Dioscorides and his medical book

In The Canterbury Tales, written around 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer lists a handful of ancient and modern medical authorities. Among them is Pedanius Dioscorides, a Roman who lived between c. 40 and 90 AD. His De Materia Medica (Medical Material) is usually dated to the year 70, although the book was so useful and revolutionary that it must have been edited, adapted, and added to almost immediately.

His full name, Pedanius Dioscorides Anazarbeus, tells much of his story. He came from Anazarbeus, a small town in Cilicia, Asia Minor. He studied medicine at a school in nearby Tarsus (his book is dedicated to a teacher and practitioner there), and he made his way to Rome after receiving the patronage of the Pedanii family. At some point during the reign of Nero (54-68 AD), Dioscorides began to travel around the Mediterranean and the Near East to consolidate all medical knowledge available at that time.


It is said that he served as an army surgeon under the legate Lucilius Bassus during the first Jewish-Roman War—but as Bassus was only appointed in the year 71, we can guess that Dioscorides’ great work was already well underway, if not finished, by that time. Stressing first and foremost the importance of first-hand knowledge plants, De Materia Medica remained an essential work for the next fifteen hundred years—and so many of his remedies must have been reliable. Others are fascinating today simply for their depth of detail (how to properly boil viper meat into a concoction that, once eaten, will improve one’s eyesight), or in revealing various superstitions (using bedbugs to treat malaria). If a woman wanted to end her pregnancy, he wrote, she should concoct a drink of “hellebore, squirting cucumber, and scammony.” And he already knew the power of opium when it came to treating pain.


A scattering of quotations from his book also shows that plants were only part of the story—and that male baldness has been a problem from time immemorial: “A solution of vinegar and salt water is good for gangrenous and septic ulcers, and the bites of venomous creatures... Frogs burnt to ashes and smeared on wounds in an ointment staunch blood flow. They cure baldness if rubbed in with liquid pitch… Pig fat is good for disorders of the womb and buttocks, and for burns… Bear fat is good for chilblains, and supposedly reverses hair loss…”


For an English edition, see: Dioscorides, Pedanius. Osbaldeston, Tess Anne, ed. De materia medica: Being an herbal with many other medicinal matters. Written in Greek in the first century of the common era. Vol. 2. Johannesburg, 2000. [from the Latin, after John Goodyer 1655]

Also, check out Tim Miller's article in MWCC.9 on the topic - "When Translation was King: How the Gift of a Greek Manuscript Changed Medieval Spain," 24-27. https://www.karwansaraypublishers.com/products/medieval-world-9 

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