Wednesday, July 17, 2019


Peter E. Pormann (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hippocrates. Cambridge companions to philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xix, 441. ISBN 9781107695849. $37,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Katharina Epstein, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

According to the preface, the volume was put together out of a desire "to provide an easy introduction to a fascinating, yet difficult and recondite topic" (p. xiv). With notes on how to quote ancient works and similar introductory remarks the volume intends to make its subject accessible to a broad public including students and non-classicists, philologists, philosophers, and historians of science alike.

In the Introduction, Peter E. Pormann explains the decision to name Hippocrates instead of the Hippocratic Corpus (HC) in the volume's title, by reference to the tremendous afterlife the legendary Greek founder of medicine has had, thanks primarily to the mediation of Galen. Pormann intriguingly hints at the ways the persona of Hippocrates was construed and instrumentalized by medical writers from antiquity until today to cement their authority as doctors and writers. A concern with the construction of professional authority unites the entire volume.

Where does this companion belong on the "medical marketplace" (V. Nutton) of introductions to ancient medicine? Other more or less recent standard introductions include Jacques Jouanna's Hippocrate (1992), Vivian Nutton's Ancient Medicine (2004), Elizabeth Craik's The 'Hippocratic' Corpus (2015), and Hellmut Flashar's Hippokrates (2016). In distinction from these introductions, Pormann's volume aims to integrate the figure of Hippocrates into a philosophical framework, as some of the chapter headings indicate (see below). Another distinguishing characteristic is its interest in the reception of the figure of Hippocrates through the ages. The writers who continued the 'Hippocratic' tradition in some way are discussed not just in their roles as physicians and medical authors, but also as textual critics and exegetes. The Arabo-Islamic tradition is included in this line of inquiry. Finally, the volume unites an international team of 16 contributors, (8 of them women, I might add), which has resulted in a linguistically diverse and thematically balanced selection of secondary literature.

For a systematic overview of the treatises in the HC, readers are still advised to look into Jouanna's, Craik's, or Flashar's introductions, where the treatises are listed along with brief summaries. Pormann's volume, on the other hand, functions not only as an introduction, but also as an introductory reader. Substantial source quotations in English translation are discussed in detail, teaching the reader the art of ἐκ βιβλίου κυβερνᾶν (to navigate, scil. literature in the Hippocratic tradition, by the book). It is regrettable that the volume does not feature an Index locorum to facilitate access to these rewarding discussions.

The volume as a whole covers quite a bit of ground, not just on the temporal plane, as is the custom of companions; still, one may take grateful note of two chapters the editor himself mentions as missing in the volume, first "the prehistory of Hippocratic medicine," second "the interplay between philosophy, especially Presocratic and Aristotelian, and Hippocratic medicine" (p. 22). As a matter of fact, comparisons with Homeric epic are oddly more conspicuous than comparisons with the Presocratics.

A few minor quibbles: A little more information about the major medical schools after Hippocrates (empiricists, rationalists, etc.) would have been appreciated, as would their mention in the index. Some Greek terms are also missing in the index, meaning readers might have to peruse the entire volume to find out what physis or diaita means in the HC. Diocles of Carystus is mysteriously absent (exc. p. 227). A remark on p. 27 is misleading geographically: "A recurrent question relates to the reasons for Hippocrates' move from the southern island of Cos to northern Greece: […] he spent time in Thrace and on the island of Thasos, as well as Thessaly, where he apparently died." On p. 43, we find both Latin and Greek name endings (Herophilus, Bacchius, but Philinos of Cos). A few recurring terms could have been briefly glossed, such as "naturalistic explanation"; also some medical terms (e.g. "pleurisy", "styptic", "trepanation"). An oddity: Renate Wittern's 1998 article on genres in the HC is missing in chapter 2, but referenced in chapter 7 and therefore featured in the list of references. Concluding summaries would have been useful for every chapter, not just most.

The bibliographical references, as noted earlier, are internationally diverse, and an introductory volume cannot cover everything. Nonetheless, it would not have hurt to see included: Louis Bourgey, Observation et expérience; a few more titles by Karl Deichgräber, Ivan Garofalo's edition of Erasistratus, Robert Joly, Le niveau de la science hippocratique, Erna Lesky, Die Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren der Antike, Charlotte Schubert, Der hippokratische Eid, Max Wellmann's edition of fragmentary Sicilian medicine, Georg Wöhrle, Studien zur Theorie der antiken Gesundheitslehre.

It is not possible to discuss every chapter within the limits of this review. I will only make a few points of special attention in the following.

