The Poetry of Science

Eric Lis

When you think of pharmacology textbooks, the word "poetry" might not be one that readily comes to mind. I can personally attest that modern pharmacology texts are rarely either beautiful or poetic, despite the fact that some of the people who write them can be downright whimsical about their work. As with so many modern beliefs, however, this may be unfair to our ancient ancestors, for whom poetry may have been an inextricable element of medical writing.

The other day, while trying to look up some historical information on small beer, I stumbled across a book entitled 'Greek' and 'Roman' in Latin Medical Texts: Studies in Cultural Change and Exchange in Ancient Medicine, which contained this chapter. The author of the chapter describes a phenomenon that I've never heard described before, which is that in the Greek and Roman periods, many pharmacological texts were written in verse. We're rightly critical of the scientific validity of such ancient texts, which contain, as this author references, such remedies as reading the fourth book of the Iliad or drinking rainwater collected in an upside-down skull -- although I will say that in my clinical experience, one of the best treatments for many illnesses is a good book and a nice cup of tea -- but we don't always pay attention to how the books were written. As storytellers of medieval fantasy, it's extremely useful to have an idea of how such texts looked, because it's not hard to imagine that spellbooks and magical tomes might use some of the same literary techniques.

One reason for composing pharmaceutical recipes in the form of rhythmic poetry might seem to be relatively fantastical. In many historical epochs, such knowledge was felt to be a gift from, or the purview of, the gods or other spirits of knowledge, which they generously passed down to humankind via divine inspiration. While humans might opt to write blandly, it was presumed that the Muses would never condescend to write in anything other than verse, and so naturally, medical texts had to appear in this form. Giving scientific writings the form of poetry was perhaps seen as either proof of a divine source, or else a way of giving tribute to the divine source.

There were probably some more practical and sensible reasons, however. Writing things in verse could aid in memory and protect against errors. First, rhythm is a useful memory tool for humans. Religious texts throughout history tend to be in the form of rhythmic and often repetitive song, because something that rhymes and repeats is easier to lodge in your memory. Similarly, there's no doubt that a recipe that rhymes would be easier for a Roman healer to recite when time is short or books are unavailable. This also helps protect knowledge against being lost forever; when some books by the famous early physician Galen were destroyed by a fire, he was able to rewrite them, having memorized the verses. Similarly, the presence of rhyme might have been intended to prevent copying errors; if the first line of a couplet reads, say, "to make your patient's breathing straight," then one can be relatively sure than the next line won't read "administer them doses twelve." (Obviously, this is an example that I, not by any stretch a poet myself, made up on the spot; the verses from the real texts are a quite a lot prettier.)

Lastly, some of these poetic techniques were probably used to camouflage the information therein. The chapter describes a recipe which calls for a volume of ingredient equal to "so many drams as are the (senses) of man." This form of presenting the recipe as a riddle may have helped to ensure that only people with certain background knowledge would be able to make use of it. Given that the same book opened with the comment that "the unlearned I do not want to enter," we can safely assume that the author was protective of his knowledge and wanted to keep it in specific hands. I can easily imagine an aristocratic wizard writing a spellbook in precisely the same way, to ensure that people of insufficient education (or breeding) can't make use of it.

The chapter linked to above goes to give some specific examples of poetic excerpts from several historical texts. I won't rewrite them here or comment on the content, but if you'd like to add verisimilitude to texts in your games, these examples are excellent references to imitate (or steal from). The next time that your characters open up a dusty tome, or for that matter, a book that for them might be the height of modern research, they may be surprised to find poetry inside in addition to fireball spells. Whether such poetry makes it easier for them to access the information they want, or whether decoding an obscure riddle to unlock the secret cure to a plague itself becomes the focus of a quest, is in the hands of the storyteller. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on November 16, 2014. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system