Medical Mysteries & Linguistic Detective Work: the Latin Alexander

David Langslow writes about his work on the ‘Latin Alexander’…

One of my research projects this year concerns an ancient medical text in Latin. It is a long text (500-600 pages) in three ‘books’, or parts. The first two books set out diagnosis and treatment of diseases ordered from head to toe, from hair loss at the start of Book 1 to gout at the end of Book 2; Book 3 gives symptoms and treatment of various types of fever. Like many Latin medical texts, it is a translation of a Greek original. Often the Greek original is lost, but in this case it survives in two Greek works, the Therapeutics and the On Fevers by the Greek doctor Alexander, who lived around AD 500 and came from Tralles in what is now south-western Turkey. We know little of Alexander’s career except that in old age he accepted a high-level public medical appointment in Rome, which may explain why his Greek writings were translated into Latin soon after (even during?) his lifetime, and with less abridgement than is usual in Latin versions of long Greek medical works.

The first folio of the oldest known copy (made in Fleury in France about AD 800) of the Latin version of the medical handbook of Alexander of Tralles, perhaps the greatest Greek doctor of late antiquity (c. AD 500).

The first folio of the oldest known copy (made in Fleury in France about AD 800) of the Latin version of the medical handbook of Alexander of Tralles, perhaps the greatest Greek doctor of late antiquity (c. AD 500).

Who made ‘the Latin Alexander’, when and where, we do not know, but it was something of a best-seller! It was widely copied both in its entirety and in various sets of excerpts, or ‘useful bits’. The Latin Alexander was one of the first medical books to be printed (first in 1504), even before the Greek original! In Greek and in Latin, Alexander remained central on European university syllabuses alongside Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen until the 18th century.

The Latin Alexander interests me for three main reasons. First, it has never been edited. That is to say, we have many hand-written copies (from the 8th to the 16th century), but no printed edition that attempts to capture the original version. No doubt the length and difficulty of the text explain perfectly why it has never been edited! Still, it is a challenge and a privilege to be at work on a first edition.

Secondly, the Latin Alexander is actually a compilation. Yes, it is very largely a Latin translation of the Greek Alexander, but it contains also chunks of other Greek works turned into Latin and inserted among the Alexander chapters. These include bits of Galen on facial and dental diseases, chapters on internal organs from Philagrius and Philumenus (which have not survived in Greek), and others of unknown origin. In other words, there are several different ‘voices’ in this single text.

Thirdly, the Latin itself is fascinating and raises several fundamental questions, including:

  • how many translators were involved?
  • did the translator(s) of Alexander translate also Galen, Philagrius, Philumenus, etc?
  • how ‘correct’ or poorly controlled is the Latin of the various parts?
  • what was the first language of the translator(s)? – Latin or Greek?
  • are there features of the Latin that link the Latin Alexander with other Latin medical texts?
  • are there features of the Latin that allow us to locate the translator(s) in space and time?

In other words, this is a project that satisfies both the historian of medicine and the linguistic detective!

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