The Syriac Galen Palimpsest “On Simple Drugs” – a core reference medical text in the ancient world

Starting in 2015, the University of Manchester has been engaged on revolutionary research into the origins of herbal medicine.

Galen, born in 131 AD, is one of the forefathers of medicine and one of the most influential medical writers, physicians, scholars and philosophers. He left a vast legacy of written texts on medicine. Indeed, about half the texts known to us from the Hellenic period were written by Galen. Galen wrote in ancient Greek, but his texts were later translated into Syriac*, then Arabic and lastly Latin (through the Arabic invasions into Europe). His teachings profoundly influenced medical traditions around the world. Avicenna, a famous Islamic physician and philosopher, used Galen’s treatise “On Simple Drugs” as one of his core reference texts. Eventually, Avicenna wrote his own interpretation on Galen’s ideas that became a part of The Canon of Medicine, the most influential medical text both in Islamic world and medieval Europe.

What makes “The Syriac Galen Palimpsest On Simple Drugs” project unique is that University of Manchester scholars were able to work with the original 6th century Syriac manuscript that had been considered lost forever, before recent advances in technology.

Back in ancient days, parchment, or “pergament” was used as the writing medium. It was made from the skin of domesticated animals in an extremely time-consuming and costly process. A few centuries after the original translations, during Syriac church reforms, parchments that were no longer considered sufficiently useful were simply recycled. This was done by erasing the ink on the pages by steeping them in milk and covering them in chalk. The result was that the text underneath was not completely erased but was completely unreadable and unrecognisable.

But now new technologies, such as ultraviolet photography, allow the previously erased parchment texts hiding underneath other texts to be recovered. The principal University of Manchester study compared the recovered Syriac version of the manuscript to the Greek version. This identified gaps in the original printed Greek version that had been lost.

A large part of the manuscript “On Simple Drugs” is devoted to medicinal plants and their uses. The Galen’s manuscript focuses on the virtues of “simple” or “single” plants. Even today, we, herbalists, refer to “simples” when just one herb is prescribed, as opposed to when a cocktail of herbs is taken simultaneously in a “herbal mix”. Some of the medicinal plants Galen wrote about are still used in modern herbal medicine today, whilst others have fallen by the wayside. The former group includes Cinnamonum cassia (Chinese cinnamon), the bark of which modern research now suggests can improve blood glucose and cholesterol levels in people with type II diabetes (Diabetes Care, 2003). On the other hand, Galen was especially fond of apples. He considered apples to be a “cure for all”. Although apples have medicinal virtues (keeping teeth clean, preventing gallstones, lowering blood sugar and cholesterol levels) we do not really prescribe apples as a medicine these days.

*Syriac was a major literary and religious language of the Middle East from 1st century AD to 8th century AD.

An exhibition “Seeing the Invisible: Medieval Hidden Heritage Revealed” concluded the University of Manchester’s scientific discovery. The exhibition took place at John Rylands Library, University of Manchester between 30 October 2019 – 8 March 2020. Julija Milovanova-Palmer was an exhibition consultant on the use of medicinal plants described by Galen in the modern Western Medical Herbalism.

References: Cinnamon improves glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes.Khan A, Khattak K, Sadfar M, Anderson R and Khan M, Diabetes Care 2003, 26: 3215-3218.