Galen on the origins of soap

I stumbled across an interesting claim this afternoon, in the Wikipedia article on soap, which I traced to a 1960 textbook on the history of Greek fire (!) by a certain J.R. Partington.[1]

The origin of the name sapo has been much discussed. Some think it is from the German saipjo, others from the English sepe (still used in Scotland), passing by way of Batavia to Gaul. Blumner says true soap was unknown to the ancients, Pliny’s sapo being a pomade made from unsaponified fat and alkali. When true soap was first made by boiling fats or oils with causticised lye seems to be unknown, but the use of causticised lye in making soap (σάπων) is mentioned by Galen,[145] perhaps from Asklepiades junior (c. A.D. 100), who says it is made from the fat of oxen, goats, or wethers, and causticised lye (sapo conficitur ex sevo bulbulo, vel caprino, aut vervecino, et lixivio cum calce). Galen says that the best soap was the German, since it was purest and in some ways the most fatty, that of the Gauls being next best, and that it acted as a medicine and removed all impurity from the body and from clothing. This is the first certain mention of the use of soap as a detergent. Galen [146] says soap is a better detergent than soda (λίτρον). If the mention of Gallic soap in Oreibasios [147] is from Rufus of Ephesus (c. A.D. 100) this would precede Galen’s in a Greek writer. Zosimos the alchemist [148] (c. A.D. 250) mentions both soap (σαπώνιον) and soap-making (σαπωναρικὲ τέκνη).

Sadly I was unable to access the page of the preview with the footnotes (p.333), so I couldn’t get Partington’s references.  I do not know where we might find the statements by Zosimos, therefore.

But a search on the Latin text of Galen, or rather “Asclepiades Junior” – why Latin? – produced some interesting results.  A volume from 1817 quoted that text exactly, and rather more of it:[2]

Sapo conficitur ex sevo bubulo vel caprino, aut vervecino, et lixivio cum calce; quod optimum judicamus Germanicum; est enim mundissimum et veluti pinguissimum, deinde Gallicum. Verum omnis sapo acriter ralaxare potest, et omnem sordem de corpore abstergere, vel de pannis, et exsiccare similiter ut nitrum vel aphronitrum, mittitur et in caustica. (Soap is made from ox, goat or sheep’s tallow, and lye with lime; the best we think is the German [soap]; for it is the purest and almost the fattest, then the Gallic [soap].  Indeed soap can quickly loosen everything, and wipe away all muck from the body, or from clothes, and likewise dry up like nitre/soda or African nitre/sodium carbonate, and is also used as a caustic.) De simplicibus medicaminibus, p. 90. G.

In another book, ascribed to Galen, the greater part of which is taken from Aetius, and of which a Latin translation only remains, De dynamidiis, p. 28. G, according to Gesner’s edition stands: Recipe saponem spatarenticum, and p. 31. C, emplastrum de sapone spathulgno. These epithets, in my opinion, signified soap which was so soft that it could be spread.

But what is Galen’s De simplicibus medicaminibus?  It is unknown to the standard 20-volume edition of Galen’s works by Kuhn.[3]  Fortunately the answer is not far to seek – it is the title of an early printed edition of a pseudo-Galenic work, the Alphabet of Galen, recently edited and translated by Nicholas Everett.[4]  The editio princeps of this text was printed by Diomedes Bonardus under the title Liber Galieni de simplicibus medicinis ad Paternianum, and in the 16th century in the Opera Omnia of Galen[5] as Liber Galieni de simplicibus medicaminibus ad Paternianum.  Likewise I learn that De dynamidiis is also ps.Galenic, and also addressed to the same Paternianus, Paterninus or Paternus – Everett’s introduction is excellent on all these.

De simplicibus medicinis is listed in Fichtner’s modern Galen bibliography as #139: “Ad Paternum = De simplicibus medicinis ad Paternianum = Liber pigmentorum = De simplicibus medicaminibus ad Paternianum = Alfabetum Galieni” and “Nicht bei Kühn; Pseudo-Galen”.  Likewise De dynamidiis appears as #219, also spurious.[6]

But what of this editor “Gesner”?  He turns out to be the 16th century editor Conrad Gessner.  Curiously his edition includes a page listing Galenic spuria, and among them, De simplicibus medicinis![7]  His edition of the work is here, and we quickly see that the book is a list of simple things like aloe, etc.  Unsurprisingly we find a section De sapone here, and the entire entry is as above.

So this is indeed the source of the material given by Partington.  It is not by Galen, nor can he have used it.  It’s from a medieval handbook, at least in its current form, and attributed to Galen in general handbooks which are repeated uncritically throughout the 19th century.

