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De materia medica.

Pedanius Dioscorides of Anarzarbus. De materia medica.

Altertumswissenschaftliche Texte und Studien 38. Trans. Lily Y. Beck. Hildesheim: Olms--Weidmann, 2005. xxxviii + 540 pp. index. [euro]78. ISBN: 3-487-12881-0.

Alix Cooper. Inventing the Indigenous: Local Knowledge and Natural History in Early Modern Europe.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xiv + 218 pp. index. illus. map. bibl. $75. ISBN: 978-0-521-87087-0.

For more than 1,500 years, the closest equivalent of today's Physicians' Desk Reference was the pharmacological treatise, De materia medica, "On medical materials." Dioscorides, a Greek doctor from Roman Cilicia, composed it late in the first century CE after traveling through the eastern Mediterranean lands. Succinct entries for some 600 natural substances--mostly plants, but also animal and mineral products--provided the materials' names, sources, appearance, medicinal properties, therapeutic uses, methods of preparation, and tests for adulteration. Dioscorides also recorded folk remedies and superstitions but usually distanced himself from them with the skeptical words, "they say that...."

Almost as soon as it was written, De materia medica began to be excerpted, condensed, rearranged, and translated into Latin, Arabic, and European vernaculars. A medieval Latin version glossed by Peter of Abano made it into print in 1478, but was quickly supplanted by fresh editions, translations, and commentaries by humanist scholars (see John Riddle's detailed survey in Catalogus translationem et commentariorum: Mediaeval and Renaissance Latin Translations and Commentaries, IV, 1980). The new availability of Dioscorides deeply influenced Renaissance medical education and spurred a more general interest in natural history. By 1600, De materia medica could be read in Greek, Latin, Italian, Castilian, German, French, Czech, and Dutch--but not in English.

Except for passages embedded in the herbals of William Turner, John Gerard, and John Parkinson, Dioscorides was not translated into English until the mid-seventeenth century. Then, in the midst of civil strife, John Goodyer, a learned and capable botanist, transcribed the Greek text and wrote his translation between the lines. Goodyer willed his manuscript (4,540 quarto pages!) to Magdalen College Library, where it sat until 1934, when Robert T. Gunther published it as The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides ... Englished by John Goodyer A. D. 1655 (reprint, 1968).

Even for readers familiar with Greek, Latin, seventeenth-century English, and early modern medical terminology, every line of Goodyer's version poses problems. So a translation of De materia medica by a classicist into clear modern English is very welcome. Lily Y. Beck has followed Max Wellmann's authoritative critical edition of the Greek text (1906-14; 1958 reprint; full-text available on Google Books), consulted the 1901 German translation by Julius Berendes, and used Jacques Andre's botanical identifications in Les noms des plantes dans la Rome antique (1985). Her notes provide cross-references and elucidate etymologies, place-names, and natural history. The volume includes very useful indexes of the natural products (by English common name, Greek name, and, for plants, scientific name) and medical conditions they were used to treat.

The potential readership for De materia medica today is larger than it has ever been, thanks to recent scholarly interest in early medicine and natural history and the enormous upsurge of general interest in alternative medicine. Beck's translation reveals how strikingly dependent Western herbal medicine in the twenty-first century remains on this first-century treatise. Unfortunately, at this price and in this series for classical scholars, Beck's translation and her promised commentary will not reach the very wide audience they deserve. For that, we need a book that combines the two and fixes the typesetting problems that mar this volume. Because Dioscorides is also a prime source of information about ancient crafts, cooking, and agriculture, such a volume should add indexes to people, places, subjects, individual ingredients, Greek names, and scientific names. It should include a map to show the remarkable scope of the ancient drug trade and coordinate the scientific and common names with the Integrated Taxonomic Information System/Catalogue of Life database ( And it should take advantage of Alain Touwaide's research on Dioscorides' Greek text, plants, and pictorial traditions. I hope that Dr. Beck, the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, which supported this work, and an enterprising publisher will undertake the project.

To the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century naturalists whose work and ideas Alix Cooper examines in Inventing the Indigenous, De materia medica was both a standard reference book and a guide to method. Over the course of the sixteenth century, European naturalists had become comfortable with the fact that Dioscorides and other classical authorities had not known the flora and fauna of Northern Europe, let alone the New World, Asia, and Africa. Although Dioscorides' preeminence had diminished as the number of described species had increased ten-fold, his precepts were taken all the more to heart.

Dioscorides had emphasized the importance of direct, "personal observation in utmost detail": "anyone who wishes to gain experience in these matters" had to follow his example of going out in all seasons to see living plants in their native habitats (Beck 3, 5). Throughout Europe, but especially in the fragmented principalities of the Holy Roman Empire, physicians, pharmacists, and medical students began exploring their own countrysides with the avidity of overseas adventurers. Cooper focuses on the new genres they created: local floras, regional catalogues of fossils and minerals, and natural histories of territories and nations. Their motives were more complex than Dioscorides'. Their prefaces appealed not just to the physician's need to know what remedies were at hand, but also to the naturalist's pride in backyard discoveries, the cameralist's anxiety about economic self-sufficiency, the conservative's fear of the foreign, and the natural theologian's appreciation of creation and its creator. Above all, Cooper argues, they sought identity in the indigenous: what made the natural history of their homeland as worthy of attention as the curiosities from elsewhere?

On the face of it, those new genres are unpromising material for historical analysis. The local floras, in particular, are simply lists of Latin and vernacular names of plants, together with the nearby places where the plants could be found. It is a pleasure to watch Alix Cooper extract meaning from these seemingly barren opuscules. Her account of the 1615 catalogue of plants growing around Altdorf (near Nuremberg), for example, goes well beyond the work's content, medical-school authors, and local context. It is shot through with insights about--to name just a few--the natural knowledge of physicians and peasants, the social mobility of naturalists, the connotations of the "common-place" in literature and science, and the early appreciation of mountain landscapes.

The compilers of regional mineralogies and territorial natural histories took inspiration from the local floras but--literally and figuratively--covered more ground in their search for natural wealth. Unlikely their princely patrons, however, the Royal Society and Linnaeus were not wholly enthusiastic about such local efforts. As Cooper observes, they saw both the individual specimens and their idiosyncratic collectors as raw material for a universal science, to be put in order by their own overarching systems.

Inventing the Indigenous is an astute, rich work. Anyone doing local and regional history will find in it sparking new approaches, but it also deserves readers in all the disciplines it weaves together: history of science and medicine; cultural, economic, and intellectual history; art history; book history; natural history; ethnography; geography; and museology.

Taken in tandem, these two books underscore the strong connections between natural history practices in antiquity and early modern Europe: Dioscorides and Cooper's naturalists could have happily gone collecting together, comparing observations about local and exotic productions of nature. But just as Cooper makes us think about naturalists as part of the larger cultural and intellectual scene, so too her book raises much broader questions--about the private and the public, the wild and the cultivated, the rural and the urban, the "vulgar" and the rare, the native and the invader, the provinces and the center, the colonies and the empire, and the exotic and the indigenous--that can be turned back onto De materia medica, its generations of users, and our own responses to the natural world.


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Title Annotation:Inventing the Indigenous: Local Knowledge and Natural History in Early Modern Europe
Author:Reeds, Karen
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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