Conference Report: Traditions of Materia Medica: 300BCE–1300CE

By Sean Coughlin

On 16–18 June 2021, members of the research group A03 at the DFG-funded SFB 980 ‘Episteme in Motion’ and the Institute of Classical Philology, Humboldt-Universität in Berlin (Sean Coughlin, Christine Salazar, Lisa Sherbakova, Kristiane Hasselmann, Philip van der Eijk) held a conference called Traditions of Materia Medica: 300 BCE–1300CE. Over the three days, 25 speakers and over 50 guests from around the world met remotely to share research on the history of theoretical pharmacology in the immediate vicinity of Galen of Pergamum.

One goal for the conference was practical: to bring each other up to speed on what we’ve been doing since the start of the pandemic. Another was programmatic: to test the hypothesis that Galen’s writings on pharmacology constitute a key moment in the history of theoretical pharmacology, one that brought about an acceleration of pharmacological research and reflection. Speakers explored the hypothesis from the perspective of history of medicine, philosophy and science, Egyptology, philology, botany, chemistry and lexicography, focusing on Galen’s sources, his own work, and the work of those who followed him.

Image courtesy of Sean Coughlin

Galen’s Immediate Predecessors (3rd c. BCE – 2nd c. CE)

Among studies of Galen’s immediate predecessors, we heard from edition and translation projects that are bringing Galen’s pharmacological antecedents more clearly into view. David Leith (Exeter), working on the fragments of Asclepiades of Bithynia, presented part of his work into the pharmacology of Asclepiades and his school, many of whom, like Julius Bassus and Niger, were authorities for Dioscorides and Galen. Irene Calà (LMU Munich), critically editing books 10 and 14 of Aetius of Amida’s Medical Books, presented recently identified fragments of recipes from the Herophileans, Andreas of Carystus and Apollonius Mys. Costanza de Martino (Humboldt) discussed the structure and sources of Philumenus’ On Poisonous Animals and Their Remedies, part of her project producing a new edition, translation and study of this work. And Amber Jacob (NYU) presented her project editing 1st–2nd c. CE demotic medical papyri from the Tebtunis temple library, which represent some of the few surviving sources for Egyptian medicine of the period and the intercultural exchange of Greek and Egyptian pharmacology.

Galen of Pergamum (mid-2nd – early 3rd c. CE)

We also had presentations from edition and translation projects of Galen’s pharmacological works. Caroline Petit (Warwick) introduced methodological questions raised by her work on “Rethinking Ancient Pharmacology” and her edition of Galen’s treatise On Simple Drugs (Simples), which draws on Greek, Syriac, Arabic and Latin traditions. Caterina Manco (Paul Valéry – Montpellier) presented a study of Galen as reader of Dioscorides based on her forthcoming edition, translation and study of the botanical books of Galen’s Simples, books 6–8. And John Wilkins (Exeter) presented a comparative study of the ‘theoretical books’ (books 1–5) of Galen’s Simples, which he is translating for the Cambridge Galen Series, and their implementation in the ‘catalogue books’ (books 6–11).

Work on the history and philosophy of pharmacology was presented by P. N. Singer (Einstein Centre Chronoi), who discussed his work on epistemological and metaphysical issues raised by Galen’s notions of ‘changes through the whole substance’ and ‘tests’ of drugs. Simone Mucci (Warwick) presented on the relationship between imperial head-physicians (ἀρχιατροί) and antidotes in the Hellenistic and Imperial periods via Galen’s On Antidotes. And Krzysztof Jagusiak and Konrad Tadajczyk (Łódź) compared sitz-baths (ἐγκάθισμα) remedies in Galen’s work on Compound Drugs According to Kinds and in the pseudo-Galenica.

There were also two fascinating diachronic studies. Laurence Totelin (Cardiff) explored the nature, subject and variety of works called Euporista (“easily procured substances”) from their origins in Apollonius Mys via Galen to Theodorus Priscianus (4th c. CE). And Alessia Guardasole (CNRS – Sorbonne Université), who is working on an edition of Galen’s Compound Drugs According to Places, demonstrated how recipes change over time using the example of the diacodyon (διὰ κωδυῶν, “prepared with poppies”), from Galen to Theophanes Chrysobalantes (10th c. CE)

Galen’s Descendants (3rd – 13th c. CE)

Among scholars working on pharmacology after Galen, Petros Bouras-Vallianatos (Edinburgh) presented his work contextualizing ingredients from Asia in Galen, Late Antique and Byzantine medical works, exploring the reception of Arabic pharmacological lore into Greek and Latin sources. Anne Grons (Philipps-Universität Marburg) presented work on the systematization of ingredients in medical recipes preserved in Coptic pharmacological texts from the 4th–11th c. CE.

