When I was still in my doctoral program in History at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I was asked to teach a course that was cross-listed between History and Environmental Studies. It was a course on pre-modern science. I taught everything from the pre-Socratic philosophers to the Copernican Revolution, incorporating a lot of material from ancient and medieval medicine into the course. I found myself so engaged by these topics that I was determined to turn my attention to medicine in the late ancient world after finishing with my first monograph. It seems that over the past few years, many scholars in early Christianity and late antiquity have made a similar decision. This sub-field has truly burgeoned in the time since Professor Kristi Upson-Saia (Occidental University) and I founded ReMeDHe, a working group for religion, medicine, disability and health in Late Antiquity (www.remedhe.com), now boasting more than 200 members internationally. And the demand for workshops and conference sessions has grown to such an extent that we have created a board of directors to meet these increasing demands.
A significant number of our members meet at the North American Patristics Society every May in Chicago where we host a pre-conference workshop and a number of sessions, but we are also beginning to branch out and partner with consultations and groups at other conferences, such as the Society for Biblical Literature (both at the North American and International Meetings). Our ReMeDHe collaboration has led to two edited volumes: a special issue of Journal of Late Antiquity 8.2 (Fall 2015) on Religion, Medicine, Disability and Health in Late Antiquity (co-edited by Kristi Upson-Saia and myself) and a special issue of Studia Patristica Vol. LXXX (2017) on ‘Health, Medicine, and Christianity in Late Antiquity,” (co-edited by Jared Secord, Christoph Markchies, and myself). And a third volume is being assembled by ReMeDHe members focusing on the use of medical metaphor by early Christian authors. Taken together, the papers will argue that these uses were neither abstract, incidental nor merely rhetorical, rather they relied on complex and nuanced medical notions.
My own work on topics related to medicine and health in the ancient world has a number of different foci. A few years ago, I applied for and received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Development Grant to track ancient doctors in papyri, inscriptions, and ancient literature. I was trying to look at changes in their social location and standing in the late ancient world in conversation with the ways in which the medical profession and Christianization were intersecting in mutually influential ways. I worked with Sarah Bond at the University of Iowa, providing her access to my very basic Zotero database for these references so that she could use whatever metadata I collected in her Collegium Project, a digital humanities project which tracks professionals in antiquity using GIS mapping applications. I have published a preliminary paper on this topic in a recent Studia Patristica volume (see above volume citation).
At the same time, I was reading a very strange text by Porphyry of Tyre, my old friend from my time working on demons and spiritual taxonomy, entitled To Gaurus on the Ensoulment of Embryos. I was somewhat surprised to discover that he had written an embryological text. But upon closer examination, this fascinating work made complete sense in terms of the kinds of questions this late Platonist was asking more generally, questions that emerge from Plato’s Timaeus and Republic about how souls come to inhabit bodies and participate in cycles of reincarnation. In Porphyry’s work, he puts medical embryology together with Chaldean astronomy. What I found fascinating was the way in which embryonic bodies behave similarly in Porphyry’s “medical” text to the ways in which demonic bodies behave in On Abstinence from Animals, his long plea for vegetarianism. In On Abstinence, he argues that evil daemons (demons) are really good daemons who have given in to the desires engendered by their pneumatic bodies and have sunk to lower orders of the cosmos where they create havoc and incite humans to sacrifice animals, a practice which feeds these malign beings and makes them even more “corpulent.” I decided to write a comparison between embryonic and demonic bodies in Porphyry using Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s notion of the assemblage as a lens. This project is forthcoming in Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural.
While working on this paper, as it happens, one of my very helpful reviewers directed me to the work of Michael Marder in Critical Plant Studies because I was discussing the ways in which Porphyry insists that prior to birth the embryo is in essence a plant. Porphyry advanced this view in opposition to those natural scientists and medical writers (for instance, Galen of Pergamum) who either asserted the embryo received its soul at conception or gradually developed a soul as it grew in utero. After reading Marder’s work, I began to question what Porphyry meant by “plants” or “plant-like existence.” Given that Porphyry was not speaking metaphorically, how could a creature that would eventually become a human be a plant? This led to further questions, such as follows: What kinds of theorizations of plant life were more generally in circulation in later antiquity (1st to 4th centuries CE)? How did ancient scientists think about the ways plants fit into the larger cosmological order in relation to other ontological forms such as metals/minerals, animals, celestial beings, and other divinities? And how did these scientists think about the various kinds of transformative work plants did in the cosmos in contexts such as healing in medicine and refining in alchemical processes?
