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1,400-year-old medicinal treatise of Galen found hidden under hymns in ancient manuscript

1,400-year-old medicinal treatise of Galen found hidden under hymns in ancient manuscript

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A 6th century translation of a work of one of the most important ancient Greek doctors has been discovered in an animal-hide manuscript, hidden underneath text of 1,000-year-old hymns. A researcher told The New York Times that Galen's ideas on medicine were “completely bonkers,” but the palimpsest text holds important clues on how the ancients treated patients.

Galen, born in 131 AD, was considered one of the greatest practitioners of medicine in the ancient world, both East and West, through to the 16th century. Legend has it that Galen eviscerated an ape in front of the High Priest of Asia in Pergamon and challenged other doctors that were present to repair it. They could not, so Galen did, thereby gaining his post as physician for the high priest's gladiators. In 170 AD he became physician to Commodus, who became emperor in 180 AD.

“The Galenic system is completely bonkers,” Dr. Siam Bhayro, a Jewish studies scholar in England, told The New York Times.

“Wound Man,” a medieval work attributed to Galen

“Wound Man,” a medieval work attributed to Galen (Wikimedia Commons)

That said, the website Medscape indicates Galen understood more about physiology than Aristotle. Aristotle said the heart was more important than the brain, while Galen said the brain was the primary organ, controlling all the other organs of the body. Both men were right in a way because the brain cannot function without the blood and oxygen that the heart pumps to it. But Aristotle's idea was that the brain's main purpose was to produce phlegm to cool the heart. Galen showed more understanding when he said the brain was connected to and controlled the entire body. He wrote, "If you press so much upon a cerebral ventricle that you wound it, immediately the living being will be without movement and sensation, without spirit and voice."

Peter Pormann, a Greco-Arabic scholar in Manchester, England, called the find important on many levels. “It’s likely to be a central text once it’s fully deciphered. We might discover things we really can’t dream of yet,” he told The New York Times.

A scan of a folio from the text

A scan of a folio from the text, which is available online at

The 230-folio parchment palimpsest includes one of Galen's medical texts that was not entirely lost in antiquity, though 125 of his books were lost in a fire.

Books 6 to 8 of the text, On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs, are in the British Library. But the new find, which will add much more material, is an earlier translation, from ancient Greek to Syriac. This translation may differ from later ones and be truer to what Galen actually wrote. The differences between known translations and this latest find, a 9th century copy of a 6th century translation, may help show how doctors treated patients in antiquity.

Though the text has been known since the 2000s, scholars are just beginning to study it. The New York Times says the text may provide previously unknown information about how the practice of medicine developed and spread.

The book is owned by a man in Baltimore, a collector of rare scientific material. Grigory Kissel, a German language scholar, was examining the manuscript at the collector's house when he saw how similar it was to a page he had held Harvard University a little while before. Kissel realized how important the find was.

That was in February 2013. Between then and May 2015 a worldwide search for seven missing pages ended when the final page was digitized in Paris, The New York Times reported. One page of the manuscript remains at St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai Desert. Three others were in a Vatican library.

St. Catherine's Monastery from Mount Sinai in Egypt; the monastery has the oldest continuously operating library in the world.

St. Catherine's Monastery from Mount Sinai in Egypt; the monastery has the oldest continuously operating library in the world. (Photo by Wilson44691/Wikimedia Commons)

The Digital Galen Syriac Palimpsest has all of the folios online. They were scanned using special techniques at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. An introduction on the website says: “This manuscript contains an eleventh-century liturgical text that is very important for the study of the hymns of Byzantine and Melkite Christianity. The manuscript's value is further increased by the fact that it is a palimpsest, with an older and very significant undertext.  The undertext dates back to approximately the ninth century, and contains Syriac translations of Greek medical texts. Preliminary investigations have identified several leaves from Galen's major pharmacological treatise.”

Featured image: The medical text dates to the 9th century, the hymn book to the 11th century. (Walters Art Museum photo)

By Mark Miller



"Galen" is a Macedonian language word. How is Galen a "Greek"?

Why is a non-medical expert quoted? What authority does a Jewish Studies Scholar have to comment on the Galenic system, and why quote him?

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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