restricted access A Cretan Healer’s Handbook in the Byzantine Tradition: Text, Translation and Commentary (review)
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Reviewed by
Patricia Ann Clark. A Cretan Healer’s Handbook in the Byzantine Tradition: Text, Translation and Commentary. Medicine in the Medieval Mediterranean. Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2011. xviii + 301 pp. Ill. $119.95 (978-0-7546-6101-6).

The merits of A Cretan Healer’s Handbook in the Byzantine Tradition lie in the meticulous work of Patricia Ann Clark, who offers both social and medical historian as well as the general reader an absorbing study of the medicine practiced in the Amari Valley of Crete in the early years of the twentieth century. The valley lies within sight of Mount Ida, and among its villages is that of Meronas where a healer, Nikolaos Theodorakis, lived (1891–1979); a photograph of him suggests a perceptive and compassionate man whose home, Clark tells us, doubled as “a kind of informal clinic for the sick” (p. 31) who benefited from his knowledge of medicinal plants that he gathered for the preparation of medicines. Before he was forty he had compiled and copied a collection of medical lore. Clark has studied this compendium and now gives us the Greek text with English translation and footnotes. Most valuable of all for many scholars will be the three appendices of animal, mineral, and vegetable substances used in the handbook’s remedies.

The sources of the remedies are uncertain; one remedy for coughs, gangrene, injury, and nosebleed is attributed to the fourth-century physician Oribasios. The remedies are certainly evocative of the Byzantine genre of medical and remedy texts, but were these later remedies likely to be effectual? Some may have served through iatrogenic influence or the vis medicatrix naturae. Others may have been beneficial through the medium of some ingredient, with long recognized medical properties. [End Page 480]

The remedies are not only for bodily ills; a charm for “the release of a married couple and for the karfoma” (p. 109; i.e., a charm engendering magical energy) is a spell that recounts an exchange between the archangel Gabriel and “the utterly impure harlot” Gialou (p. 109). Its purpose is to rid a married couple of a spell, effectively to exorcise them. There are other “magical” means of remedy in Theodorakis’s collection, but the majority of the remedies are of the more familiar kind using herbs or plant products (the largest category of ingredients) as well as animal and mineral constituents (“take the bladder of a sheep . . .” [p. 113] or “a powder made up from the burned and ground shell of a tortoise”). Among the last entries in the iatrosophion are indicators of “good days” for those afflicted with various medical conditions, these days being dependent on the position of the moon in the zodiac. A considerable portion of the book is taken up with an appendix detailing the materia medica of the remedies, an invaluable source of reference in its own right.

The great scholar Herbert Hunger once spoke of the “jungle” of Byzantine iatrosophia. The text we have here is a descendant of those medieval compilations, sharing their aims and methods. But what are we to make of a remedy for inebriation that calls for a sparrow’s marrow compounded with sesame oil and wine? That mixture is said to be an effective way of ensuring that “he doesn’t get drunk any more” (p. 81). The reader may have difficulty in detecting a rationale for a prescription of this kind.

This is a valuable and important work of scholarship that looks back to Greek medicine of earlier centuries, as well as subsequent Turkish and Italian influences. Clark has done scholars, of both medieval and early modern medicine, a great service in recording and defining the historical and geographical context of this collection, and the work of its compiler, the village healer Nikolaos Theodorakis.

David Bennett
Kent, United Kingdom