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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 April; 54(2): 272–273.
PMCID: PMC2844282

Book Review

The Cambridge companion to Galen
Reviewed by John Wilkins

R J Hankinson (ed.),  The Cambridge companion to Galen,  Cambridge University Press,  2008, pp.  xxi, 450, £45.00, $85.00 (hardback  978-0-521-81954-1), £17.99, $29.99 (paperback  978-0-521-52558-9) 

This volume is among the most important, not to say useful, volumes that Cambridge University Press has produced. Galen is a sleeping giant among ancient authors, taught to few students in Classics departments; distinguished with great difficulty from the Galenic tradition by medical historians; and largely off the radar of the general public, who might recognize the name but go to Ayurvedic or Chinese medicine if in search of an alternative system to biomedicine. Vivian Nutton observes: “To describe the fortunes of Galen over the centuries is almost to write the history of medicine since his death” (p. 355). Thanks to library and online resources “a scholar is now in a far better position to understand Galen, and Galen’s opinions, than at any time since Galen’s own day”(p. 358). So what can a reader do?

I mentioned the volume’s utility, a key idea in Galen’s own thought world. First, Appendix 1 sets out the works of Galen in Kühn’s vulgate edition (with Latin translation) and beyond, with their conventional Latin titles, abbreviations and editions. A second appendix lists English titles and translations into vernacular languages. Once we know what Galen wrote, whether there is a translation from the Greek, Latin and/or Arabic and what the basic bibliography is (pp. 405–33), we can turn to the contributors for summary guidance. Julius Rocca explains how Galen used anatomy as “the hallmark of the complete physician”; but “even at its peak, anatomy did not invariably lead either to a better understanding of the function of the body nor to improvements in medical practice” (p. 257). On physiology, Armelle Debru concludes that Galen prefers to base claims on anatomy rather than cosmic and spiritual considerations, which are difficult to prove (for example, the soul exists but its substance is uncertain). “The accounts thus become nuanced, complex and plausible only, with shades of meaning which the subsequent tradition of a rigid, dogmatic Galenism has served to erase” (p. 281). Galen’s therapeutics, Philip van der Eijk observes, has “never received anything remotely aspiring to a comprehensive scholarly treatment” (p. 283). Yet Galen brings to patient care “systematicity … comprehensiveness, [and] … theoretical and conceptual sophistication” (p. 300). Again, further research for the reader. On more invasive treatment, Sabine Vogt reviews Galen’s pharmacology, which tried to identify a drug’s impact on humoral balance “with no exact method to measure simple biological facts [such] as temperature, much less any biochemical analysis” (p. 317). In the face of contradictory evidence, Galen developed his trademark system of logical argument based on empirical evidence: Teun Tieleman reviews his ambiguous relationship with the rival medical theories of the Empiricists and others. Similarly, Geoffrey Lloyd shows that Galen’s arguments with his contemporaries are sometimes dismissive (43 Atomists), but at other times indicate partial (sometimes silent) assimilation of the work of others. On psychology, Pierluigi Donini takes on PHP and QAM (two of those enigmatic abbreviations of Latin titles), concluding that Galen is not as clear as he might be on the implications of following a Platonic model of the soul (against the Stoics); and that Galen does not fully engage with what his predecessors had established. Jim Hankinson, the editor, takes on the key matters of Galen himself, his bibliobiographies, his epistemology and his theory of nature. These are given masterly treatment: Galen is perhaps too confident about what can be known empirically but at least concedes that much is unknowable. On nature, everything from bread to the humours and the cosmos is discussed concisely and authoritatively. Ben Morison and Rebecca Flemming lucidly discuss his logic, language and scholarly commentaries, areas as integral to Galen’s work as his empirical studies.

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