Constantinus redivivus: Reclaiming a Forgotten Cultural Translator

An obit is the opposite of a birthday. It is an occasion to recall those in a religious community who died on that day in years past, and say prayers or a Mass in their memory. December 22 is the obit day for Constantine the African, the eleventh-century Tunisian immigrant and Benedictine monk who was the very first to render the wealth of Arabic medical writing into Latin.1 Today, a year since we launched our blog, we are memorializing Constantine’s life in our own way, by giving thought to his significance as a historical figure. But instead of making a plea for his importance, what if we look at him the other way round, as an “opposite,” an anti-hero of sorts? After all, we’ve emphasized his sustained importance both in the Middle Ages and beyond, and we’ve even cast him as a “star” who was simultaneously fomenting a “revolution” in medieval medicine. But no one is using Constantine’s works to practice medicine nowadays, so why all of the hullabaloo over Constantine?

One reason that tidy summaries of Constantine’s impact have been hard to frame—even for us, as scholars who’ve lived with Constantine and his works for a while—is that we continue to be surprised by the deep reverberations that Constantine and his contemporaries caused in subsequent centuries. For Brian, one recent surprise was the extent of the monk William of Canterbury’s engagement with medicine, who wove quotations from Constantine and other sources into elegant (albeit conventional) ruminations on mundane and divine healing. Our recent posts by Winston Black and Taylor McCall, have likewise illuminated how sophisticated, innovative, and lively the monastic medical tradition remained throughout the twelfth century, even as new forms of study were taking shape in urban schools.

For Monica, the highlight was the experience of working on a single recipe, the Antidotum Esdre maius (Greater Antidote of Ezra). This was a revelation in several respects. Not simply did we find how quickly this new and complex recipe traveled to northern Europe, reaching the English abbey of Bury St Edmunds by the early twelfth century (perhaps even earlier), but we saw how readily the recipe incorporated the distinctive pharmaceutical products of the expansive Islamicate world: sugar, ambergris, antimony. By the eleventh century, drug products tied together so many parts of the Old World. Constantine’s role as a “translator”—a go-between—in this realm of material culture exchange could not be more apt, as this area comes more and more to the fore both in scholarly research and in efforts to teach a “Global Middle Ages.”2

Another benefit of the blog is that by making Constantine’s life and works more recognizable to others, we now have new partners in this work. We’ve just learned something new from a literary scholar, Ruth Evans, about Constantine’s De oblivione (On Forgetfulness). The De oblivione has been overlooked in several modern scholars’ books on the art of memory in medieval Europe. True, the text is very short and seems to have had only a modest circulation: we know of only eleven extant manuscript copies, and it was printed only once prior to the late 20th century. Yet Constantine was still known to Jacobus Publicius, a physician and self-professed rhetorician who cited Constantine by name in his own Ars memorativa (The Art of Memory) in the later fifteenth century.3 Clearly, we have a long way to go in gauging Constantine’s true impact.

This is the opening of Constantine’s translation of Ibn al-Jazzār’s Risāla Fī-Nisyān (Treatise on Forgetfulness), which is written in the first-person as an epistle. Who is the ego? In this copy, and in four of the five 12th-century copies, Constantine is not named, but neither is any other author. Image: Berlin, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin- Preussischer Kulturbesitz, MS lat. qu. 198, an. 1131/32, f. 150r, detail.

The general scholarly oversight of Constantine has been, we suggested before, due in part to the lack of critical editions of his work. On that score, he has plenty of company, since very few of the works of other major medical translators into Latin have been edited. But even in a quite extraordinary survey of the Arabic-to-Latin translation movement of the Long Twelfth Century, published in 2006, Constantine is mentioned only once, and then with the dismissive observation that his work was not of the “higher level” as those that would follow in the next century.4

The claim that Constantine’s translations were of poor quality is one reason for his scholarly neglect. But there is another: the claim that he was a plagiarist. Both charges are, of course, damning: the one as an assessment of his intellectual skill, the other of his moral character. Both assessments originated among his near contemporaries, and neither can be dismissed out of hand.

We will leave the question of the quality of his translations for another time, since that will need to be assessed once we have better command over his Arabic sources and, hopefully, a better sense of the order in which he translated (which will allow us to assess any progression in translating skill). But the question of linguistic skill is not wholly distinct from the question of plagiarism. In part, assessing the latter depends on what Constantine thought he was doing. Was he a translator, whose task was the faithful rendering of the ideas and concepts of other writers? Or was he, as he called himself on several occasions, a coadunator, a “bringer-together,” a synthesizer?

Even a generous interpretation would find that Constantine did actively suppress the names of nearly all the authors he translated, save for the ancients, Hippocrates, Galen, and Rufus. Arabic manuscripts commonly bore information not only on authors, but also on the scribes of individual copies.5 And even if authorial names were lacking in the particular copies he had at hand, Constantine certainly knew the works he was translating were not his own creations! He went so far as to suppress the names of Arabic authorities whom his sources had invoked, and, at times, seems aggressive in his appropriation of the labor of his Arabic sources. In the preface to his De stomacho—a translation of Ibn al-Jazzār’s work on the stomach—Constantine gives a detailed explication of the rationale for his (and not Ibn al-Jazzar’s) creation of the work. It was because his patron Alfanus, archbishop of Salerno (d. 1085), had complained about his stomach ailments, Constantine claims, that he searched the medical works of classical antiquity for a text devoted to the stomach; but, finding none, he synthesized a text from ancient authorities. This and other explicitly misleading passages in Constantine’s corpus make it hard not to suspect that some sort of misdirection was intended.

But who was the intended audience of these passages, and was anyone really deceived? Constantine himself does not appear committed to thoroughgoing deception—in other instances, he explicitly says he is translating—and several contemporary or near contemporary manuscripts identify him as the translator, not author, of specific works. Indeed, Benedictine figures before Constantine had engaged in comparably productive, creative appropriations of earlier texts (though few matched the scale of Constantine’s output); and Constantine’s immediate milieu at Monte Cassino seems to have been particularly disposed to a “historical foreshortening” that collapsed the distance between Monte Cassino and the classical past.6 Surely, we have to think, neither Constantine nor his immediate contemporaries thought he was the original author of all the works associated with his name.

The main accusation against him as a plagiarist comes from one person, Stephen of Antioch, a Pisan notary who, in the bilingual context of the Crusader state of Antioch in the 1120s, re-translated the work that Constantine probably wished to see as his magnum opus: ʻAlī ibn al-ʻAbbās al-Majūsī’s Kāmil al-ṣinā‘ah al-ṭibbīyah al-ma‘ruf bi-al-maliki (Complete Book of Medicine also called The Royal [Book]), which Constantine would render as the Pantegni (The Complete Art) and which Stephen would call the Liber regalis (The Royal Book). Stephen is quite merciless in his criticism of Constantine, whose translation of al-Majūsī was, whatever its other defects, incomplete.7

Questioning Constantine’s role in the production of the Pantegni began very early. In this early 12th-century manuscript from England, he is not mentioned at all in the heading: “Here begins the book whose name is Pan Tegne, or Pasa Tegne, that is, ‘the whole art.’ The name of the author is, according to the Greeks, Rasis.” (Incipit liber cuius nomen Pan Tegne, vel Pasa Tegne, id est tota ars dicitur. Nomen auctoris est Rasis apud Grecos.) London, British Library, MS Additional 22917, f. 2v (detail).

In comparison to the medical and scientific translators who would follow him in the next century and a half, Constantine stood out as the sole major figure who had to translate himself into western culture, not simply his texts. Stephen, John of Seville and Limia, Burgundio of Pisa, Gerard of Cremona, Mark of Toledo: all were Christians by birth and, with the possible exception of John, learned their source languages (Arabic or Greek) as adults. Constantine proudly maintained the epithet Africanus in what we have called his “verbal seal”: Ego Constantinus africanus montis cassinensis monacus (I, Constantine the African, monk of Monte Cassino). He never hid his African origin, and it is clear that his contemporaries at Monte Cassino were happy to celebrate it and his alleged travels throughout the Islamicate world as a mark of his learning.

