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  • The Syriac Galen Palimpsest Project:An Introduction
  • William Noel and Ralph M. Rosen

This special issue of Manuscript Studies was born of a conference held by the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the Kislak Center of the University of Pennsylvania Libraries on April 29–30, 2016, entitled "Revealing Galen's Simples." The conference concerned a Syriac palimpsest first mentioned in a 1922 catalogue of the book dealer K. W. Hiersemann. It comprises an eleventh-century liturgical overtext and a ninth-century undertext. The undertext in the manuscript is illegible, but it was known to be medical in nature when it was bought by its current owner in 2002. Three years earlier this private collector had acquired the Archimedes Palimpsest, and had subsequently funded the effort to image and study that manuscript.1 The imaging techniques developed for the Archimedes program were applied to this codex in 2009, and immediately bore fruit. Sebastian Brock and Siam Bhayro were able to suggest from [End Page 1] multispectral images that the palimpsested text was a sixth-century Syriac translation of Galen's On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs. The manuscript then became known as the Syriac Galen Palimpsest (SGP). The conference was convened to bring together, in the presence of the manuscript, the many scholars, imagers, and conservators who have studied the manuscript since the text was identified, with a view to sharing knowledge already gained and facilitating collaboration in the years ahead.

Galen was born in 129 CE in Pergamum, by then a city under Roman provincial rule, but culturally and historically Greek and Greek-speaking, and his intellectual formation was emblematic of this period of Mediterranean cultural hybridity and eclecticism. After early studies in Pergamum, he traveled to various Greek cities, and then to Alexandria in Egypt, to learn from specialists in philosophy and medicine. During this itinerant period, in the 150s, he honed his skills and extended his knowledge of anatomy, surgery, and pharmacology. His early reputation came from his success as a doctor to gladiators when he had returned to Pergamum, and when he went to Rome in 162, he seems to have become something of a celebrity, writing voluminously, engaging (on and off) in public debates and demonstrations, treating prominent politicians (as well as non-elites, and even slaves) and eventually members of the imperial household itself—including the emperors Lucius Verus (130–169), Marcus Aurelius (121–180), and then his son, the unstable Commodus (161–192).2

Galen wrote prolifically on virtually all aspects of medicine, as well as on various philosophical subjects that he regarded as relevant to bodily and psychological health and happiness. Some 120 of his works have survived, which by themselves account for a significant percentage of all extant Greek [End Page 2] literature before the fourth century CE.3 Galen's polymathic interests and strong literary persona were characteristic enough of the intellectual culture of the period, but his subsequent influence on the history of Western medicine cannot be exaggerated. As Singer has written of Galen, "with the exception of Aristotle, and the possible exception of Plato, there can be no more historically influential ancient author in matters scientific."4

Galen's reputation as a medical authority in late antiquity is well attested, and endured more or less unbroken, though with periodic swings back and forth—usually in a contest of authority between Galen and Hippocrates—even into the nineteenth century, when Greek models of physiology and therapeutics finally gave way to approaches founded on microbiology and an improved understanding of chemistry and pharmacology. The variety and scope of Galen's output, however, even within the context of scientific writing, is remarkable. He wrote treatises on physiology and anatomy, including several monumental works that became classics of Western medicine (e.g., Mixtures and Usefulness of Parts), methods of diagnosis, prognostics, therapeutics, pharmacology, and nutrition. Some of these were technical and methodological, and he was often highly polemical in his views about what constituted "good science" (for him, a reliance on logic, empirical demonstration, and attention to careful language). He also wrote less technically and more protreptically for lay audiences or beginning students, on broader cultural topics, such as...


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