Matteo Martelli (Bologna) explored dry medicines, dyes, and alchemical xeria via the etymology of the term elixir, beginning with Arabic and Latin traditions and taking us back to their antecedents in Greco-Egyptian alchemy. Maciej Kokoszko (Łódź) looked at recipes for sweet sauces from Anthimus’ On the Observance of Foods and their pharmacological roots. Zofia Rzeźnicka(Łódź) proposed a theoretical basis for the ingredients of several recipes for peelings and scrubs in Aetius of Amida. And Lucia Raggetti (Bologna) discussed the creative weaving of ancient pharmacological, medical, and philosophical works (Hermes, Galen, Dioscorides, Aristotle) with technical and artisanal knowledge in Malmuk, Cairo of the 7th H/13th CE in the work of Kaylak Qabǧāqī.

Experimental, Lexicographical and Botanical Approaches

We also heard from several groups taking broadly empirical approaches to the history of pharmacology. On the chemical and biochemical side, Manuela Marai (Warwick) presented her work comparing the activity of drug combinations found in Galenic recipes to that of the individual components. Effie Photos-Jones (Glasgow) presented surprising results from the experimental work of her Wellcome Trust-funded group, “Greco-Roman Antimicrobial Minerals,” on the chemical and biological activity of Greco-Roman mineral preparations (lithargyros, psimythion, molybdos). Members of the ERC-project Alchemeast at Bologna, Matteo Martelli and Lucia Raggetti, included their work on replications of ancient alchemical recipes. And Sean Coughlin(Humboldt, Czech Academy of Sciences) introduced a new interdisciplinary research group funded by the Czech Science Foundation, “Alchemies of Scent,” that will replicate the methods of Greco-Egyptian perfumery using analytical chemistry and Greco-Egyptian literary and archaeological sources.

On the botanical and lexicographical side, Maximilian Haars (Philipps-Universität Marburg) gave an overview of his new DFG-funded project producing an encyclopedia of all medicinal plants and herbal drugs in the Galenic corpus—approximately 1,500 entries. And Barbara Zipser (Royal Holloway University London) and Andreas Lardos (Zurich) presented a new interdisciplinary methodology from their project “Plants and minerals in Byzantine popular pharmacy: a new multidisciplinary approach” for the identification of medicinal plants that can provide a more solid and replicable starting point for pharmacological screening.

Hopefully, this brief overview conveys some sense of the variety of research projects exploring Galenic pharmacology and its immediate predecessors and descendants. For those interested, abstracts for the talks are available here.

Revisiting Erik Heinrichs’ The Live Chicken Treatment for Buboes: Trying a Plague Cure in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Today we revisit a post originally published in 2017 by Erik Heinrichs on a seemingly odd treatment for plague buboes: the feathers from a chicken’s backside. Erik notes that there is a very long history of using chickens and chicken broths in medicine, partly because chickens are such commonly kept animals. I certainly remember being fed chicken broth when I was ill as a child, but I must say that I broke that tradition with my children. They still get ice cream though… Laurence Totelin

By Erik Heinrichs 

Titlepage of Philippus Culmacher’s plague treatise, Leipzig: circa 1495
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

While researching German plague treatises I became fascinated by one odd treatment for buboes that appeared again and again, despite sounding so far-fetched. One sixteenth-century version calls for plucking the feathers from around the single hole in a chicken’s backside, then placing it on a person’s bubo. The instructions say to hold the chicken on the bubo until it dies, when it must be replaced with a new chicken, similarly plucked. I soon dubbed this the “live chicken treatment for buboes” and after years of casual encounters I began to track the recipe more systematically. As strange as it sounds, versions of this “live chicken treatment” were fairly common in plague writing, beginning with the Black Death and lasting, amazingly, into the eighteenth century. Tracing the long history of this recipe led me to explore questions such as: Where might this come from? Why chickens? Why might healers think that this was a good idea? Did anyone actually try this or is this all theoretical? As a historian, I was also interested in change over time within the recipe. Here I found much to explore, as I followed the recipe’s twists and turns over a seven-hundred year period, roughly 1000 to 1700.