The fact that Jacques Jouanna's contribution (Textual History) is advertised in the Introduction, p. 5, as "the first time in a Cambridge Companion that textual history and criticism […] is fully explained and explored in a separate chapter" will make Classicists want to laugh and cry at the same time, if they have not already succumbed to scholarly melancholy. Jouanna, the weathered editor of numerous medical treatises, takes on this intimidating task in less than 25 pages – the full article was published separately (L'histoire textuelle du Corpus hippocratique, Journal des Savants 2, 2017, 195-266). His summary of the history of the HC's textual transmission from antiquity to the Renaissance is garnished with illustrative snippets from the history of medicine and scholarship.

Brooke Holmes' contribution (Body) covers a topic that is still trending after feminist scholarship first dynamized the 'corporeal turn'. Holmes makes the indispensible point that the concept of the body in the HC is not a neutral concept. The way the authors of the HC imagine the inner workings of the body (dissecting humans was not sanctioned) is steeped in professional dogma, ideology, superstition, and, in the case of the female body, misogyny. As Holmes eloquently maps the landscape of the inner body, readers acquire an understanding of the workings of the inner body according to the HC and develop a strong (too strong?) awareness of how the Hippocratic imaginary designs its "cavities as a network of hidden nooks and crannies that nourish disease without either the embodied person or the physician knowing that things are going wrong" (p. 77). Her closing statement that "the Hippocratic body is still in a crucial sense 'our' body" (p. 88) does not convince entirely , but is a welcome invitation to question today's concepts of the body.

Holmes' chapter is in productive tension with Jim Hankinson's contribution (Aetiology). Hankison brings out a different facet of the HC's study of the diseased body, providing some basic background in Presocratic philosophy to explain the Hippocratic study of causation in the body based on Hippocratic key terms like „nature", „power", etc. The HC as Hankinson sees it, is not free from convolution and the fantastycke, but overall committed to writing rational science as it was understood at the time.

Lorenzo Perilli's contribution (Epistemologies) makes excellent observations about epistemology in a broad sense, elucidating methodology (e.g. clinical case notes, p. 131) and style (e.g. a tendency to apodeictic statements, p. 142) in the HC as well. His chapter could have been edited for length where he takes his arguments to rather general levels by philosophizing about „the Greek mind", „the Greek interpretation of the world", and the like.

Laurence Totelin's chapter (Therapeutics) on dietetics and pharmacology is exemplary in every way. She provides a lucid overview of the relevant Greek terms, treatises, modes of treatment, and the medical marketplace crowded not just by physicians but also by „magicians, purifers, charlatans, and quacks" (p. 212) to characterize the HC's „new, all-encompassing dietetic medicine" (p.215). Her concluding suggestion to look into the way the vapours during fumigation surround the body and perhaps create „a sort of 'second skin'" (p. 216) is stimulating.

Chiara Thumiger's chapter (Doctors and Patients) succeeds in rejecting the idea that Hippocratic doctor-patient-relations are simply one-way-relations, notwithstanding the physician's authority: „If the sensorial exploration of the body is mostly entrusted to the active role of the physician, with the patient turned into an inert object of observation, the ‚voice of the patient' gains an irreducible independence in this second component of the visit" (p. 271).

The appendix lists the Hippocratic treatises alphabetically by English title and also gives the Latin title, the Latin abbreviated title, the position in Craik's and Jouanna's overviews, in Littré's edition, and in the Loeb edition.

The book conforms fully to the standards to be expected from Cambridge University Press and is a welcome addition to existing introductions to the topic. The chapters build on one another and harmonize in their overall concerns. They all contain didactically useful warnings and impulses one would like students of ‚Hippocrates' to take to heart.

Authors and titles

1 Peter E. Pormann, Introduction
2 Elizabeth Craik, The 'Hippocratic Question' and the Nature of the Hippocratic Corpus
3 Jacques Jouanna, Textual History
4 Brooke Holmes, Body
5 Jim Hankinson, Aetiology
6 Lorenzo Perilli, Epistemologies
7 Karl-Heinz Leven, Ethics and Deontology
8 Amneris Roselli, Nosology
9 Laurence M. V. Totelin, Therapeutics
10 Mathias Witt, Surgery
11 Lesley Dean-Jones, Female Patients
12 Chiara Thumiger, Doctors and Patients
13 Véronique Boudon-Millot, Galen's Hippocrates
14 Daniela Manetti, Late Antiquity
15 Peter E. Porman, Arabo-Islamic Tradition
16 David Cantor, Western Medicine since the Renaissance
Appendix (compiled by Melissa Markauskas), References, Index

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