Everett considers that the text incorporates a great deal of ancient medical knowledge.  No doubt it does, like many a medieval text;  but its value as evidence for the use of soap in Galen’s time, or indeed that of Asclepiades Junior, must be negligible.

The main mystery remaining is why Partington attributes the material to Asclepiades Pharmacion, known as Asclepiades Junior (ca. 100 AD).  This attribution is our only other possible reason to consider this material ancient.

It would be good to check the other references in Partington.

Update: A kind correspondent has now sent me the page of references, and I have decided that Partington is not quite as culpable as I first thought!  I have revised the post accordingly.

Now Partington does indeed give extra references, which are as follows:

145.  De compos. med. sec. loc., ii; Kuhn, xii, 586. (i.e. this is Galen)
146.  Method. medend., vii; Kuhn, x, 569. (and this)
147.  Synopseos, iii; in Stephanus, Medicae artis principes, 1567, 53.  (This is Oreibasios)
148.  Berthelot, Collection des anciens Alchemistes Grecs, 1888, vol. ii, 142.3, 143.7.  (This is Zosimos; French translation around here).

Interestingly there is no reference for the material from ps.Galen, although we have tracked it down above.

But let’s now look at those references in Galen and see what the man himself has to say.

Galen, De compositione medicamentorum secundum locos, book 2, in Kuhn xii, p.586, mentions a pound of “sapo” (“saponis libram unam”) as an ingredient, 3 lines from the bottom.  My limited knowledge of Latin words for lye does not allow me to find the reference to it in here, however.  Is there one?

Galen, De Methodo Medendi, book 8 (at least in my copy of Kuhn) of 14, p.569, does indeed contain a reference to “sapo”: “But it is also called soap [sapo/sapon] by those who want to clean most effectively.”  The discussion is about various types of “material for cleansing” the body before bathing, and references caustics like nitre and aphronitre.  The idea of soap is certainly here, if not the specifics, and it is contrasted with nitre / soda.

But is this evidence for soap in Galen’s time?

  1. [1]J.R. Partington, A history of Greek fire and gunpowder, JHU Press, 1960, p.307.
  2. [2]Johann Beckmann, A history of inventions and discoveries, tr. by W. Johnston. Vol. 1-3; 4, 2nd ed, vol. 3, London: Longman &c, 1817, p.225.
  3. [3]Everett, p.11.
  4. [4]Nicholas Everett, The Alphabet of Galen: Pharmacy from Antiquity to the Middle Ages : a Critical Edition of the Latin Text with English Translation and Commentary, University of Toronto, 2012. See p.13-14.
  5. [5]Published in Latin by Junta in 1522, 1528, 1565 and 1586; also in Charterius in 1679 – see Everett p.11.
  6. [6]Online here.
  7. [7]Galeno Ascripti Libri, in Omnia Quae Extant, Froben, 1562. Online at Google books here.

11 thoughts on “Galen on the origins of soap

  1. The missing Partington footnotes:
    145. De compos, med. sec. loc., ii; Kuhn, xii, 586.
    146. Method, medend., vii, 4; Kuhn, x, 569.
    147. Synopseos, iii; in Stephanus, Mediae artis principes, 1567,53,
    148. Berthelot, ref. 99, 1888, ii, 142.3, 143.7.

    Partington refers to this edition of Zosimos of Pannopolis:
    Marcelin Berthelot et Charles-Émile Ruelle, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (CAAG), 4 vol., 1887-1888 ; rééd. Osnabrück, 1967.
    t. II : Les Œuvres de Zosime. Texte grec et traduction française (lire en ligne)

  2. “caustica spuma” is lye that Germans used as hair dye (or bleach, surely).

    “lixivus” is pressed grape must that is made into lye.

    “liquamen” is a late word for lye. (No clue why.)

  3. When I was young, in the fifties, laundry washing was done with ashes of wood and was called in my north-Italy dialect “lissia”. The same water-with-ashes was used to clean and whiten the wooden floor.

  4. There seems to be a similar problem with the Wikipedia reference to the Eber papyrus – ‘The Ebers papyrus (Egypt, 1550 BC) indicates the ancient Egyptians bathed regularly and combined animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to create a soap-like substance’. Although there are numerous references to bathing in the Eber and of the use of natron as a cleansing agent I have searched the available translations and not found any reference to any soap like substances & interestingly no reference is given to any part of the papyrus in support of the contention.

  5. Hmm … that can only mean that natron is being treated as synonymous with soap, perhaps via some paraphrase rather than translation. Thank you very much for this extra info.

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