Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Syriac Galen palimpsest

SYRIAC WATCH: Medicine’s Hidden Roots in an Ancient Manuscript (Mark Schrope, NYT).
The manuscript held by Dr. [Grigory] Kessel that day was a palimpsest: older text covered up by newer writing. It was a common practice centuries ago, a medieval form of recycling. In this case, 11th-century Syrian scribes had scraped away Galen’s medical text and had overwritten hymns on the parchment.

The hymn book itself is of interest, but for now it is the original text, all but invisible to the naked eye and known as the undertext, that has captured the imagination of scholars.

For centuries, Galen’s “Simple Drugs” was required reading for aspiring physicians, the summation of ancient knowledge about medicine, patient care and pharmaceutical plants. Galen described a root that cures “roughness of the throat” and recommended hemp as an earache remedy that “does not produce flatulence” (though it “dries out the semen”).

Much of “Simple Drugs” was eventually translated into Syriac, a form of Aramaic used by Middle Eastern Christian communities. The undertext of the manuscript in Baltimore, most likely from the ninth century A.D., is a copy of the first Syriac translation, itself painstakingly completed in the sixth century A.D. by Sergius of Reshaina, a Syriac physician and priest.
This is also a detective story in which Dr. Kessel discovered the six lost leaves of the manuscript in collections at Harvard, St. Catherine's Monastery, the National Library of France in Paris, and the Vatican Library. This Syriac translation of Galen's work is important for the history of the transmission of Greek scientific literature in Syriac-speaking Eastern Christian circles.