The Cassinese biography is in fact over-the-top in its appraisal of Constantine’s learning. But a different account merits equal consideration: it calls him, not a physician, nor even the kind of polymath scholar so regularly encountered in the Islamicate world, who might practice medicine as just one field of intellectual and economic endeavor. Instead, it calls him a merchant.8

Merchants were to be had by the dozen in the context of the medieval Mediterranean. And it seems to be his command over pharmaceutics that distinguished Constantine’s earliest work at Monte Cassino. Here, we go back to the Antidotum Esdre maius. It was almost the calling card of a physician to come up with their own “Esdra” (or Ezra) recipe.9 Constantine’s, as we have noted, is nothing less than grandiose, with close to 150 different ingredients: twice as many as have been documented elsewhere.

But what’s interesting about the Esdra recipe is that it allows us to watch how this newly imported (and perhaps even newly concocted?) recipe became standardized in the Latin pharmacopeia. Among the several texts attributed to Constantine by his biographers at Monte Cassino was a work called simply the Antidotarium. Although the habit of collecting compound recipes is very old, the word antidotarium is first documented in the two manuscripts where we found the Antidotum Esdre maius, both produced (as we noted) at Monte Cassino. Clearly derived from, but more ambitious than, either of those two rather chaotic collections is a new text that first appears in extant manuscripts at the end of the eleventh century. This Antidotarium magnum (The Great Antidotary) became one of the more popular works of the Long Twelfth Century, and in it we find the Antidotum Esdre maius rewritten. The long list of alphabetized ingredients is gone. Instead, each ingredient is presented as part of a group, laid out according to the amounts needed and the order in which they are to be added.

The opening of the Esdra magna recipe from a manuscript of the Antidotarium magnum, probably copied in England in the second quarter of the twelfth century. Source: London, Medical Society of London, MS 138, f. 22v (detail).

If, as we have reason to suspect, this revision of the Esdra recipe was in fact Constantine’s own doing, then we have a small glimpse of what his work as coadunator actually involved. He was making Latin medicine functional. He was sifting through the Latin medical books he had at hand in Monte Cassino’s well-stocked library and retrieving the best of Latin terminology, in order to give voice to the Arabic authors he was channeling. He was sorting through the physiological descriptions and anatomical terms and theoretical concepts of his predecessors, from both Italy and North Africa and the larger Islamicate world. And when he found them wanting, he coined new terms.

Yes, most of his works should be called translations. And yes, we would agree that, both in his own age and in our own, his arrogation of authorship of the Pantegni and the De stomacho (and more besides) constitutes intellectual theft. Yet he was a translator in both senses of the term: a literal translator from Arabic to Latin, and also a cultural translator who, in just two decades, handed over to Europe a surprisingly complete library of medical thought. It was so complete, in fact, that towards the end of the twelfth century, a Jewish translator would take much of Constantine’s corpus and render it from Latin into Hebrew, stating explicitly that he was doing so in order that Jews could avoid accepting impure medicines from Christian physicians.10

On Constantine’s obit day, therefore, we acknowledge this ambiguity. We will continue to refer to him as an “author” since we believe he can properly be credited with the extraordinary intellectual labor of creating the vocabulary and many medical concepts that endured in western medicine for several centuries—some even to the present day. But we will also insist on using his work to reclaim the histories of the texts and the authors he drew on, both Arabic and Latin. Even if his unique contributions to medicine did not extend beyond some pharmaceutical interventions, it was his vision of what Latin medicine might become, if only it had the proper foundation, that created the intellectually unified system that did, in fact, come into existence at Monte Cassino in the late eleventh century.

Acknowledgements: Monica wishes to thank the participants in the Belle da Costa Greene Conference, and especially its organizer, Tarrell Campbell, for the opportunity to think through the significance of Constantine’s cultural “translating.”

Further Reading:

  • Bryan Douglas Averbuch, “From Siraf to Sumatra: Seafaring and Spices in the Islamicate Indo-Pacific, Ninth-Eleventh Centuries C.E.,” PhD diss., Harvard University, 2013.
  • Gerrit Bos, “Ibn al-Ğazzār’s Risāla fī n-nisyān and Constantine’s Liber de oblivione,” in Constantine the African and ‘Alī ibn al-’Abbās al-Maǧūsī: The ‘Pantegni’ and Related Texts, ed. Charles Burnett and Danielle Jacquart, Studies in Ancient Medicine 10 (Leiden: Brill, 1994),  203-32.
  • Gerrit Bos, ed., Ibn al-Jazzar, Risāla fi l-nisyān (Treatise on Forgetfulness). Critical Edition of the Arabic Text and the Hebrew Translations with Commentary and Translation into English (London: Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1995).
  • Charles Burnett, “The Legend of Constantine the African,” The Medieval Legends of Philosophers and Scholars, ed. Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, Micrologus XXI (Florence: SISMEL/Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2013), pp. 277-94.
  • Dag Nikalaus Hasse, “The Social Conditions of the Arabic-(Hebrew)Latin Translation Movements in Medieval Spain and in the Renaissance,” in: Wissen über Grenzen: Arabisches Wissen und lateinisches Mittelalter, ed. A. Speer and L. Wegener, Miscellanea Mediaevalia 33 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2006), pp. 68-86.
  • Matteo Martelli, “Recipes Ascribed to the Scribe and Prophet Ezra in the Byzantine and Syriac Tradition,” in Collecting Recipes: Byzantine and Jewish Pharmacology in Dialogue, ed. Lennart Lehmhaus and Matteo Martelli (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017), pp. 195-220.
  • Enrique Montero Cartelle, ed., Liber Constantini De stomacho: El tratado ‘Sobre el estómago’ de Constantino el Africano. Estudio, edición critica y traducción (Valladolid: Ediciones Universidad de Valladolid, 2016).
  • Enrique Montero Cartelle, “El De stomacho y el plagio en Constantino el Africano,” MINERVA: Revista de Filología Clásica 30 (2017), 97-121.
  • Francis Newton, “Arabic Medicine and Other Arabic Cultural Influences in Southern Italy in the Time of Constantinus Africanus (saec. XI²),” in Between Text and Patient: The Medical Enterprise in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Florence Eliza Glaze and Brian Nance, Micrologus’ Library, 30 (Florence: SISMEL/Edizioni del Galuzzo, 2011), pp. 25-55 and figs. 1-21.

1.. Although you may find the year “1020” cited in some older literature as Constantine’s year of birth, in fact we know absolutely nothing about his year of birth. A Cassinese account says he “died full of days,” obviously suggesting his advanced age. Even his exact year of death is unknown: all we can say is that he was dead by 1098 or 1099, when he appears in Leo Marsicanus’s calendar. See our inaugural blogpost for details.

2. An international conference on exactly this topic was just held in London: Drugs in the Medieval World (ca. 1050-ca. 1400), 7-8 December 2018. On the general “global turn” in medieval studies, see, for example, the program for the upcoming Medieval Academy of America meeting, 7-9 March 2019. Averbuch’s dissertation is an excellent example of this expanded vision.

3. Dr. Evans found no trace of Constantine in the general studies on memory of either Mary Carruthers or Janet Coleman. On Publicius, see Mary Carruthers and Jan Ziolkowski, The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 226-254. Our thanks to Dr. Evans for these references.

4. Hasse 2006, p. 80.

5. On the Arabic tradition, see Adam Gacek, Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers (Leiden: Brill, 2009); and Rosemarie Quiring-Zoche, “The Colophon in Arabic Manuscripts. A Phenomenon without a Name,” Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 4, no. 1 (2013), 49-81. On the Latin tradition, see Richard Sharpe, Titulus: Identifying Medieval Latin Texts. An Evidence-Based Approach (Turnhout: Brepols, 2003).

6. This apt phrase can be found in Newton 2011, p. 28.

7. Burnett 2013 gives generous translations and analyses of Stephen’s critiques.

8. This account of Constantine’s life and work by the mid-twelfth-century Salernitan writer, Mattheus Platearius, is available in translation in Francis Newton, “Arabic Medicine in Europe,” in: Mediterranean Passages: Readings from Dido to Derrida, ed. Miriam Cooke, Erdag Goknar, and Grant Parker (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2008), pp. 116-117.

9. Martelli 2017 on the Esdra/Ezra tradition documents the association of Ezra’s name with both medicine and alchemy from at least the early centuries of the Common Era.