The “live chicken treatment” turns out to have a long history, indeed. Its origins seem to lie in Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, although it may be older than that. Chickens and chicken broth were a common source of medicine in early times, probably because chickens were such ubiquitous and useful animals since antiquity. Not only did Avicenna praise chicken broth for its general benefits for the body, but he also recommended placing a cut chicken on a poisonous bite or sting in order to fight poisons. In later centuries European physicians turned to Avicenna’s advice when they faced the mysterious and devastating epidemics of the fourteenth century. As Europeans emphasized the poisonous nature of the plagues around them, older treatments for poisons drew new attention. The first mention of using a chicken rump to draw poisons out of a bubo appeared in the very first plague treatise of 1348, coming in response to the so-called Black Death. Here the Catalan author Jacme d’Agramont seems to have introduced a novel and lasting adaptation of Avicenna’s recipe, although the “cut chicken” version persisted in plague treatises for centuries to come.

Most interesting for the history of trying and testing cures are the many variations of the “cut chicken” and “chicken rump” versions of the treatment, as well as physicians’ comments about how effective they are. Especially after 1400, physicians seem to be thinking about this recipe quite often as they seek practical treatments for the plagues of the time. Physicians were preoccupied with altering the recipe in order to reason out the nature of the mysterious poisons underlying the plague. Some add substances to the process, such as salt placed on top of the chicken as it is placed on the bubo. During the fifteenth century, a number of German physicians began to explain the treatment’s workings in a strikingly physical way—that the chicken breathes through its backside and thus pulls the bubo’s poisons into itself. This change led to the suggestion to hold the chicken’s beak shut during the treatment in order to force the chicken to breathe from below. My article (accessible here) show how all aspects of the treatment changed over time as physicians engaged with the recipe, including the quantity of chickens used, the amount of time required, and even the type of animal in question. This work demonstrates the importance of the recipe itself as a platform for thought, experimentation, and communication among physicians.

Perhaps a surprise to modern readers, many physicians praised their version of the “live chicken treatment,” describing it as effective and desirable. Such comments multiply after the introduction of print, which encouraged the production of plague treatises, some fitted with fetching cover illustrations for the marketplace (see image below of Philippus Culmacher’s treatise of circa 1495). In German-speaking lands especially, sixteenth-century physicians used their printed plague treatises to promote their own services and expertise at a local level.[1] This brought about a change in the genre whereby physicians seem more eager to discuss their own experiences with effective recipes in order to appeal to the practical interests of a broad audience. Amidst this change comes evidence that some German physicians witnessed first-hand the successful use of the “live chicken treatment.” Another interesting change during the sixteenth century is the increased attention to the bodily warmth of the chicken as the treatment’s active healing force. These emergent views provide a tantalizing link to modern medicine, since moist heat remains one of the treatments for buboes today. For more information, please read my article.


[1] For a survey of German plague treatises from the first century of print, see: Erik A. Heinrichs, Plague, Print, and the Reformation: The German Reform of Healing, 1473-1573 (London: Routledge, 2017).

Thanksgiving with Galen and Apicius

By Sean Coughlin

For Thanksgiving, I thought I’d come up with a new English translation of a seasonal recipe from the Roman cook-book of Apicius. It comes from the third book of De re coquinaria. The Latin is cucurbitas cum gallina. In Joseph Vehling’s English translation: “Pumpkin and Chicken”.

If only the Romans had turkeys. And pumpkins.

I first learned that the Greeks and Romans were pumpkinless from Laurence Totelin earlier this year and it left me utterly confounded.

I had been revising a translation and commentary of the first book of the sixth-century CE physician Aetius of Amida’s Medical Collections, and a question came up about how to identify different kinds of cucurbits, that immense botanical family of vines which produce comically-large-berries, like cucumbers, melons, watermelons, pumpkins, squashes, gourds, and luffa sponges.

Naively, I thought it would help to look at how authors like Aetius or Galen say cucurbits are prepared. And, since Galen (On the Properties of Foodstuffs, 2.3) tells us that people always ate their cucurbits cooked, I figured that Greco-Roman cucurbits must be something like zucchini.  After all, who on earth would cook a melon?

“But,” Laurence told me, “zucchinis are new world.”

Now, before going into why I found this so shocking, I want to bring everyone up to speed.

