Sickness, Treatments, and Medical Books in Late Antique Egyptian Villages

Jennifer Cromwell

“I greet my Father Athanasios. I spoke to you about the medical book. I often wanted to come south, but looking after here has not allowed me to come south. I wanted to come south, (but) the roads prevented me. Now, please send it to me, either (by) Pmoute or give it to Aaron and he will send it to me via his brother. If I can examine it (for) two days, I will return it.”

So wrote a man, also called Athanasios, to a monastic elder. The ostracon, O.Crum 253, today in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, probably dates to the 7thcentury CE and likely comes from western Thebes (maybe the village Djeme/Medinet Habu). While the letter is only brief, there is quite a lot to unpack. Before the most obvious point – the request for the medical book – there is the passing reference to the road preventing Athanasios himself from travelling. Does this mean that he’s simply not up to the journey, or that he doesn’t have travel permits to travel out of his village, or is this an allusion to potential danger on the roads? Instead, Athanasios suggests a couple of men who can collect and deliver the book, highlighting the importance of social networks in day-to-day life, for support in various ways.

As for the main issue, the need for a medical book, The writer, Athanasios, doesn’t say who is sick or what the symptoms are, so the book in question must be something like the pocket-sized medical codex today in Copenhagen. This miniature book, only ca. 9 x 8 cm, contains remedies and instructions for a range of symptoms and conditions. For example, on p. 112 (below right), the text reads:

“For those people who throw up their food. (Mix) seeds of this plant and water and wine and honey. Let him drink and he will be healed.”

Water, wine, and honey are common ingredients in such treatments, especially honey! But, seeds from what plant? Sometimes, these medical books require some further knowledge from their users.

pCarlsberg 500 – medical book pages
Pages from the medical codex P.Carlsberg 500 (c) Papyrus Carlsberg Collection

In addition to this kind of medical book, individual treatments could also be written and sent. An ostracon, P.Mon.Epiph. 574, found at the monastery of Epiphanius in western Thebes (built in and around Theban Tomb 130 on Sheikh Abd el-Qurna), contains a treatment for vomiting blood:

pMonEpiph 574 – vomiting blood
P.Mon.Epiph. 574 (c) MMA

“For somebody with an internal illness who is vomiting blood:

  • heat up a little radish oil;
  • add to it a little burnt sulphur;
  • break a hen’s egg into the oil;
  • anoint the one who is sick in his bowels three times a day and he will be relieved.”

As the treatment mentions bowels in the last section, the problem seems to be intestinal rather than respiratory problems (vomiting rather than coughing up blood – the Coptic verb itself is more vague). Where the sick person is to be anointed is not stated, although perhaps over his abdominal region, as the point of contact closest to the affected region.

Monastery of Epiphanius
Foreground: “Monastery of Epiphanius” on Sheikh Abd el-Qurna. The actual ancient name of the hermitage is unknown, but we refer to it today by its best-known figure. Today, remains of two large towers survive in the courtyard.

In both of the ostraca, monks are closely connected with the healing process: Father Athanasios, a monastic elder, is asked to send the book, while the treatment for vomiting blood was found at a small hermitage. While monastic figures are most often characterised as holy people and miracle-workers, studied primarily for their spiritual endeavours, they also fulfilled many important social functions. In his book, From Monastery to Hospital: Christian Monasticism and the Transformation of Health Care in Late Antiquity, Andrew Crislip illuminates the innovative approaches to health care that took place within the earliest monasteries. Monks and monasteries were not isolated, religious institutions but were a fundamental and integrated aspect of secular life in Egypt as well.

Hopefully, the medical book that Athanasios requested provided the treatments he needed to help those in his care.

Technical Details (Text 1):
Provenance: Western Thebes(?), southern Egypt.
Date: 7th century(?) CE.
Language: Coptic, Sahidic dialect.
Collection: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; inv. Bodl.Copt.Inscr. 104.
Designation: O.Crum 253 (according to the Checklist of Editions).

Technical Details (Text 2):
Provenance: Middle Egypt, perhaps the monastery of Apa Jeremias at Saqqarah.
Date: 6th century CE.
Language: Coptic, Sahidic dialect.
Collection: Papyrus Carlsberg Collection, University of Copenhagen (P.Carlsberg 500).
Designation: P.Carlsberg 500.
Bibliography: Wolja Erichsen (1963), “Aus einem koptischen Arzneibuch,” Acta Orientalia27: 23–45; Tonio Sebastian Richter (2014), “Neue koptische medizinische Rezepte,” Zeitschrift für Ägyptologie und Altertumskunde141/2: 154–194.

Technical Details (Text 3):
Provenance: Theban Tomb 130 (“Monastery of Epiphanius”), western Thebes, Egypt.
Date: 7th century CE.
Language: Coptic, Sahidic dialect.
Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; inv. 12.180.79.
Designation: P.Mon.Epiph. 574 (according to the Checklist of Editions).

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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