10. On this Hebrew translator, known only by the epithet he gives himself, see Ron Barkaï, A History of Jewish Gynaecological Texts in the Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 1998), pp. 20-29; and Gad Freudenthal, “The Father of the Latin-Into-Hebrew Translations: ‘Doeg The Edomite,’ The Twelfth-Century Repentant Convert,” in Latin-into-Hebrew: Texts and Studies Volume One: Studies, ed. Resianne Fontaine and Gad Freudenthal, Studies in Jewish History and Culture, 39/1 (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 105–120.

Of Monks and Miracles: Constantine the African and Two of his Twelfth-Century Readers

In the past few months, we’ve discussed some of the paths Constantine the African’s works took throughout the Latin West. In these posts, one recurring theme has been that monastic houses played a vitally important role in disseminating Constantine’s works, reshaping medieval Latin medicine in the process. But the eager reception of these works was not confined to the spread of medical theory, changes in the confection of drugs, or the practice of medicine. Though we do not yet know the full impact of Constantine’s works, they appear to have played a substantial role in reshaping conceptions of the body and illness. Constantine exerted considerable influence on medieval society and culture, touching everything from the teaching of medicine in universities to literary conceptions of lovesickness, and so the breadth of Constantine’s impact on the Latin West can scarcely be captured in a single blog post. But if we confine our view to twelfth-century monasteries, two examples—one in France, one in England—will illustrate just how deep these influences went.

In the first half of the twelfth century, the illustrious Benedictine and then Cistercian monk William of St.-Thierry made substantial use of medical texts when he synthesized a work on the nature of the body and the soul. In the first half of this text, which concerned the nature of the body, William drew extensively from Constantine’s works, even naming Constantine’s work on pharmacological degrees, the Liber graduum. (Constantine’s name is not attached to the work here, however, nor William does not cite Constantine by name elsewhere in the text.) Nor was William’s treatise a mere scissors-and-paste job. In quoting from a work on the nature of human beings by Alfanus of Salerno—a southern Italian archbishop who was, in fact, one of Constantine’s patrons—William appears to have carefully “updated” some of the terminology with reference to Constantine’s works. For example, (though somewhat confusingly to us), Alfanus had referred to the esophagus as the stomachus and the stomach as the venter, but William modified Alfanus’ text to bring it into closer line with Constantine’s (and modern) usage.

Given William’s time and place, the fact that he drew from Constantine’s works is not completely surprising—other thinkers in the schools of northern France (where William had studied) also made use of Constantine’s works. The Theorica Pantegni’s discussions of natural philosophical subjects (like the nature of the elements) appear to have been one avenue by which ancient thought reached the vibrant schools of northern France. But it is striking that William of St.-Thierry numbered among these avid readers. After all, William of St.-Thierry is probably best known today as a caustic critic of venomous novelties in theology and philosophy; with Bernard of Clairvaux, he played an influential role in the condemnation of Peter Abelard at the Council of Sens in 1141. That he proved to be such an eager reader of Constantine’s works may be an illustration of the broad readership of Constantine’s works among both innovative natural philosophers and censorious theologians. On the other hand, given how quickly Constantine’s works spread to monastic houses, it may have been the case that it was monastic readers who turned natural philosophers onto Constantine’s texts rather than the other way around.

William of St.-Thierry himself wrote one of the most important early sources for Bernard’s life. A few early manuscripts of this text, like this thirteenth century copy from the Schottenstift in Vienna, depict Bernard himself. Because of William’s connection to Bernard, he has sometimes been overshadowed by his influential colleague and friend. His work on the body and soul, however, is one text where we can discern the breadth and originality of his thought.

That monastic readers like William of St.-Thierry continued to read Constantine’s works throughout the twelfth century can hardly be doubted, and Constantinian influence crops up in surprising places. By the second half of the twelfth century, in fact, a collection of miracles for Thomas Becket by William of Canterbury reckoned to be “one of the most spectacular productions in the history of English miracle collecting”1 gives extensive evidence for the way that Constantine’s texts informed the understanding of illness and miraculous cures.

Though a murky figure in many respects, the Christ Church monk William of Canterbury tells us that he himself was at Canterbury Cathedral when the troublemaker Thomas Becket was killed at the king’s instigation in 1170. The massive collection of miracles that he compiled in the 1170s, comprising over four hundred stories, attests to the rapid popularity and dramatic posthumous power of the martyr.

But it is not merely for its size that William’s miracle collection is remarkable—its many miracles make ostentatious use of contemporary medicine, and Constantine the African’s influence is particularly apparent. Where descriptions of miraculous healings in other texts contented themselves with the names—or even vague locations—of pains and illnesses, William appears to have striven for precision and exhaustive detail. William drew directly from Constantine’s works, using both his terminology and direct—and lengthy!—quotations. For example, in describing a priest who experienced vertigo when travelling (dizziness or perhaps, here, seasickness) William felt compelled to explain the nature of the ailment in some detail, with an explanation taken directly from the first book of the Viaticum, Constantine’s handbook of practical medicine.2

But even a brief examination of William’s miracle collection illustrates that his engagement with contemporary medicine was more complex and multifaceted than these verbatim quotations of Constantine might suggest. For one, his knowledge of medicine appears to have gone beyond Constantine’s works: in categorizing the types of epilepsy, William drew on medical terminology that does not appear in Constantine’s texts.3 And elsewhere, William’s relationship with Constantine give us access to the monk’s perspective on health, healing, and the body.

In recounting the cures of two sufferers of leprosy, for example, William interweaves quotations from the Viaticum, drawing a forceful contrast between earthly medicine and more efficacious, divine remedies. “ ‘I have never,’ said Galen, ‘seen someone thoroughly healed from leprosy unless they drank wine into which a serpent had fallen and decayed.’… But we have seen two,” William states emphatically, “cleansed from head to toe and without a single sign of leprosy (nec signum lepre reservantes) who did not take any medication but water and the blood of the martyr…” William’s Galen quotation here is taken from Viaticum Book VII, as is the typology of leprosy he gives later in the chapter: “He [Thomas Becket] cures every leprosy, not only tyria, leonina, but also elephantia and alopecia—and whatever other sort of leprosy a physician (physicus) can devise. He also cures spiritual leprosy (which is even worse), that is, the variety of vices that pollute the integrity of the soul…”4 William’s use of the Viaticum here shows us that not only were Constantine’s texts being read and digested, their assumptions about health and illness must have prompted discussion and debate.5

As William of Canterbury’s account of this miracle attests, Thomas Becket was regarded as a particularly efficacious healer. (Even the saint himself notes, “Wow! Aren’t I a good doctor?”—“Heus… nonne bonus medicus sum?”) One characteristic memento pilgrims to his shrine received were ampullae like this twelfth-century example, containing what William mentions here, water and the blood of the martyr, which other miracles confirm the healing powers of. British Museum, 1921,0216.62.6

William’s use of and engagement with medicine, particularly as a lens for understanding miracles, presages the medical precision and scrutiny that would often play a role in formal canonization proceedings in later centuries.7 Our knowledge of medicine in twelfth-century hagiography and miracle collections remains limited, however, and it is hard to say whether William’s embrace of Constantinian medicine would have made him unusual among his contemporaries in England or Europe. Winston Black has recently shown that English monasteries were keenly engaged with Constantine’s works, while Sally Crumplin and Margaret Coombe have noted strong medical influences on vitae written by the monk Reginald of Durham. And as we saw with William of St.-Thierry, Constantine’s works were eagerly read in twelfth-century monasteries across Europe, and by influential figures. Exceptional as these two Williams appear now in their embrace of Constantine’s works, then, they may merely be the tip of a twelfth-century iceberg.

A special thanks to Rachel Koopmans, whose work and notes on medical influences on William of Canterbury were of foundational importance for this post.

Further Reading:

  • Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).
  • Sally Crumplin, “Modernizing St. Cuthbert: Reginald of Durham’s Miracle Collection,” in Signs, Wonders, Miracles : Representations of Divine Power in the Life of the Church: Papers Read at the 2003 Summer Meeting and the 2004 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, ed. Kate Cooper and Jeremy Gregory (Rochester: Boydell Press, 2005), 179–91.
  • Rachel Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).
  • Ana Isabel Martín Ferreira, ed., Tratado médico de Constantino el Africano: Constantini Liber de elephancia ([Valladolid]: Universidad de Valladolid, 1996).

1. Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate, p. 139.

2. Miracula S. Thomæ auctore Willelmo Cantuariensi II.87, ed. Robertson, in Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, vol. 1, pp. 248-249.

3. The terms he did use (including catalempsia and analempsia as well as epilempsia), did occur in Gariopontus’ handbook of medicine, the Passionarius, which we’ve had occasion to mention before.

4. Miracula S. Thomæ auctore Willelmo Cantuariensi IV.20, ed. Robertson, in Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, vol. 1, pp. 332-333. See also the discussion in Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate, pp. 186-7.  Given the divergences between William’s quotations here and Constantine’s text, we may be able to determine which manuscript of the Viaticum William made use of.

5. For further discussion of William’s engagement with medical subjects, see Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate, pp. 181-200.

6. For the martyr’s self-assessment, see Robertson, Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, p. 164, cited in Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?, p. 349. For further discussion of mementos from Becket’s shrine, see Bartlett, 441-442.

7. Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?, pp. 350-1.

Inside Investigations: Anatomical Texts and Images in the 12th and 13th Centuries

A guest post by Taylor McCall

Have you ever wondered how your bones fit together? How the muscles, veins, nerves, and arteries curve around them, spreading blood and sensation throughout your body as your heart pumps? What about the position of your spleen, or the location of your lungs?

Questions about human anatomy are fundamental to our collective experience, and medieval medical writers and students were just as curious about our insides as we are. Like many forms of knowledge, however, they had a different way of approaching anatomical learning. As we’ve discovered in many of the posts on this blog, Constantine the African’s importance to medieval medicine was his determination and ability to introduce Arabic medical texts previously unseen in the West, and anatomy is no exception.

Although anatomy was not considered a discipline in its own right until much later, the Islamic authors before Constantine took after Galen of Pergamum (129–c. 216 CE) in promoting the importance of understanding the physical makeup of the human interior. Galen believed one could not adequately practice medicine without a firm knowledge of anatomy. For many reasons, human dissection had fallen out of practice after a brief period in the first half of the 3rd century BCE in Greece.1 Although Galen did not dissect human corpses, he conducted numerous public anatomies on animals with similar organs to humans, such as pigs and apes, and continually asserted the importance of anatomical knowledge for medical practice in his writings. The scope of Galen’s influence in both the East and the West is evidenced by the hundreds of texts written by him, claiming to be written by him, or somehow connected to him that survive from the millennium and a half following his death.

Many of Galen’s writings were summarized, simplified, and amassed into medical encyclopedias, most notably by the Islamic encyclopedists working in the Middle East before Constantine. Constantine’s most famous translation, the Pantegni, was a rendition of ‘Alī ibn al-‘Abbās al-Majūsī’s Arabic Kitāb Kāmil aṣ-Ṣināʻa aṭ-Ṭibbiyya, “The Complete Book of the Medical Art.” As we have discussed, this was mostly based on Galen’s writings. It dedicated two of its ten books on medical theory to anatomy, making it the most advanced anatomical knowledge available from the end of the 11th century until the late 12th.

So, what did anatomical knowledge and learning look like during Constantine’s time? Human dissections are not documented until the early 14th century, initially taking place in the universities of southern Europe, although we do have evidence of pig dissections occurring well before. The influence of the Pantegni is evident in these so-called “Salernitan Demonstrations,” a series of texts guiding a dissector through the anatomy of a pig.2 Written in southern Italy (possibly Salerno, although this is not certain) over the course of several decades, the Demonstrations are in dialogue with each other, as subsequent authors disagreed with previous versions of the text and added their own instructions.

At the same time, we see another type of anatomical text emerge, seemingly out of nowhere in a monastic manuscript created in 1165: a brief treatise accompanied by the earliest known anatomical images in the West.

The Five-Figure Series, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 13002, ff. 2v-3r. 1165, Prüfening, Bavaria, Germany. From L-R, top-bottom, the images are: veins, arteries, bones, nerves, and muscles. The entire manuscript is digitized in full:

Each of these five squatted figures represent the five “simple” systems of the body according to Galen: the veins, arteries, bones, nerves, and muscles. A descriptive prose text neatly frames each image and small captions decorate their interiors. Visible within the vein and artery figures are internal organs Galen asserted were particularly associated with each system. The vein figure includes a ring of semi-circles in the center of the chest, labelled as the diafragma (diaphragm), as well as the large poly-lobed liver on the right side of the body, from which the veins were believed to emanate. The abstracted stomach and intestinal tract curls through the left side of the body. Directly to the vein figure’s left is the artery figure, featuring the heart (as a small oval at the base of the trachea on the body’s left side), the liver again on the right, and the spleen on the left.

The Veins and the Arteries, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 13002, f. 2v (detail). 1165, Prüfening, Bavaria, Germany.

Unusually, we have a firm date and location of the creation of this particular copy of these images: they were made in 1165 in the Benedictine monastery of Prüfening, Bavaria, Germany. These five anatomical figures were included in a prefatory cycle of images spanning a wide range of topics: from other medical materials like cautery scenes, the end of which are visible at the upper left of the above image, to religious and moralizing diagrams, all placed before a copy of the Salomon Glossaries, a dictionary attributed to Salomo III (d. 919), abbot of St. Gall and bishop of Constance. The manuscript is very large (it measures almost 2ft tall and over 1ft wide) and would have been an important production by the monastery’s scriptorium; indeed, the prefatory materials include a dedicatory scroll describing the history of the monastery and the manuscript’s production. The inclusion of medical materials alongside religious speaks to the priorities of this particular community. Tending to the ill and wounded was one of the primary directives of the Benedictine order, and the images here perhaps indicate their emphasis on the health of the body as well as the spirit.

Where did these images and text come from, and how did they arrive in Germany in 1165? The Prüfening copy is not the earliest version, but rather, a copy from a now missing exemplar. We know this because it is missing several image captions and portions of the treatise, known as the Historia incisionis (Account of Incision), that are included in later examples. We will begin by looking for clues as to where they came from in the Historia incisionis. In its introduction, the treatise claims to be based on the writings of Galen. It reads:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, here begins the account of incision described by Galen, most expert of physicians: vein after vein, bone after bone, muscle after muscle, nerve after nerve, and he described them as they are and separated one from the other, in order that the observer might not accidentally err, but might understand in its true nature those things which he can see. Thus the first description is of the arteries; the second, the veins; the third, of the position of the bones; the fourth, the nerves; the fifth, the muscles; the sixth, the genitals; the seventh, the stomach, liver, and belly; the eighth, the womb; the ninth, the brain and the eyes.3

The language implies a witness to a dissection, and these images are sometimes known as “dissected figures.” As you might imagine, given the description above, these five full-bodied are meant to be accompanied by four additional systems, known as the compound systems (which were considered to be made up by the first five “simple” systems). Together, this series and the Historia incisionis text are known as the Nine-System Figure Series.4 The origin of the Nine-System Figure Series—both text and image—is still unclear, and we will explore several of the possibilities.

The earliest witness to all nine of the systems appearing together comes from England at the very end of the 12th century, most likely created in another Benedictine community. The images are drawn in a small, independent booklet of three parchment leaves folded in half (known as bifolia) and sewn together, indicating they circulated as a standalone pamphlet. Each of the nine systems and its associated description is given its own folio; as for the remaining three folia in the booklet, the first folio is partially destroyed but includes a labyrinthine drawing of an eyeball, recipes and verses on the temperaments; and the recto of the final folio features a diagram of the elements and temperaments.

From L-R: The Veins, Arteries, Bones, Nerves, Muscles, Male Reproductive System, Stomach and Organs of the Abdomen, Female Reproductive System, and Brain and Ocular System. Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, MS 190/223, ff. 2r-6r. c. 1200, England.

The proportions of the figures are not as careful as we see in the earlier Clm 13002; while that manuscript was a large, meticulous creation to benefit the entire monastery, the small, portable Gonville and Caius booklet indicates a humbler set of circumstances: a smaller community, perhaps. However, the images were copied with great care, and highlighted with bright and memorable colors.

