Babylonian Gynaecology in the 1st Millennium BC in the Light of Intercultural Parallels
By Hebrew and Jewish Studies, on 9 September 2013
By Ulrike Steinert
In her lecture for the research seminar on March 21, 2012, Ulrike presented an overview over her current research project entitled „Gynaecology in the Medical Texts of Ancient Mesopotamia from the 1st Millennium BC“, funded through a Medical History and Humanities Fellowship of the Wellcome Trust, London. The primary aim of this project is to produce an up-to-date edition of the corpus of gynaecological cuneiform texts from 1st millennium BC Mesopotamia, paying special attention to the Assyrian and Babylonian texts on female healthcare in the British Museum, which include several hitherto unpublished cuneiform tablets on this subject. Based on the philological study of these texts, which include diagnostic omens, recipes and rituals for different problems such as infertility, miscarriage, irregular bleeding, or complications during childbirth, Ulrike seeks to achieve a better understanding of the features and contents of these texts by drawing on comparative sources about female healthcare from neighbouring Greek, Egyptian and Jewish traditions.
Although approximate contemporary sources are to be preferred for intercultural comparisons (e.g. the Hippocratic corpus), Ulrike pursued an unorthodox route in her presentation and chose a Hebrew Medieval compendium on female healthcare from 15th century Western Europe as an example: The Book of Women’s Love / Sefer Ahavat Nashim, a work which contains a mixture of source material – oral traditions (especially of women), Greek, Latin and Arabic medical texts, Jewish sources (esp. the Kabbalah) and medieval treatises from Western Europe (e.g. the Catalan treatise Tròtula). In her comparison of Mesopotamian medical texts and The Book of Women’s Love, Ulrike discovered far-reaching agreements and continuities between both textual traditions, regarding the recorded gynaecological complaints, the treatment forms and some used materia medica to combat gynaecological illnesses, although differences can be noticed as well (e.g. in phraseology and in typical Graeco-Roman medical theories and practises found in The Book of Women’s Love which were unknown in Mesopotamia). Thus, Ulrike highlighted that comparative information from other textual traditions and cultures can be of help to elucidate puzzling details in the Mesopotamian texts and to develop plausible interpretations. The presented cross-cultural data about common drugs were exemplified by treatments for one problem, gynaecological haemorrhage, and were supplemented by information from Dioscorides’ De materia medica (1st cent. CE).
The similarities between ancient Mesopotamian and Medieval Jewish texts on female healthcare suggest that both societies encountered and treated much the same female health problems. The agreements in treatment types and used materia medica in texts of different cultures and periods hint at the existence and stability over long periods of time of a common medical knowledge, experience and practise, which can be described as recipe-based and is partially grounded in folk medicine.