“Old world” cucurbits include a lot of different genera: Cucumis, the cucumbers and melons; Citrullus, the watermelons and colocynths; Lageneria, the bottle gourd or calabash; and a few others like Luffa and Bryonia. No one is quite sure where in the old world they first evolved, but the recent consensus is somewhere in Africa. In other words, they could have existed in the Greco-Roman world.

Various old world cucurbits: cucumbers and melons. Photo from the author.

“New world” cucurbits, however, are the vines descended from plants native to the Americas. They almost certainly could not have been known in antiquity, and the group includes all species of the genus Cucurbita. This includes zucchini, courgettes, pumpkins, squashes, decorative gourds, and even those 1000 kg monsters at fall fairs. None of them were known in Europe before Columbus.

I would like to imagine that there is at least one other kindred reader of classics in English who feels a bit anxious at this news. It’s not just a problem for Apicius’ Thanksgiving casserole or my rehearsal of Epicrates’ lampoon of Plato’s Academy.

What about the “Pumpkin Pirates” of Lucian’s True History (2.37)? Or Psyche’s sister’s husband who Apuleius says is “bald as a pumpkin” (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 5.9)? And what will become of Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii – the Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius?

English translations are unusually problematic in the case of cucurbits. Pumpkins show up all over the place. And this isn’t merely because of translators’ license, or a confusion of names.

As far as I’ve been able to sort out, it’s mainly the result of an unfortunate coincidence between the rise of an influential but erroneous botanical hypothesis, and the publication of two influential Greek and Latin English dictionaries.

Here is the story:

Before the mid-19th century, the evidence about the origins of Cucurbita was mixed. The names of the plants suggested they came from the “old world”, but depictions of Cucurbita species don’t show up before the mid-1500s.

For instance, in Leonhart Fuchs’ 1542 herbal, De Historia Stirpium, we get one of the first European depictions of the pumpkin plant, the species Cucurbita pepo L. Fuchs, however, calls it cucumis turcicus, the Turkish cucumber, a name which might lead one to think the plant was native to the “old world”.

Not long after Fuchs, in an herbal of Matthiolus from 1586, the same plant appears again, but with a different name: cucurbita indica – the Indian gourd. And “Indian,” Matthiolus tells us, means American: “they say these [new gourds] came into Italy from the West Indies, whence they are called by many ‘Indian’” (Matthiolus of Padua, Commentary on Dioscorides 1559, p. 292, my emphasis).

“He has a pumpkin” (ipse cucurbita habet). Using pumpkins as camouflage. Woodcut, late 16th century, Netherlands. CCBY

Both Fuchs and Matthiolus agree that these cucurbits are foreign (and probably even recent) imports to European markets. They disagree about where they came from: were they indigenous to the old or the new world?

This continued until the 1850s, when the hypothesis that Cucurbita species were indigenous to the old world reached its most articulated form. It happened as part of a public debate between two great 19th century botanists: Alphonse de Candolle and Asa Gray.

De Candolle argued that because people had used the same names for cucurbits since ancient times, the plants with those names must have come from the old world.

In response, Gray argued that new and ‘foreign’ cucurbits only start showing up in 16th century herbals like those of Fuchs and Matthiolus. That, along with documentary evidence from the first European explorers, suggests a new world origin.

The debate continued for over thirty years, only coming to an end in 1883 after a devastating two-part review of De Candolle’s last book, The Origin of Cultivated Plants. In this review, Gray, along his colleague J. Hammond Turnball, presented almost documentary evidence from European explorers that cucurbits were cultivated in the Americas before European explorers ever reached it in 1492.

These explorers recorded indigenous names for the plants they encountered, but they also used European ones, and these are the names that stuck: in Latin, cucurbitae and cucumeres; in Spanish, calabaças, melones, pepinos and cogombros; in French, melons, concombres, citrouilles, and courges; in Italian, zucca; and in English, musk-melons, cowcumbers, and, — most importantly — the pompion, the source of our word, ‘pumpkin’. Only the name “squash” from the Algonquin vernacular made its way into English.

Gray and Turnball’s review, however, appeared only after the work on the great Greek and Latin lexica had finished up – A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddel and Scott, and A Latin Dictionary by Lewis and Short. Both dictionaries identify some Greco-Roman cucurbits with American pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo L. or Cucurbita maxima L.), and pumpkins have shown up in English translations ever since.

