The snake-goddess, the satyr and the parturient: Jean Chièze’s Hippocratic illustrations

Sites like Ebay have make it incredibly easy to buy antiques and antiquarian books. But the best way to find antiques remains flea markets. These have always been one of my father’s passion. I remember going to flea-markets in Brussels on Sunday mornings as a child. We used to play games such as spot the kitsch-est object (I was quite good at that one) or guess the value of an object.

A few years ago, I asked my father to keep an eye open for a Littré edition of Hippocrates (or rather Hippocratic texts, as we do not know what Hippocrates himself wrote). This nineteenth-century edition and French translation in ten volumes remains the key edition for the Hippocratic Corpus. My father never found a Littré edition, but he did purchase – at a very good price (much cheaper than anything I can see on antiquarian book websites) – a five-volume re-edition of Littré’s French translation of Hippocratic texts, accompanied by wood-engravings by Jean Chièze, dating to 1955. A few weeks ago, my parents came to visit from Belgium, and they brought with them these five beautiful volumes. These are now in my care!

I have written about illustrated editions of Hippocratic texts before. I think these twentieth-century illustrated books may become one of my academic ‘side interests’. They are just beautiful and absolutely fascinating. Here is, for your viewing pleasure, a very small selection. Of course, this is a completely biased choice, reflecting my own personal interests.

Perhaps my favourite engraving is that representing a birth scene. A pregnant woman is lying on a table whose feet have been raised. A doctor is attending to the birth while a female assistant brings something (medicines?) in a box. So far, so more or less Hippocratic. There are indeed descriptions of birthing tables with raised feet in the Hippocratic Corpus. On the other hand, note the fact that the parturient is in a state of great undress; the doctor looks strangely like a satyr; and the assistant bears a strange resemblance to a Minoan snake-goddess, complete with bare chest. This is the most unlikely classical Greek birth scene.

A birth scene

A birth scene

The scene of fumigation comes close second in my list of favourite engravings. A scantily-clad woman sits atop a fuming gourd, while an equally scantily-clad male blows on the fire under the gourd. The scene is framed by pretty plants. Again, this is a reflection of the illustrator’s fantasies and does not indicate a very deep engagement with the actual Hippocratic texts. But who needs close reading of ancient medical texts when one can have mildly erotic scenes?

A fumigation scene

A fumigation scene

You may also enjoy the administration of an enema, and a very interesting representation of a baby attached to its placenta.

This entry was posted in Ancient History, History of gynaecology, History of medicine, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The snake-goddess, the satyr and the parturient: Jean Chièze’s Hippocratic illustrations

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year #2 Vol. #01 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: Seeing with new eyes | concoctinghistory

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