From today’s lecture on Medicine in the Babylonian Talmud, by Prof. Mark Geller of University College, London, I derived one big idea and one delicious vocabulary item:
The big idea: Despite the Alexandrian conquest and the centuries of rule by the Greek-speaking descendants of Alexander’s generals, Greek thought never really penetrated Babylon (or Persia).
In particular, though Greek thought made a big impact on Jewish thought in Jerusalem in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, it made virtually no impact on Babylonian Judaism. Evidence: the discussion of medicine in the Babylonian Talmud largely follows Akkadian rather than Greek principles and forms of analysis. Disease is something that comes from outside the body rather than the product of humoral imbalance within the body. The small number of Talmudic references to Greek-style medicine reflect misunderstandings and misapplications of loan-works, suggesting that the redactors didn’t know what to make of those passages.
The vocabulary item is Dreckapotheke (lit. “sh*t pharmacy), which means “the use of disgusting items, especially excrement, in medicine.” According to Geller, all the “dog turds” and “bat guano” that appear in the various pharmacopeias were originally code-words for various plants, used to ensure that esoteric knowledge remained esoteric. (That isn’t fundamentally surprising; some of the odd elements in the grimoires [handbooks of magic], such as “eye of newt” and “toe of frog” are well known to be mnemonics for the true ingredients, knowledge of which was passed down orally.)
However, as the original traditions were lost but the texts were preserved, the result was that medieval physicians wound up prescribing some fairly appalling mixtures, which no doubt many of their patients dutifully accepted.