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Ancient Notions on Healing Potions : Medicine: Recipes for everything from aphrodisiacs to cough syrups are found in the medical handbook of a 6th-Century woman.

September 13, 1992|FRANK D. ROYLANCE | THE BALTIMORE SUN

Here's a sure-fire recipe for love, from one of the best female doctors of the 6th Century:

Take the womb of the hare and fry it in a rusted bronze frying pan.

Throw in three pounds of rose oil, then grind smooth with good-smelling myrrh.

Add four drams of fat, one dram crocodile dung, two drams juice of garlic germander and of bloody flux and four drams of honey.

Some also blend in a small amount of sparrow fat.

A dollop of this aphrodisiac, says Holt Parker, professor of classics at the University of Cincinnati, "was intended to be smeared on the woman, presumably when she wasn't looking. How you sneak up on a woman with crocodile dung or rabbit womb, I don't know."

The recipe is one of many contained in an ancient medical handbook written in Greek for doctors and lay people by a 6th-Century female gynecologist known as Metrodora.

Parker has spent much of the last two years reading, researching and translating a 40-page collection of Metrodora's writing, which he tracked down in a Renaissance-era library in Florence, Italy, and hopes to publish soon.

He believes it to be the oldest surviving medical manuscript authored by a female physician, revealing much about the history of both women and medicine.

Noted in library catalogues since 1770, Metrodora's work had never before been accurately translated, Parker said.

It includes a substantial book on gynecology, a shorter collection of antidotes, a book on pharmacology and part of an alphabetically organized handbook of remedies.

For Parker, the laborious translation was an "absolutely fascinating" experience.

"There is a real sense of connection, of looking at the things that were most important to people in their daily lives--the cures for bad rashes and coughs and the things everybody deals with," Parker said. At the same time, the text conveys a vivid sense of the exotic.

It teaches, he said, "the two great principles of the classics and archeology: That everything is always the same, and everything is always different."

In addition to aphrodisiacs, Metrodora lists cures and potions for hemorrhoids, uterine cancer, infections, breast disease and other illnesses. There are ways to promote pregnancy, ease childbirth, determine the sex of unborn children and restore the appearance of virginity.

Metrodora also offers cosmetics, aids to conception and contraception, ways to help women produce or dry up their milk and to keep their breasts small and beautiful. There is no advice on how to enlarge breasts.

Some of the cures and potions are clearly useless or superstitious by modern medical standards, Parker said. But some might actually have worked, including a cough remedy containing opium and a highly astringent contraceptive that may have been an effective spermicide.

"There has been a general tendency away from viewing ancient medical texts as compendiums of complete nonsense and a recognition that a number of . . . plants and materials . . . contain genuinely therapeutic actions," Parker said. "They were actually trying to cure people using things that seemed to them to work."

Although the texts reveal nothing of Metrodora directly, Parker's research suggests that she lived and worked--perhaps in Alexandria, Egypt--after the classical times of Greece and Rome and in the early years of the Byzantine Empire.

It was an era that continued to prosper from the expansion of art and learning begun centuries earlier by the Greeks and Romans. Women were active as artists and scholars, Parker said. Other medical texts of the time quote female physicians as authorities.

Far-ranging trade routes made many exotic pharmaceutical ingredients available at local "drug" stores, which did a brisk business.

Metrodora, Parker said, may well have been a prominent physician of her day. Some of her work reflects "some very clear scholarship, beyond her immediate predecessors, back to Hippocrates (in the 3rd and 4th centuries BC) and back to Galen (in the 2nd Century)."

"She was not content to copy sections from the big medical encyclopedia of the time," he said. "She's got a number of original observations on the etiology of diseases, a number of original cures and recipes. She is quite an exciting character in the history of medicine."

The text, entitled "From the Works of Metrodora," is handwritten in faded black ink on poorly preserved pages made of thin animal skin called vellum.

The pages are wedged in a large "codex," or book of collected medical texts by a variety of authors, some of them anonymous. The book is held in the Laurenziana Library in Florence.

Parker believes the manuscript is a 12th-Century copy, handwritten by an "incredibly ignorant scribe," prone to misspelling and other errors. The scribe, in turn, appears to have been working from an earlier copy that was also damaged.

Parker happened on the text while preparing a class lecture on the role of women in antiquity. Unable to find a reliable translation, he decided to do it himself.

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