Book Review

Gert-Jan C. Lokhorst


G.J.C. Lokhorst. Review of Axel Karenberg and Christian Leitz, eds., Heilkunde und Hochkultur I: Geburt, Seuche und Traumdeutung in den antiken Zivilisationen des Mittelmeerraumes (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2000, ISBN 3-8258-5217-2), and Heilkunde und Hochkultur II: "Magie und Medizin" und "Der alte Mensch" in den antiken Zivilisationen des Mittelmeerraumes (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2002, ISBN 3-8258-5752-2). Journal for the History of the Neurosciences, 2003. ISSN 0964-704X.

The two volumes of Heilkunde und Hochkultur (Medicine and High Culture) are devoted to six themes in the history of medicine. The first volume contains the following four sections:

The second volume consists of two sections: Each section starts with some chapters which give a survey of material from the ancient Near East (chiefly Mesopotamia) and Egypt. After this, the Judaic literature and Greek-Roman medicine are examined, and in some cases considerable attention is paid to the Renaissance and the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well. The authors discuss both medical theories and medical practices. They draw not only on medical sources but also on the non-medical literature that has survived. This is in line with their view that medicine is an integral part of society, not an isolated, autonomous field. The medical views and practices in a given era cannot be fully understood unless they are viewed against the background of the culture in which they are embedded. Another important point, stressed by several authors, is that, in early medicine, one cannot make a sharp distinction between "rational", "critical" or "empirical" medicine, on the one hand, and "magical", "mythical" or "religious" practices on the other. These ingredients were mixed together in a homogeneous whole. The Greeks were the first ones who attempted to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Although Heilkunde und Hochkultur is written by specialists from many disciplines (ranging from archeologists, Assyriologists, Egyptologists, Judaic scholars and classical philologists to historians of medicine), the book is intended for a general audience. It is quite successful in this respect. There is comparatively little material on the history of the neurosciences, but the book can be recommended to all historians of neuroscience who want to have a better understanding of the general development of medicine, particularly medicine before the Greeks. There are at least two chapters which nobody with any interest in the history of medicine should miss: first, Ferdinand Peter Moog's stunningly erudite "Gladiatorenblut bei Epilepsie als etruskische Therapie--und der Bischof Marinos von Thrakien" in vol. 2, and second, Daniel Schäfer's essay about Freud's interpretation of dreams (vol. 1), in which it is pointed out that Freud revived an age-old tradition that was nearly dead when he appeared on the scene.

There is one respect in which Heilkunde und Hochkultur is perhaps not entirely satisfactory: it remains unclear to what extent the medical theories and practices in the various cultures of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world influenced each other. This is not a shortcoming of the book, but merely a reflection of the state of current scholarship. Fortunately, the first steps in this field of research have just been set: in Rethinking the History of Medicine (Horstmanshoff & Stol, 2003), the Greeks' debt to their contemporaries and predecessors in different cultures is assessed. As this book makes clear, early Greek medicine did not arise in a vacuum. Many passages in the Hippocratic writings show that the early Greek medical writers were well aware of the views circulating in the other civilizations of the Mediterranean world and the Near East. Rethinking the History of Medicine may therefore be regarded as a welcome supplement to Heilkunde und Hochkultur.


Horstmanshoff, M., and Stol, M., eds. (2003), Rethinking the History of Medicine, Leyden, Brill, ISBN 9004131507.

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