On the basis of these questions, I developed a grant proposal/research agenda to explore and identify a set of basic and widely circulating assumptions about plant ontology across a number of ancient intellectual discourses, including but not limited to botany, pharmacology, philosophy, biology, alchemy, natural history, and esoteric works, such as the Hermetica and Greek Magical Papryi. These assumptions will hopefully help reveal more clearly the kinds of taxonomic principles used in antiquity for ordering the natural world, principles which are very different from any modern classificatory system. According to Michael Marder, “ancient systems of thought operated with classifications utterly distinct from those of the moderns” (Marder, 2014: 11). To give but one example of this difference, he writes that in antiquity, “[a] noble human (e.g., Odysseus), a noble animal (e.g., a lion), and a noble plant (e.g., bay laurel) had more in common with one another than two disparate members of the same ‘kingdom,’ such as laurel tree and a stalk of corn” (Marder, 2014:11). Hence, I’m hoping to take an emic approach to ancient botany and pharmacology by paying attention to ancient systems of classification and other scientific principles.
From a theoretical perspective, my research will take as its point of departure insights from the work of various “New Materialists,” such as the political scientist Jane Bennett (author of Vibrant Matter), and writers working in the field of “Object Oriented Ontologies.” These fields also bear important similarities to work done in Critical Animal Studies and what in Michael Marder’s case is called “Critical Plant Studies.” All of these models endeavor to de-center the human and enjoin us to pay attention to the life of other creatures and objects by exploring various kinds of potential agency in non-human beings. Many of these approaches also attempt to disrupt what Marder has referred to as the “unmistakable collusion” between metaphysics and capitalist economy, which militates against “the dispersed multiplicities of human and non-human lives” (Marder, 2011: 417). In Marder’s case, his aim is to “reduce, minimize, put under erasure, bracket, or parenthesize the real and ideal barriers humans have erected between themselves and plants” (Marder, 2013: 11). Although their ethical programs are importantly prescriptive, I argue that we can explore the descriptive applications of these theoretical models to good effect. New Materialists, for instance, find many useful precedents for their prescriptive conceptualizations of matter in pre-modern understandings of the elemental nature of the cosmos (i.e., that it is made up of four basic elements each of which exhibits its own motions and even desires). Marder’s “Critical Plant Studies” takes as one of its points of departure Platonic and Plotinian thinking about the nature of plants and the vegetative/nutritive aspect of the human soul. Plato accorded plants both a form of desire and a form of thought, hence, he accorded plants forms of agency absent from most botanical models that supplanted pre-modern thinking on plants during the Enlightenment.
On a broader note, ReMeDHe actively promotes an academic culture that encourages cooperation among scholars rather than competition, as well as encouraging mentorship of junior colleagues, whether graduate students or early career academics. I have seen this culture work beautifully as my senior colleagues have interacted with and engaged in practical and concrete terms with my own graduate students. It is my hope that any AJR readers interested in these topics will consider joining the group. I discuss it before my own work in late ancient medicine to provide insight into the context and environment in which my own work finds inspiration and an audience. Without ReMeDHe my own individual projects in the field would have developed at a far slower pace and been less nuanced in terms of the questions they pursue.
Heidi Marx is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Manitoba. She is also an Acting Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty of Arts at her institution. Her book, Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Expertise: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century CE was published by UPenn Divinations Series in 2015. She is currently working on a biography of the fourth century female philospher, Sosipatra of Pergamum, under contract with Oxford University Press' Women in Antiquity Series, as well as she is co-editing and co-authoring a source book on ancient medicine under contract with the University of California Press.