Yıldırım on Yoeli-Tlalim, 'ReOrienting Histories of Medicine: Encounters along the Silk Roads'

Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim
Duygu Yıldırım

Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim. ReOrienting Histories of Medicine: Encounters along the Silk Roads. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. 256 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4725-1257-4.

Reviewed by Duygu Yıldırım (European University Institute / University of Tennessee, Knoxville) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (May, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57564

Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim’s book opens with the story of an intriguing event. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu unexpectedly discovered a cave, replete with manuscripts, near the Chinese town of Dunhuang, located in today’s Gansu province. While its origins still remain unknown, this “library cave,” or Cave 17, had been sealed in the early eleventh century. Its manuscript contents were dispersed widely and today can be found in libraries in Paris, London, St. Petersburg, Tokyo, and Beijing, among others. Fortunately, these copious and valuable sources are now being gathered together on the internet as part of the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library.

ReOrienting Histories of Medicine brings the Tibetan medical manuscripts from Dunhuang and the Hebrew Book of Asaf together. Neither of these sources has been available in any European language to date, as Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim underlines. By using these underexplored sources in tandem, Yoeli-Tlalim aims to shed light on the broader context of the Eurasian transmission of knowledge. Her narrative arc develops in accordance with recent discussions in the global histories of medicine: How did knowledge move across cultures? What would the history of medicine look like from a Eurasian perspective? Cross-cultural encounters throughout Eurasia offer fascinating episodes that can contribute to the growing literature on the global history of medicine. The key argument of the book is rather straightforward: Eurasian history of medicine defies any easy categorization. Thus, the book appears more like a thought experiment about what really constitutes premodern medicine and how it can reveal a more diverse understanding of medical knowledge.

The introduction highlights some of the recurring issues in the relevant historiographies. Starting with the term “Silk Road(s),” Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim pinpoints the overuse, misuse, and abuse of it and reminds us that “Paper Road” has been suggested as a more convenient replacement. The paper trail and the vernacularization of knowledge are the linchpin of Yoeli-Tlalim’s analysis, supported by a wide range of archival materials. Chapter 1 focuses on the intertextuality of medical knowledge from a cross-cultural perspective through the case of the Book of Asaf. Chapter 2 introduces the Bower Manuscript, which is one of the earliest known medical texts from the Silk Road. Yoeli-Tlalim approaches this multilayered manuscript from the perspective of object-oriented history and the concept of medical knowledge on the move. These two cases also indicate the close relationship between divination and medicine. The next chapter is about a wondrous drug, or a panacea, named myrobalan, whose history can be traced through various documents in transit from Buddhist narratives to the Cairo Genizah. Chapter 4 brings to the fore moxibustion, a kind of therapeutic practice, and offers an interesting examination of moxibustion illustrations. Similar to earlier parts in scope and tone, this chapter demonstrates the transmission of knowledge by training the lens on illustrations in Tibetan, Chinese, and Uighur sources. The final chapter strives to present a counterargument to the widespread perception of the Mongol era as a period of violence and destruction only. Instead, Yoeli-Tlalim contends, the Mongols were also the facilitators of Eurasian exchanges of knowledge. With the realignment of contact zones, diverse groups of people, namely merchants, diplomats, Buddhist monks, Christian pilgrims, and Mongol slaves, participated in the transmission of knowledge.

The research underpinning ReOrienting Histories of Medicine is careful; the diverse materials at the center of it are fascinating. The discussions on the transmission of medical knowledge will resonate for readers who work on different contexts and periods. Yoeli-Tlalim touches upon interesting details from various sources in relatively short subsections, yet these brief discussions are not fully crystallized and often remain lightly treated in only a few pages. While the author engages with recent discussions on the exchange and transmission of medical knowledge, the book does not conclude with a fully-fledged argument that can be directly drawn from the multiple sources presented. Thus, we often loop back to points made earlier about knowledge on the move. Still, the book is a suitable read for those interested in diverse histories of medicine and for survey courses on the global history of medicine.

Citation: Duygu Yıldırım. Review of Yoeli-Tlalim, Ronit, ReOrienting Histories of Medicine: Encounters along the Silk Roads. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. May, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57564

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