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  • The Latin Alexander Trallianus: The Text and Transmission of a Late Latin Medical Book
  • Vivian Nutton
D. R. Langslow. The Latin Alexander Trallianus: The Text and Transmission of a Late Latin Medical Book. Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. Journal of Roman Studies Monograph No. 10. 2006. xxv + 287 pp. Ill. (ISBN-10: 0-907764-32-0; ISBN-13: 978-0-907764-32-8).

To a medical historian, this volume offers both more and less than its title suggests. It is not an edition of the Latin translation of the Greek therapeutic handbook of Alexander of Tralles, although chapter 5 contains a specimen edition of the first eleven chapters of Book II. Nor does the author commit himself at this stage to any specific date or place for the translation, although he hints at Ravenna or Rome in the late sixth or early seventh century. A more definite conclusion can be reached [End Page 388] only after the establishment of better texts, in both Latin and Greek, and that is still some way off. Indeed, one surprising feature of the whole manuscript tradition of Alexander is that the Latin version offers access to an underlying Greek text that is considerably better than that of any surviving Greek manuscript, let alone the printed editions. Puschmann’s editions of 1878–87, which were deservedly praised at the time, are now revealed as seriously defective. The 1556 edition by Guinther von Andernach is described as being full of surprises, not least because Guinther silently retranslated large chunks from Latin into Greek, a practice common then but deprecated today. Future editors of Alexander now have a clear map that will show them the way forward as well as the hazards that lie in wait.

They will also be warned against many traditional statements about the life and works of Alexander, a member of a brilliant family from Asia Minor that flourished in the reign of Justinian. Far from living from 525–605 as many authorities state, Alexander may well have died forty or even fifty years earlier, and this book may have been written before 542, for there is no reference to plague. He seems to have visited Spain, Gaul, and Corfu, and there is no reason to doubt that at the end of his life he settled in Rome, which was at this time an outpost of a reinvigorated Byzantine Empire. D. R. Langslow puts his recommendation of “magical” remedies into context but does not emphasize that they appear almost entirely in discussions of a handful of chronic diseases for which ordinary remedies have failed, most notably epilepsy and colic.

Langslow’s careful listing of manuscripts and complex discussions of the stemmatics is of major importance for a wider understanding of medicine in early medieval Europe. Compared with the more standardized world of late-medieval university medicine (from which date only a handful of unimportant codices of this treatise), the early tradition shows a great variety of forms and usages. The translation itself is no haphazard summary—in length it differs only slightly from the Greek—but a deliberate practically oriented choice. Whether the arrangement of chapters adopted by the translator represents the original Greek is a moot point, although there is much in its favor.

An even bigger surprise is the range of contexts in which sections from the translation appear in other works, some of them antedating the earliest manuscripts. As well as isolated extracts, large sections are incorporated in so-called Salernitan manuals attributed to Petroncellus and Gariopontus, as well as in two books on diseases and the Bamberg Surgery. As Monica Green, Eliza Glaze, and Klaus-Dietrich Fischer have shown, this widespread reuse of material from Alexander forms part of a sophisticated medical culture that was concerned to preserve the best of early practical medicine.

This is a model book of careful, deep scholarship that contributes to the revision of traditional ideas about “Dark Age” medicine. It comes as something of a surprise then to find Lynn Thorndike described as “her” (p. 29)—a situation only too familiar to this male reviewer. [End Page 389]

Vivian Nutton
The Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine


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