Mental Insanity in the Hippocratic Texts: A Pragmatic Perspective

in Mnemosyne
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The terminology of insanity in the Hippocratic texts appears often confusing to the reader for its variety and ambiguity. Scholarship has dealt with this problematic group of words in different ways, attributing the phenomenon to accidents in the composition of early medical texts or their status as part of a developing technical language and fundamentally reducing them to synonymous. In this piece I propose to look at them not in a semantic perspective, but from the point of view of pragmatic linguistics. How does the grammar and position in which these words are used influence their effect within the individual narrative? How are nuances of emphasis and intensity expressed? How do aspects of subjectivity and chronology emerge through narrative strategies? Through a close reading of one illustrative passage from the patient cases of the Epidemics I attempt to extract further information about the use and meaning of early medical psychiatric vocabulary.

Mental Insanity in the Hippocratic Texts: A Pragmatic Perspective

in Mnemosyne



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See Lanza 196894-96 and 117-118 Schironi 2008 340-341 on ‘families of words’ and their formation.


Bakker 2010a151. See also Slings 1992 95.


See Thumiger 201378-79 for data on the distribution of the occurrences of these terms.


Clarke 2010120.


See van der Eijk 2005124-125 for a survey.


See Lanza 196894-96 and 117-118 about the absence of these aspects in the Hippocratic language.


Schironi 2010338. See Lanza 1968 113-125; Berrettoni 1970 304-307 on the ‘intelligibility’ of the Hippocratic technical lexicon. See the introductory chapter in Langslow 2000 and Fögen 2009 9-25 for important remarks on the nature of ancient ‘technical’ literature and its language(s)—both focusing on Roman material but with methodological consideration reaching to include ancient technical texts more generally.


See Leven’s decisive criticism (2004).


Benveniste (2010) exposes the strangeness of a “verb of existing [which] of all verbs should have the privilege of being present in an enunciation in which it does not actually feature”. The verb ‘to be’ he adds later is “a verb like all the others” (188); we must “recover its full value and proper function in order to evaluate the distance between ‘nominal assertion’ and assertion which contains the verb ‘to be’” (189).


Benveniste 2010187 (here and below my translation).


Benveniste 2010192.


Cf. also Slings 199296-100; van der Eijk 1997 104 with n. 98 offering other possible explanations besides accidents of composition and transmission (although concentrating especially on ‘introductory’ nominatives of patients’ names at the beginning of a period). On the other hand Hellweg (1985 79) is characteristically impartial about “Nominal- und Verbalsätze”: no rationale behind the preference of one or the other can be detected in the texts in his view: “bei Untersuchung dieser Frage haben sich zwar keine starren Gesetzmäßigkeiten gefunden dennoch lassen diese Texte zuweilen eine gewisse Vorliebe für die eine oder andere Ausdrucksart erkennen”.


See Thumiger 201375.


Cf. Cooper 2004Frances 2009 and 2010 Simon 2013 and Hughes 2013 on taxonomic issues.


Cf. Porter 19878-38 for a strong argument in favour of the importance of narrative for the historian of ‘madness’; more generally ‘narrative-based medicine’ is gaining ground as a model of practice and inspiring a shift of perspectives also in the field of history of medicine (on these developments see Petridou and Thumiger (forthcoming) Introduction). For an example from a different but highly relevant context see Martzavou 2012 on the language and narrative of the emotions in the healing accounts of Epidauros.

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