How did the images and text crop up in Germany and then, not fifty years later, in England? Is it an accident of survival that there are no earlier witnesses to the tradition, created in different areas? More fundamentally, we must look at text and image separately. Was the text adapted specifically to fit around the images, or were image and text circulating independently and then fitted together? Were the text and images preserved in the Middle East and translated from Arabic, or were either or both created in twelfth-century Europe?

These are all questions for which we have no concrete answers. However, there is a Constantinian possibility for at least the Historia incisionis that bears discussing. Both of the Cassinese bio-bibliographies of Constantine include in his oeuvre a single work that has no medieval witness: Galen’s De placitis Hippocratis et Platonis (On the Concordance of Hippocrates and Plato, on both lists called the Disputatio Platonis et Ypocratis in sententiis (A Debate between Plato and Hippocrates on Various Opinions)).5 The De placitis Hippocratis et Platonis is notable as one of the most complete summaries of Galen’s anatomical writings, and as Ynez O’Neill has pointed out, includes (in its original Greek) a section describing the arteries as branches of a tree, language that is directly echoed in the Historia incisionis but not elsewhere in early 12th-century sources.6

In her extensive research, Monica Green has found no manuscript witnesses of the text; however, it is notable as the only work on the Cassinese lists for which we have no witness.7 It is likely that Constantine did in fact produce at least one copy—finished or unfinished—of the text before it disappeared. The text discusses the positions of the veins and arteries, and in particular, the origin of the arteries in the left ventricle of the heart. Galen also reiterates his belief that the brain controlled the body’s movement. While these ideas were summarized in the Pantegni, the De placitis Hippocratis et Platonis provides much more detail of Galen’s opinions, several of which were unknown in the West until the original Greek version was rediscovered and translated in the Renaissance.

If there is a Constantinian origin of the Historia incisionis, how and why did it become connected to the images? It’s important to note that very few medical books were illustrated, especially in the 11th-13th centuries. As Green has found in her exploration of medical manuscripts from this period, the illustrations that did occur were remnants of older graphic traditions, rather than new iconographies.8 A good example of this are found in herbals, texts discussing the medical properties of plants, the earliest manuscript illustrations of which survive from the 6th century C.E.9 It has been argued that the Nine-System Figure Series was also descended from antiquity, preserved in the Middle East before migrating West. In addition, the four geometric compound system diagrams have received attention for their resemblance to early Arabic anatomical images.10 If the Historia incisionis was indeed drawn from a now-lost copy of Constantine’s translation of the De placitis Hippocratis et Platonis, it was probably done so in the Cassinese environs, appended to existing or original anatomical imagery, and circulated through Benedictine communities in Germany and England.

Ultimately, as historians of medieval manuscripts, we must accept that we are left with accidents of survival, rather than the complete picture, and must do with the pieces what we can. Regardless of its genesis, the Nine-System Figure Series has a rich history that spans the High and Later Middle Ages. In the 13th century alone, the images and text appear in several very different manuscripts, as basic line drawings and as highly decorative textual accompaniments, as seen in this English version from the end of the 13th century:

The Muscles, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 399, f. 22r. Late 13th century, England. Ashmole 399 is fully digitized online here.

What role, if any, Constantine’s translations played in the development of this particular series of image and text must for now remain a mystery. In the meantime, more work must be done with the images and texts that have survived the ravages of time.

Further reading:

  • Corner, George W. Anatomical Texts of the Earlier Middle Ages: A Study in the Transmission of Culture (Washington: Carnegie Institute of Washington, 1927).
  • Green, Monica H. “Medical Books,” in The European Book in the Twelfth Century, ed. Erik Kwakkel and Rodney Thomson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 277-92.
  • Green, Monica H. “Richard de Fournival and the Reconfiguration of Learned Medicine in the 13th Century,” in Richard de Fournival et les sciences au XIIIe siècle, ed. Joèlle Ducos and Christopher Lucken, Micrologus Library, 88 (Florence: SISMEL-Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2018), pp. 179-206.
  • Herrlinger, Robert. History of Medical Illustration from Antiquity to A. D. 1600 (Nijkerk: Pitman Medical & Scientific Publishing, 1970).
  • Jones, Peter Murray. Medieval Medical Miniatures (London: The British Library, 1984 [repr. as Medieval Medicine in Illuminated Manuscripts, 1998]).
  • McCall, Taylor. “Reliquam dicit pictura: Text and Image in an Illustrated Anatomical Manual (Gonville and Caius College, MS 190/223),” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 16 (2016), pp. 1-22.
  • McCall, Taylor. “Illuminating the Interior: The Illustrations of the Nine Systems of the Body and Anatomical Knowledge in Medieval Europe,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2017).
  • O’Neill, Ynez Violé. “The Fünfbilderserie Reconsidered,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 43 (1969), pp. 236-245.
  • Park, Katharine. Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection (New York: Zone Books, 2006).
  • Sudhoff, Karl. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Anatomie im Mittelalter, speziell der anatomischen Graphik nach Handschriften des 9. bis 15. Jahrbunderts, Studien zur Geschichte der Medezin 4 (Leipzig: Barth, 1908 [repr. Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1964]).

1 For more on the human dissections and vivisections of the Greek anatomists Herophilus and Erasistratus, see the works of Henrich von Staden, and in particular Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, repr. 2007).

2 Corner 1927 produced the first (and still standard) edited translation of the Salernitan Demonstrations.

3 “In nomine patris. et filii. et Spiritus sancti. incipit hystoria incisiones sicut dicit G[alenus] prudentissimus medicorum. venam secundum venam. os secundum os. lacertum secundum lacertum. nervum secundum nervum. et descripsit ea secundum quod sunt et separavit unumquodque ab alio. ne forte erret inspector eorum sed agnoscat ea ita ut videt. Ergo prima descriptio arteriae. secunda[m] venarum tertia positionis ossium. quarta nervorum. quinta lacertorum. sexta veretri septima stomachi. epatis et ventris. octava matricis. nona cerebri et oculorum.” Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 13002, f. 2v.

4 Karl Sudhoff first discussed these images in the early decades of the 20th century. He authored numerous articles on the so-called Fünfbilderserie, the first five images seen in the Munich manuscript, as well as writing extensively on medical illustration in general. His 1908 publication listed here under “Further Reading” is a good place to start if interested in exploring his oeuvre. For the most recent study of the Nine-System Figure Series, see McCall 2017.

5 Phillip de Lacy’s 1981 English translation of the De Placitis Hippocratis et Platonis is available freely online:

6 O’Neill 1969. The section referenced by O’Neill in de Lacy’s English translation can be found on pp. 89-91.

7 Green, “Richard de Fournival,” p. 203.

8 Green, “Medical Books,” esp. pp. 284-5.

9 This manuscript, known as the Vienna Dioscorides, was created in about 512 for the daughter of Emperor Flavius Anicius Olybrius, Anicia Juliana. It contains over 500 illustrations of plants and animals and can now be found in Vienna’s Österreichische Nationalbibliothek as Medicus Graecus 1.

10 Emilie Savage-Smith has discussed the similarities between Arabic and Western medieval anatomical diagrams, most notably in “Anatomical Illustration in Arabic Manuscripts’, Arab Painting: Text and Image in Illustrated Arabic Manuscripts (Leiden: Brill, 2007), pp. 147-59.

A Fantasy Pharmacy: The Arabic Pharmacopeia Arrives in the Latin West

How do you document a revolution? Not a coup d’état or anything political. No, a revolution in thinking, an alteration in practice. The adoption of a whole new way of doing things. Here’s one way.

In the British Library in London, there is a manuscript, Sloane 1621, a collection of medical recipes, that was owned in the Middle Ages by the Suffolk monastery of Bury St Edmunds. Yes, the same house that owned two of the manuscripts Winston Black talked about last month that helped introduce the medicine of Constantine the African to England. Sloane 1621 was almost certainly created elsewhere, somewhere on the Continent, and then it passed to Bury where it continued to collect new insertions. Michael Gullick, who has studied the manuscript most intensely, perceived the work of at least twenty-one different hands contributing over a half century between the mid-eleventh century and the early part of the twelfth. In those decades, we find traces of a revolution.

