Tag Archives: The Alphabet of Galen

The Alphabet of Galen – A Review

If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know I love reading historical herbals and other medicinal texts. I find comparing what “they” knew “then” to what we know today an interesting (and sometimes mind-boggling) exercise. You’d be surprised at how accurate some entries are, without scientific evidence.

The Alphabet of Galen wasn’t written by the Galen (c. 129-217 CE) but predates him by probably one or two hundred years. Someone a few centuries down the line gave it that name – who knows why? The translator was able to see eight manuscripts dating from the seventh to the twelfth centuries (none identical, some fragmented), along with the first printed edition (1490). Although I can’t read Latin, I’m still jealous. I do own several pairs of white cotton gloves…

The first third of the book is discussion of the history, sources, translation/dating and the manuscripts themselves. The last fifteen percent or so is an extensive bibliography and index. In between are the 302 entries with Latin on the left and English on the right. It’s extensively footnoted.

Yes, some of the entries scared the bejeezus out of me. Bathing in lye, anyone? The same fragmented entry mentions something about “[…] true for the internal uses […]”! Others made me a little queasy – I’m not sure I’d ingest a skink’s inner flesh (in a twelfth of a pint of wine) as an aphrodisiac. Yet others, however, told of properties we still know today, such as St. John’s Wort “heals burns when applied topically by means of a compress”.

Mr. Everett did a wonderful job not only translating but cross-referencing this Materia medica with other well-known writers such as Dioscorides and Pliny.

It’s a fascinating glimpse into far-ancient times. Unlike many of its contemporaries, there isn’t a spot of superstition or magic. It’s all “fact”.

Five stars.