CFP: Greek Medical Texts and Their Audience

Seen on the Classicists list


12-13 December 2014

Università Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Brussels, Belgium

by the A.G. Leventis Foundation.

Organised by Sophia Xenophontos (Université
Libre de Bruxelles) and

Petros Bouras-Vallianatos (King’s
College London)

Call for papers

idea that every text is meant to appeal upon a certain audience is not a new
one, but it is only recently that it has engaged much scholarly discussion,
especially in light of the application of reception theory to literary works.
This conference seeks to examine the interplay between Greek medical texts
(e.g. Hippocratic corpus, Dioscorides, Galen, Rufus of Ephesus) and their
contemporary readers. Papers concentrating on the reception of these texts in
later periods (e.g. Late Antiquity, Byzantium), including the Syriac and
Islamic tradition, are also welcome.

We are interested in contemplating, inter alia, the following questions/subjects:

§  How do medical authors adjust their text according to the needs and expectations of
their audience? (structure of medical texts and medical subgenres as aspects
determining wide vs specialised readership)

§  Other conditions that may regulate, control, or limit the reception of medical writings
(e.g. background of author and reader, degree of shared memory between them)

§  Deciphering medical texts; mechanisms for activating or enhancing the reader’s memory (e.g. rhetorics, visual representations, diagrams)

§  Cognitive and emotional responses to medical works­

§  Translators/editors and their role in the transmission and reception of medical texts

§  Commentaries, scholia, paraphrases

Keynote speaker:

Prof. Vivian Nutton (London)

Confirmed speakers:

Prof. David Engels (Brussels)

Dr Antoine Pietrobelli (Reims/Paris)

Dr Chiara Thumiger (Berlin)

Dr Laurence Totelin (Cardiff)

Dr Uwe Vagelphol (Warwick)

(of no more than 200 words) should be in English and include title of the
paper, full name, academic affiliation, and contact details. These must be sent
by Friday, June 20, 2014 to: Sophia.Xenophontos AT
or petros.bouras-vallianatos AT

Looking at Mental Illness in Antiquity

From Columbia News:

The examination of mental disorders would seem to be the almost exclusive domain of psychiatrists and psychologists, not humanities scholars. Yet William V. Harris, the William R. Shepherd Professor of History, has spent his time in recent years studying his chosen field—the history of ancient Greece and Rome—through the lens of mental illness.

Harris, director of the Columbia Center for the Ancient Mediterranean, has explored subjects in ancient times ranging from war and imperialism to literacy and economic history. More recently, he began to focus on emotional states, in books such as Restraining Rage: the Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity in 2002, and Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity in 2009. “I’ve always been interested in psychiatry and psychology, which I see as a quite natural interest for historian,” he said.

Then, in 2008, Harris was, “struck by lightning by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation,” as he put it, which awarded him a three-year grant of $1.5 million for distinguished lifetime achievement. The selection committee said Harris transformed his field by “asking big, difficult questions and offering provocative answers that have generated significant debates beyond the confines of his discipline.”

Harris used the grant to promote research on the history of mental disorders in the classical world, and also on some other, not closely related, aspects of the classical world. “Mental illnesses are among the greatest challenges to understanding ourselves as human beings,” Harris said. Studying them, he added, improves our understanding of ancient lives and texts written thousands of years ago. All three great tragedians, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, staged scenes of madness in their plays. In Sophocles’ Ajax, for example, the title character slaughters sheep and cattle believing them to be Greek generals who disgraced him; he later commits suicide.

Harris soon realized that covering a subject so large would require help. So in 2010 he funded two conferences on the topic at Columbia, drawing classics scholars, psychiatrists and historians from around the world. Now the findings of those conferences have been published in a volume that Harris edited titled Mental Disorders in the Classical World.

Chapter titles contributed by many of the conference participants include, “The Early Greek Medical Vocabulary of Insanity” and “Plato on Madness and the Good Life.” Harris’ own essay focuses on hallucinations, which he chose in part because “describing a hallucination is not an impossible task, it tends to be relatively brief,” he said. “Try describing 20 years of depression. That is a very challenging task.”

He offers examples of ancient hallucinators, such as Pheidippides, the Athenian courier who saw the god Pan on his famous run to Sparta, which is the inspiration for today’s long-distance running event.

Another outcome of his conferences was sorting out ancient terminology and classifications, as he and his collaborators created a sort of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of ancient times. “The names of mental disorders that the very best ancient thinkers have used don’t often correspond to anything that exists in the modern world in a neat and tidy way,” Harris said. For example, the word “phrenitis” appears in ancient texts to describe illness characterized by delirium, fever and death. Today, some scholars think it refers to encephalitis.

But using modern-day medicine to understand ancient illnesses doesn’t always work, Harris said. “There’s always a temptation among historians of ancient medicine to do retrospective diagnoses and to say, for example, that so-and-so was a paranoid schizophrenic,” he said. “People have found this almost irresistible.” But ancient descriptions of cases are seldom complete enough to allow for a retroactive diagnosis, he added.

Nor did the ancients have anything approaching a scientific community of peers. The 2nd century Roman physician and philosopher Galen had colleagues and friends, Harris explained, but nothing comparable to the peer review or statistical support that present-day doctors get.

Despite the addition of the new volume on ancient mental maladies, there are many topics still to be plumbed, such as senility, demonic possession in Christianity and Judaism, and the ancient custom of seeking cures for mental (and other) illnesses by invoking the help of the gods. “I regard this book as a useful publication, but it’s a very long way from being the last word on the subject,” he said, perusing its cover, which depicts a 16th century woodcut of Galen. “We are left more with an agenda than a whole set of answers.”

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Classics Confidential: Jo Brown and Helen King on Hippocrates Electric

The official description:

Hippocrates is traditionally seen as the ‘Father of Medicine’. But scholars now doubt whether any of the treatises in the so-called Hippocratic Corpus are in fact by this historical figure. This has not stopped his name – and, by implication, his authority – being attached to various ideas, from medical theories to therapeutic practices: including soup! Dr Jo Brown is working with Professor Helen King on her ‘Hippocrates Electric’ project, examining how ‘Hippocrates’ features in popular beliefs about medicine today.

Classics Confidential ~ Daniela Manetti: Medicine and Religion in Aelius Aristeides’ Hieroi Logoi

The intro:

A couple of posts ago we featured an interview with Prof. Daniela Manetti who was visiting the Humboldt University of Berlin as part of the research project Medicine of the Mind, Philosophy of the Body. This week we talked to another of the project participants, Dr Georgia Petridou, about her work on the second-century AD text Hieroi Logoi (‘The Sacred Tales’) by Aelius Aristeides, orator and long-term resident of the sanctuary of the healing deity Asklepios at Pergamum (modern Turkey).

As Georgia explains on the Humboldt project website, the Hieroi Logoi ‘point to a close correlation between initiatory experience in some of the most popular mystery cults of the imperial era (like the mystēria of Demeter, Isis and Sarapis) and Aristeides’ portrayal of: a) the exclusivity of the therapeutic experience of the Asklepieion of Pergamum; b) the symbiotic relationship between somatic and psychic suffering and recovery; c) Aristeides’ representing the community of his fellow patients as mystai; and finally d) Aristeides’ depiction of disease as a perpetual near-death experience.’