The Norman Conquest of England in 1066? Psshh. Okay, alright. Maybe that was a factor. But the revolution I’m talking about had its origins much further away than the English Channel.1 The revolution I’m talking about is the creation of a new “fantasy pharmacy”: substances whose medicinal powers were so unique that one simply must have them in one’s storehouse or infirmary, so that their marvelous properties could be drawn on in case of fever or incapacitating headaches or any of the other ills that normally befall the human body. This was a “fantasy pharmacy” because it likely was one that, at least initially, most individuals or institutions in Europe could have only imagined having, even a wealthy house like Bury.

What does our Sloane manuscript have to tell us about this revolution? Gullick describes two main hands that write out the opening 39 leaves of the volume, and then contribute various sections later on. Scribe A writes first, and then Scribe B copies up to the recto (front) side of leaf 38 (hereafter I’ll use “f.” for folio, “leaf”). He then leaves the rest of the quire (to f. 39 verso) blank. All the content copied by Scribes A and B were compound recipes, and all of them look quite typical for early medieval Latin medicine. The ingredients were all the same kinds of things that could be found in the Mediterranean area under the Romans. It is after Scribe B drops off that things get interesting.

In the blank lines that Scribe B left at the bottom of folio 38, Scribes d and then e take over. These two hands appear nowhere else in the manuscript. Gullick judges them both to date from around the middle of the eleventh century, and to show a Continental character, suggesting that the manuscript had not yet passed over to England. (I’m not convinced of this last point. As we know, not a few Continental “hands” went with their attached bodies across the Channel after the conquest.) Together, they copied out one very long recipe, taking up more than five pages all together. At the bottom of f. 39v, Scribe e switched from full lines of text to an itemized list: the ingredients, nearly 150 of them. Usefully, the list is alphabetized. Here are the ‘M’s:

London, British Library, MS Sloane 1621, f. 40v, part of the list of ingredients of a compound remedy.

Myrrh (mirra) and mastic were both resins that would have come from the Arabian peninsula and Mediterranean, respectively, and were as readily available in Antiquity as they likely were in the 11th century.2. Malabatron (a cinnamon-like plant) and mandrake (mandragora) would likewise have been known, even if not universally available, in the early Middle Ages. Even musk (muscatum) and myrobalans, substances imported from India or Tibet, were not completely new. But they were, likely, still extremely rare in any part of Europe in this period, and their inclusion in this one list is quite extraordinary.

In the ‘A’ section of the list, we similarly see ingredients that would have been familiar in the early medieval pharmacopeia. But we also begin to see something new. Ambergris (ambra, a secretion of sperm whales) and antimony (antimonium, the sulfide mineral stibnite) both appear here. The appearance of antimonium is especially intriguing, because Constantine is credited as having introduced that neologism into Latin.

London, British Library, MS Sloane 1621, f. 40v, some the ingredients beginning with the letter ‘A’ in a compound remedy. New here are ambra (ambergris, in the first line), and antimoniu (antimony) in the bottom line.

At the end of the list, come two additional clues that we’re dealing with something quite extraordinary:

London, British Library, MS Sloane 1621, f. 41r: the final lines of a list of pharmaceutics, ending with the newly imported substance, sugar (zaccara). In the second line from the top, the Arabic word uzifur (cinnabar) appears.

In the second line is uzifur, an Arabic word (perhaps originally from the Persian) for cinnabar, a kind of mercury sulfide. In the final row, the last item, zaccara, is sugar. A crop that originated in New Guinea, sugar had moved westwards over the course of the early medieval centuries and by the eleventh century was widely cultivated in various locales in and around the southern Mediterranean.3 Sugar would also appear in recipes as candi (rock sugar) and sciroppi (syrups) – and yes, now you know where those two words come from!

The recipe for which these items are the ingredients is a compound medicine called Antidotum Esdre maius. And it captures a moment of transition, of revolution. The record of pharmaceutics in early medieval medical manuscripts show that Latin medicine and Islamic medicine had gone quite separate ways in their development. As Brian Long has already told us, the Islamicate world expanded in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, uniting a wide swath of the Old World from the Iberian peninsula to Central and Southeast Asia. So, too, did the pharmacopeia expand, bringing in substances that had already been adopted in local medical traditions. In the eleventh century, Europe finally began to participate in this larger network of medical trade.

It was, of course, a trade not simply in things (materia medica) but also knowledge. In fact, our Sloane manuscript suggests that the knowledge came first. The European adoption of the expanded Islamic pharmacopeia entailed three stages: first, the importation of recipes that used the new ingredients as part of compound medicines; second, the importation of the ingredients themselves, a process requiring a network of merchants skilled in trading the substance; and third, a growing lore of what each substance did individually and why it had a particular medicinal value. In other words, Europeans learned to desire a “fantasy pharmacy” before it ever existed in reality in Europe’s emporia.

The written recipe would have been the “advance advertising” for this new system of medicine, and that’s exactly the role our Sloane manuscript plays. We will recall that Scribes d and e, who copied out the Esdra recipe, appeared nowhere else in the manuscript. Sloane 1621 has a catch-as-catch-can character: most of the other scribes besides the main scribes A and B also wrote only a couple of recipes here and there. And we can prove, in fact, that Scribes d and e were copying an already set text (and not their own pharmaceutical creation), because the entire recipe appears word-for-word in two other manuscripts produced around the same time on the other side of the Alps.

One manuscript is Copenhagen, Det Kgl. Bibliotek, Gamle Kgl. Samling, MS 1653, most famous for its striking images of the fetus-in-utero from the treatise on women’s medicine by a late antique author, Muscio. It also has a second treatise on women’s medicine, this one associated with the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. The latter half of Copenhagen 1653 is filled in with two long antidotaria, that is, collections of antidota, compound medicines. Similarly, Monte Cassino cod. 225 contains two long antidotaria. In both manuscripts, the Antidotum Esdre maius is the longest recipe. And both manuscripts were copied at the great Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, Constantine’s home for perhaps two decades after his arrival around 1076. Indeed, Monte Cassino 225 contains the first “polished” version of Constantine’s translation of Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq’s Isagoge, the basic introduction to Galenic medicine as it was interpreted in the Islamic world.4

Although no explanation of the name is offered here, in other versions of the recipe it is said that “The Greater Esdra was composed when the prophet Esdra was sent into Babylon in exile.” In fact, recipes called Esdra were commonly found in early medieval compendia from the ninth century on. This Antidotum Esdre maius, however, is different from its early medieval predecessors in including all the new ingredients from the Islamicate world we flagged above.

The beginning of the list of ingredients in the recipe for Esdra in Copenhagen, Det Kgl. Bibliotek, Gamle Kgl. Samling, MS 1653, late 11th century, f. 159v. Note that in the left margin, a slightly later hand has written Confita nigra Constan[tini] (“Constantine’s black concoction”). Perhaps a reference to an alternate recipe that Constantine preferred?
The scenario I am imagining, therefore, is that our Sloane Scribes d and e, having been presented with a copy of an elaborate recipe—a veritable panacea that promised its efficacy against pains of the head and the belly, bites of both snakes and scorpions, leprosy and kidney stones—eagerly copied it down while they had the text in front of them. The only change the Sloane copyists made was in putting the ingredient list at the end of the recipe, whereas the Monte Cassino scribes put it in the middle.

Where did our Sloane scribes find an exemplar for this recipe? Did they travel all the way to Monte Cassino? Not necessarily. There’s no reason recipes like this couldn’t have circulated on scraps of parchment, passing by hand from one religious house or secular court to another. Did the Sloane scribes have access to all the ingredients? That seems unlikely. Did they even understand what all these ingredients were? I rather doubt it. The whole, rather chaotic volume of Sloane 1621 speaks of “for future reference” ambitions.

Maybe calling what we see in Sloane MS 1621 a “revolution” is too strong. Maybe this was a slow transition, a growing fascination for drugs whose smells, colors, tastes, effects, could only be imagined by those first hearing about them in northern Europe in the later eleventh century. The pages in Sloane 1621 with the Esdra recipe are still fairly clean, unmarked by later annotations or commentary. As Gullick notes, no additions at all were made in the manuscript after the early twelfth century; although preserved for centuries in the Bury library, the volume elicited no further interest. Perhaps it did just remain a fantasy pharmacy.

