Hippocrates commentaries authored and printed between 1500 and 1650 (2002-2007)

Project Leader(s): Dr Thomas Rütten
Sponsors: Funded by Wellcome Trust

The project aims at a comprehensive account of Hippocratism between 1450 and 1650, as reflected in one of the period's most prominent literary genres, namely the scholarly commentary.

At the most basic level, the who, when, and where of early modern Hippocratic commentary needs to be addressed. Who wrote these texts? What prompted authors to engage as commentators with the Hippocratic writings? What were their intentions in penning their commentaries, and what did they hope to achieve? What was the scholarly and biographical background of these writers? Were they commissioned to undertake this work, and if so, by whom?

What place do the commentaries occupy within the larger context of an author’s œuvre or within his professional practice? Who were the commentaries written for? Which of the Hippocratic texts commented upon formed part of the contemporary medical curriculum? Were the commentaries written for the student reader? How do they relate to medical practice at the time? Who bought printed versions of them, and what is their significance within the history of the book? What circulation did the commentaries achieve? Were there subsequent or revised editions? Can we define a target audience for some or all of these commentaries?

What exactly is a commentary? Does the commentary as a form develop in particular and distinctive ways during the period we are concerned with? Can we draw unequivocal distinctions between the various forms of commentary and other forms of written discourse prevalent at the time? What formal criteria identify a text as a commentary (title, style of organisation, synoptic arrangement of primary and secondary text, etc.?)

Why did the commentary as a form appeal to writers above and beyond any other genre? Is it possible to identify specific features that would distinguish the Hippocratic commentary from commentaries on other classical authors, most prominently Aristotle for example? What are the proportional relations between the primary, i.e. Hippocratic text and the secondary text that comments upon it? Which version(s) of the primary text form the basis for a particular commentary? How prominently does the primary text actually feature within the secondary text? Which parts or aspects of the Corpus Hippocraticum were deemed particularly worthy of commentary?

To what extent are commentaries tinged by contemporary concerns? Does a commentary seek to elucidate the primary text’s applicability to contemporary debates, or is the argument rather constructed the other way round? How does a commentary relate to or even intervene in available editions and translations of the text it is concerned with? How do the commentaries refer to one another, and what is the significance of such intertextual practice?

To what extent do commentaries forge synchronically as well as diachronically constructed intertextual links with other texts from other genres? What light do the commentaries shed on our conception of Hippocratism? What image of Hippocrates do they seek to propagate? How ‘classical’, or how ‘modern’, is the Hippocratic medicine envisaged within their pages? Which areas of medical thought and practice can be seen to be most eager for a Hippocratic revival – and for the Hippocratic commentaries that would promote it? What is the scope of the medical panorama projected here? And how did Hippocratic commentaries influence and even change the fortunes of medical practice during their day?

Finally, one must ask to what extent our modern (and postmodern) ideas of Hippocrates have been shaped by the preferences, preconceptions, and strategic readings first inscribed into the Hippocratic discourse by these early modern commentaries. To what extent can present day Hippocratic scholarship be seen to continue to rely on a conception of the Hippocratic tradition that derives more or less directly from the secondary texts written in such vast numbers between 1450 and 1650? What are the resulting blind spots in the history of Hippocratism, and what constructive misunderstandings or unproblematised appropriations of classical models continue to haunt Hippocratic research to this day?

A systematic assessment of these Hippocratic commentaries should go a considerable way towards answering some, if not all of these questions.


Dr Thomas Rütten
Reader in the History of Medicine