throwing in

Three heads of Tenian garlic. Then he crushed them

In a mortar, mixing them together with verjuice

And mastic. Then he soaked the mixture with Sphettian vinegar,

And he plastered it on, turning out the man’s eyelids,

To make him suffer more.

[Aristophanes, Plutus 716-721]

All three ingredients in this ‘remedy’ (garlic, verjuice and mastic) would have hurt the eyes. However, this recipe is not so far from the ancient medical reality. The ancients did use very strong ingredients to treat the eyes, but applied them outside the eyelid, not inside. Also, Greek medical authors, like Aristophanes, called their ingredients by their place of origin (Tenian garlic comes from Tenos, an Aegean island; Sphettian vinegar comes from Sphettos, a district of Athens). Clearly, Aristophanes was well-versed in ancient medicine. This short recipe, thus, offers a point of entry into the study of temple medicine; political satire; and the transmission of ancient medical ideas in the ancient world.

Dired rose, myrrh, orris (iris) root:  the three ingredients in my 'Greek' deodorant
Dired rose, myrrh, orris (iris) root: the three ingredients in my ‘Greek’ deodorant

Despite finding Aristophanes’ recipe fascinating, I appreciate that it needs much explication, as most ancient recipes do. I cannot expect every student to understand how painful this remedy would have been for Neocleides. I cannot expect them all to know what mastic is. Indeed, I cannot expect them all to have used a mortar and pestle. For these reasons, I have started to bring my experiments with ancient remedies to an audience near you. Recently, at a conference for teachers held at Cardiff University, I have replicated my attempts at producing an ancient deodorant made from iris root, myrrh, dried rose and wine. Passing the ingredients through the group allowed us to discuss our perception of these products; what memories they evoked; what we knew of their culture; etc. I learnt a lot – I hope the audience did too. They certainly left the room with a smile on their face. It remains for me to expand this experiment and re-create remedies with undergraduate students. I know that I will have to fill in health and safety forms, but I believe that it will be worth it. Here is an opportunity to appeal to various types of learning, and I would be a fool not to grab it!


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