But we should note: it was into this same house that Constantine’s larger corpus of writings soon entered. And at Bury, as Winston Black has shown us, Constantine became a star! Constantine’s works at Bury not simply listed all these same drugs (and more!) but explained their properties. Although not documented there, it is possible that the Bury monks also had his treatise De gradibus—on the “degrees” (that is, the intensity) of different medicinal substances—which was one of his “bestsellers” throughout Europe.5 The De gradibus was used almost immediately after its composition for a medical poem written by someone in the Loire Valley styling himself “Macer” (after an ancient Roman poet), which was known as De viribus herbarum: “On the Properties of Herbs.”

“Macer” was, to be honest, not yet that adventurous in his pharmaceutical fantasizing. He focused on substances already familiar to Latin readers. He did, however, use the descriptions from the De gradibus to talk about the Indian imports zedoary and galangal, which had been known in the early medieval pharmacopeia but likely remained rare.6 It would be “Macer’s” successors, in the twelfth century, who more heartily incorporated into their medical practice the new luxury items of sugar, lapis lazuli, ambergris, musk compounds, and the several kinds of myrobalans. All these and more would appear in medical texts later, as a second wave of Arabic influence reached into Europe and as Europeans became better supplied by merchants and more daring to engage with what had first been only a fantasy world of new drugs.

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Arsenio Ferraces Rodríguez, who very kindly shared with me his transcription of the antidotaria in the Copenhagen manuscript, as well as his comprehensive list of earlier iterations of the Esdra recipe. Thanks also to Winston Black, for information on the pseudo-Macer herbal.

Further Reading:

  • Zohar Amar and Efraim Lev, Arabian Drugs in Early Medieval Mediterranean Medicine (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2017).
  • Debby Banham, “Medicine at Bury in the Time of Abbot Baldwin,” in Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2014), pp. 226-46.
  • Winston Black, “‘I Will Add What the Arab Once Taught’:  Constantine the African in Northern European Medical Verse,” in Herbs and Healers from the Ancient Mediterranean through the Medieval West, ed. Anne Van Arsdall and Timothy Graham (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012), pp. 153-86.
  • Florence Eliza Glaze, “Salerno’s Lombard Prince: Johannes ‘Abbas de Curte’ as Medical Practitioner,” Early Science and Medicine 23, no. 3 (2018), 177–216.
  • Michael Gullick, “An Eleventh-Century Bury Medical Manuscript,” in Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest, ed. Tom Licence (Cambridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2014), pp. 190-225.
  • Anya H. King, Scent from the Garden of Paradise: Musk and the Medieval Islamic World, Islamic History and Civilization, 140 (Leiden: Brill, 2017).
  • Carmélia Opsomer, Index de la pharmacopée du Ier au Xe siècle, 2 vols. (Hildesheim, Zurich, and New York: Olms-Weidmann, 1989).
  • Nicholas Purcell, “Unnecessary Dependences: Illustrating Circulation in Pre-modern Large-scale History,” in: The Prospect of Global History, ed. James Belich, John Darwin, Margret Frenz, and Chris Wickham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 65-79.
  • Tsugitaka Sato, Sugar in the Social Life of Medieval Islam (Leiden: Brill, 2015).
  • Romney David Smith, “Calamity and Transition: Re-Imagining Italian Trade in the Eleventh-Century Mediterranean,” Past and Present, no. 228 (August 2015), 15-56.
  • Kathleen Walker-Meikle, “Antimony and Ambergris: ‘New’ Ingredients in the Antidotarium magnum,” 22 October 2015,

1. That it was related to the other Norman Conquest—that of Sicily (ca. 1061-1091)—is very likely. Hopefully, that will be a topic we will return to in a future post.

2. Nicholas Purcell offers a fascinating survey of evidence for various types of incense in the ancient Roman world, though he omits medicinal uses.

3. Succarum is not documented in the Dictionary of Latin from British Sources until 1267, about 200 years after the Sloane manuscript. (Sugar compounds, such as zukarum Alexandrinum, zukarum rosatum, and zukarum violatum, show up somewhat earlier, in 1226.) This is an indication how much remains to be researched about the circulation of imported pharmaceutics in medieval Europe, since clearly our medical manuscripts document a much earlier knowledge of these substances.

4. An analysis of the two earliest copies of the Isagoge can be found in Francis Newton, “Constantine the African and Monte Cassino:  New Elements and the Text of the Isagoge,” in Constantine the African and ‘Alī ibn al-’Abbās al-Maǧūsī: The ‘Pantegni’ and Related Texts, ed. Charles Burnett and Danielle Jacquart, Studies in Ancient Medicine 10 (Leiden: Brill, 1994), pp. 16-47. Monte Cassino, Biblioteca della Badia, Cod. Casin. lat. 225, had not yet been digitized; a color reproduction of the stunning “colonnades” of the Antidotum Esdre maius recipe (on pp. 82-83), can be found in Peter Murray Jones, Medieval Medicine in Illuminated Manuscripts, rev. ed. (London: British Library [by] arrangement with Centro Tibaldi, 1998), fig. 51.

5. Monica H. Green, “Medical Books,” in The European Book in the Twelfth Century, ed. Erik Kwakkel and Rodney Thomson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 277-292, Table 1.

6. Black 2012, pp. 163-166.

A star is born: Reading Constantine the African in Medieval England

A guest post by Winston Black

In the last post, Brian Long asked the important question, “What good were Constantine’s translations?” Yes, it’s impressive that some 1000 medieval manuscript copies survive of Constantine the African’s medical works, but large numbers alone don’t tell us how those books were actually read or used in medical practice. To understand that, we need to look at individual manuscripts for evidence of physicians and students of medicine closely reading and commenting on Constantine’s work. In this post, I’ll look at three medical manuscripts from early twelfth-century England that illuminate how Constantine’s works were copied and read far from his Italian home, and how Constantine himself came to be seen (at least in one of those manuscripts) as a medical “star” alongside the ancient authorities of Hippocrates and Galen.

Anglo-Norman England (the period of direct Norman rule, 1066-1154) is important in the history of medieval medicine because many of the earliest copies of medical works by Constantine or other southern Italian authors were written there. Historians of medieval medicine (like Monica Green and myself) are still exploring the mechanisms by which medical texts moved quickly from Monte Cassino and Salerno in Italy to Normandy and England around the turn of the twelfth century. The easiest answer (albeit still insufficient) is the Norman connection: during the eleventh century Norman nobles and mercenaries conquered both England (William the Conqueror) and southern Italy, including the island of Sicily (Robert “Guiscard” de Hauteville). Thus the dukes and kings of Normandy, England, and Sicily all shared a common language, ancestry, and culture during the twelfth century, which encouraged literary and intellectual connections between those regions. Furthermore, most of the new bishops and heads of religious houses after 1066 (usually appointed by the king or with his cognizance) came from Normandy or the Île-de-France and presumably had closer ties to other continental cathedrals and monasteries. These Frenchmen include Abbot John of Tours at Bath (r.1088-1122) and Abbot Baldwin at Bury St Edmunds (r.1065-1097), whose abbeys produced all of the manuscripts discussed here.

Two Anglo-Norman medical manuscripts (figs. 1-2), which indicate those ties between England and southern Italy, are copies of Constantine’s Pantegni, both copied around 1125 in the wealthy English abbeys of Bath and Bury St Edmunds (now London, British Library, MS Additional 22719 and Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.14.34). The Pantegni, as we have seen in an earlier post, was a translation of the medical encyclopedia of ‘Alī ibn al-‘Abbās al-Majūsī, d. after 977). These manuscripts of the Pantegni are high-class productions: both have broad margins on finely and consistently prepared parchment, neat and professional scripts, and illuminated initials in red and green ink (usually six lines high). Throughout the Bath Pantegni (BL Add. 22719), the first letter of each sentence or paragraph is also highlighted in green and red ink, a significant level of labor and decoration for a medical text. These are large and valuable books, probably intended for reference in the library rather than for a doctor to carry around.

