Ancient Guts

This project focuses on a key, but comparatively underrated aspect of ancient medicine and anatomy: the gastric area of the body and the process of food ingestion and assimilation. Other functions and vital processes have attracted more attention in historiographies of medicine, such as the role of the brain in cognition, cardiocentric models in competition with encephalocentrism, blood circulation, the humours and respiration. Despite its well-known importance and involvement in a variety of aspects of animated life, the gastric sphere, instead, has not been a central topic. My aim is to redress this balance, exploring the topic from the most concrete and material – the construction of different bodily anatomies and physiological models; the pragmatic, social and economic aspects of human food intake – to the most abstract – psychological and cultural, even metaphorical ‘guts’.
This topic is innovative in a number of ways. First, it focuses on an aspect of the human body and its physiology that are seldom addressed, despite its obvious centrality. Secondly, it combines the philology of ancient texts, history of medicine, and material and cultural history in a broader sense, while including considerations of current neuroscientific suggestions to bring ancient theories in dialogue with modern views about the body. Thirdly, it explicitly joins medical models and non-technical perceptions and metaphors of the body and finally, it aims to bring together the history of ancient doctrines about the body and the concrete, material history of ancient life in one of its most basic aspects, the consumption of food and drink and its processes. Thus, this study intends to further a dialogue between different areas of history, while strongly affirming the relevance of ancient texts to contemporary questions.


As part of ROOTS, I am organising a conference with George Kazantizdis (now rescheduled for May 2021) on:
‘Medical Knowledge and its 'Sitz im Leben': Body and Horror in Antiquity’
The conference will explore ancient and modern concepts of horror with reference to the human body. Our aim is to examine how the body does not only process, affectively as well as cognitively, a horrifying experience but also how it can turn itself into a source of horror, e.g., in contexts of sickness and death. While we are firmly aware of the fact that ‘horror’ as a (largely post-Romantic) concept is not unproblematic when applied to Greek and Latin texts, we will try to show that its classical antecedents/roots are definitely worthy of consideration and help to shed light on the ways in which the horrific, as a category that shapes our encounter with various forms of art but also with life itself, is understood today.


Project by Chiara Thumiger


Fieldwork + Activities


Participating Institutions