So for this recipe, I figure, why fight it?

Tune in tomorrow for Apicius’ recipe!

The author with pumpkins, sometime in the late 2000s. Photo from the author.

Sean Coughlin is Research Fellow in the history of philosophy, science and medicine at Excellence Cluster Topoi and the Institute for Classical Philology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He is completing a revised translation and commentary on Aetius of Amida, Medical Collections, Book I, an edition and translation fragments of the 1st century Pneumatist physician, Athenaeus of Attalia, and co-editing a volume on the concept of pneuma after Aristotle.

Tales from the archives: the torture of therapeutics in Rome: Galen on pigeon dung

Recently, I have noticed fewer pigeons at Cardiff station. This probably mean that there has been a cull, which even though I’m no fan of pigeons, made me feel rather melancholy. So, in honour of the humble pigeon, here is, fresh from our archives, a fab post by Caroline Petit on pigeon excrement in Galen’s recipes.

Although Galen is more than reluctant to use disgusting ingredients and remedies wherever possible (De simpl. med. ac fac., X, 1), his catalogue of simple remedies, his recipes and case histories show that animal and even human dung and urine are not absent from his therapeutic arsenal. But this is not as contradictory as it sounds, because Galen uses careful qualifications in his approach to excrements. Why, did you think he was going to spread dog’s feces all over your face? Fear not, Galen uses only non-smelling dung.

File:Fresco pigeon Oplontis.jpg
A pigeon on a Roman fresco from Oplontis. Source: Wikipedia.

Galen reports an interesting case. In the dead of night, Galen was once called to the bedside of a Roman lady (Meth. med. V, 13); she had begun spitting blood and became extremely concerned, as she had heard Galen warn people against this dangerous symptom (Rome was justifiably anxious about the Antonine plague). She believed only prompt treatment would get the better of it, and she called for him. When Galen arrived, she begged him to submit her to whatever treatment he would deem suitable to cure her; the treatment designed by Galen would make any modern patient shiver, as it sounds very drastic indeed:

“I ordered the use of a sharp clyster and rubbing, and binding around of the legs and arms as much as possible, along with a heating medication. Then, having shaved her head, I applied the medication made from the excrement of wild pigeons. After an interval of three hours, I led her to the bath and and washed her without touching her head with any oil. Then I covered her head with a well-fitting felt cloth and, according to the prevailing season, I nourished her with thick gruel alone, afterwards giving her bitter fruits. Then, when she was about to go to sleep, I gave her the medication made from vipers that had been prepared four months before, for such a medication still has the juice of the poppy in strong degree whereas, in medications that have been aged, the strength becomes less. (…) Then, at intervals I repeatedly used on her head the customary salve from thapsia. I provided total care and nourishment for the body with passive exercises, rubbings, perambulations, abstinence from baths and a moderate and succulent diet. This woman became well without the need for milk.”

The poor woman, who was certainly elegant, perhaps fashionable and accustomed to elaborate hair styles (at least this is how we usually picture Roman ladies – Galen doesn’t comment on his patient), had to endure the shaving of her head, then the prolonged application of a paste made with pigeon dung – a well-known ingredient, known for its heating and drying properties, at least since Dioscorides (Mat. med. II, 80). The rest of the treatment is strikingly strong, with several powerful heating remedies (for example thapsia, which could cause burns if used at a high dosage) and must have been difficult to endure, especially as it lasted for a number of days. But the excrement of wild pigeon catches the eye, because it belongs to the much-maligned category of ‘disgusting’ (bdelura) remedies: so why does Galen mention it so casually here, in the case of a woman who must have been more delicate than any other, and for a readership who may have been just as sensitive as this poor woman? Well, Galen explains elsewhere in book X of his treatise on simple drugs that the key thing is to have dung that doesn’t smell, in order to remove the nauseating factor. For dung does have remarkable properties. Thus some forms of dung, especially the one coming from wild pigeons, is absolutely devoid of bad smell and is a powerful, reliable remedy praised by all. For some smelly kinds of dung (as in dog’s dung), it is preferable to let it dry first, before grounding it and thus, again, removing the problem of smell. Dung is disgusting only as long as it smells of dung. But once it is transformed into a powder, a paste, or any other pharmaceutical form you can think of, it is perfectly acceptable and pretty useful, as it is easy to find and inexpensive. What’s not to like?