The Prologue of Constantine the African’s Pantegni Theorica in London, British Library, MS Additional 22719, fol. 3r, probably made at Bath Abbey in the 1120s or 1130s.
The end of Book I and opening of Book II of Constantine the African’s Pantegni Theorica in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.14.34 (906), fol. 11r, produced around 1125 in the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds.

Neither of these luxury copies of the Pantegni, however, highlight Constantine’s authorship outside of instances where he named himself in the text. They indicate that powerful religious centers in England valued the Pantegni as a text, but not necessarily that they recognized Constantine as a “star” medical authority.  But in a third manuscript, Bethesda, National Library of Medicine, MS E8 (figs. 3-4), the compilers included numerous short passages from the Pantegni of Constantine as supplements to ancient and early medieval medical texts, and clearly indicate Constantine’s authorship in most of those excerpts.

Bethesda E8 is hardly a beautiful manuscript, but it has been recognized as the oldest European manuscript in the collection of the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It’s a rough and ready medical notebook produced most likely at Bury St Edmunds in the period ca.1110-1150 for use by physicians and teachers. It does not contain one main text, like the copies of the Pantegni discussed above, but is rather a compilation of about forty different short texts or excerpts on medicine and natural philosophy. Much of the manuscript is devoted to Latin translations of Greek works made in Late Antiquity, and in this respect it is similar to medical miscellanies of the Carolingian era. These include excerpts from the Synopsis and Euporista of the Greek imperial physician Oribasius (320-400 AD) and a complete “Old Latin” version of the Hippocratic Aphorisms with an extensive commentary produced in Late Antiquity (6th or 7th century).

Bethesda E8 shows us an eminently practical side to medical books of the twelfth century: it’s a smaller codex (22×14 cm [8.6 x 5.5 in]), probably intended to be carried, and made of whatever parchment was lying around, with leaves differing in size and quality, often with mended tears and holes. At least a dozen different people wrote anywhere there was room, at the ends of texts, on inserted scraps, and in the margins. The scribes were not professionals, but more likely students or practitioners of medicine in the monastery. Most of the texts are practical in nature, focusing on the basic tools a trained physician of the twelfth century needed: lists of antidotes and remedies for specific medical complaints, dictionaries of terms and symbols for pharmaceutical weights and measures, short texts on diagnosis by pulse and urine, and several texts on dietary regimen and the medicinal attributes of foods. The notebook has the information ready in short, memorable texts, and indeed, some are in verse to help with memorization.

The opening of Constantine’s Liber de cirurgiis (“Book of Surgeries”), Book IX of the Pantegni Practica, in Bethesda, National Library of Medicine, MS E8, fol. 149r. (Photo: Courtesy National Library of Medicine.)

The older texts in Bethesda E8 were written down in a first phase of production, probably ca.1110-1130, but in the following two decades (ca.1130-1150) later scribes added a range of newer medical texts associated with Monte Cassino and Salerno in the eleventh century. Notable among these is Constantine’s book on surgery from the Pantegni Practica, here called Liber Constantini de cirurgiis, “Constantine’s Book of Surgeries” (fols. 149-158, see fig. 3). Later additions to the notebook include several texts associated with the recently compiled medical curriculum known as the Articella: the De pulsibus of Philaretus, the Prognostics of Hippocrates (translated by Constantine), and excerpts from Constantine’s translations of the De febribus and De urinis of Isaac Israeli. These additions to Bethesda E8 coincide with another Anglo-Norman cleric’s discovery of Constantine: Henry of Huntingdon added material from Constantine’s De gradibus to his herbal Anglicanus Ortus during the 1130s or 1140s. However, unlike the scribes of Bethesda E8, he doesn’t name Constantine and it is not clear if he knew the origin of his new medical material.

Bethesda E8 is important for understanding the reception of Constantine not just because of the presence of his book on surgery and other translations, but also for the many excerpts and notes added to the manuscript which come from the Theorica of Constantine’s Pantegni. The physicians who used this notebook apparently had access to a copy of the Pantegni and used information from it to supplement the older texts in their manuscript. Wherever possible, readers of this notebook added useful passages from nearly every book of the Pantegni Theorica as supplements to, or commentary on, the older medical texts which made up the notebook in its first generation of use (ca.1110-1130). These include Constantine’s commentary on the complexion of the lungs, the humoral qualities of the blood, the bite of a rabid dog, eye problems, and the nature of hellebore as a medicine, to mention just a few cases.

Examples of Constantine the African named as a medical authority in the text and margins of Bethesda, National Library of Medicine, MS E8, an early twelfth-century medical notebook produced at the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds in England.

The manner in which these Constantinian glosses were written into the notebook shows that the physician-scribes revered the authority of Constantine, a fellow Benedictine monk, and wanted to highlight the source of their new information. Wherever possible, his name is given, if only in abbreviation (see fig. 4). Quotations or summaries from the Pantegni are marked CON. or CONST, and other passages indicate more clearly the sort of medicine learned from Constantine: the scribes refer to the “Diet of Constantine”, the “Pills of Constantine”, and “the very best plaster of Constantine”. Some of these recipes do indeed come from the Pantegni, but others appear to be attributed to him merely by virtue of his medical authority.

A comparison of the Constantinian passages in Bethesda E8 with the Bury St Edmunds copy of the Pantegni provides an indication of how Anglo-Norman physicians were reading Constantine in the first half of the twelfth century. Nearly every page of the Bury Pantegni, unlike the Bath Abbey copy, has numerous marginal and interlinear notes and corrections, which show that the text was read closely and collated with another copy of the Theorica to produce the most accurate version for the Bury monastic library. Several of the excerpts from the Pantegni Theorica which were added to Bethesda E8 match with passages in the Bury Pantegni which are marked as important both in the margins and within the text (using small red flags). Figure 5 shows one case, in which Constantine’s passage on the humoral composition of “natural blood” (Sanguis naturalis), that is, blood as it comes out of the body and not as the purified humor sanguis, was highlighted in both of these manuscripts. The marginal note from the Bury Pantegni circled in red provides a summary of the very passage which was chosen to be excerpted in Bethesda E8. Given that both of these manuscripts were probably produced at the same time in Bury St Edmunds, it seems likely (though not definite) that the Bury Pantegni was used by the physician-scribes to supplement their medical notebook.

A comparison of (left) an annotated page in the Bury St Edmunds copy of the Pantegni Theorica, Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.14.34 (906), fol. 10v, with (right) a passage excerpted from that same work in Bethesda, National Library of Medicine, MS E8, fol. 8v.

Even if the same people did not read or annotate these two manuscripts, their readers saw the value of specific passages in Constantine’s Pantegni. The difference is that the readers of the Bury Pantegni never acknowledged Constantine as the author of the text, while the scribes of Bethesda E8 recognized Constantine as a medical author and authority. By repeatedly invoking his name, they elevate him from a translator or compiler of medical texts to a star in the medical firmament. Part of the medical revolution of the High Middle Ages was acknowledging that a recent scholar, and not just ancient authorities like Hippocrates and Galen, had something important to add to medical learning and practice.

Further reading:

  • Banham, Debby. “Medicine at Bury in the Time of Abbot Baldwin,” in Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest, ed. Tom Licence (Cambridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2014), 226-246.
  • Black, Winston. “‘I will add what the Arab once taught’: Constantine the African in Northern European Medical Verse,” in Herbs and Healers from the Ancient Mediterranean through the Medieval West: Essays in Honor of John M. Riddle. Ed. Anne Van Arsdall and Timothy Graham. Medicine in the Medieval Mediterranean 4 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012), 153-185.
  • Burnett, Charles. “Physics before the Physics: Early Translations from Arabic of Texts Concerning Nature in MSS British Library, Additional 22719 and Cotton Galba E IV,” Medioevo: Rivista di Storia della Filosofia Medievale 27 (2002), 53-109, reprinted in Charles Burnett, Arabic into Latin in the Middle Ages: The Translators and their Intellectual and Social Context (Ashgate/Variorum, 2009), Essay II.
  • Gameson, Richard. The Manuscripts of Early Norman England (c. 1066-1300) (Oxford, 1999)
  • Green, Monica H. “Salerno on the Thames: The Genesis of Anglo-Norman Medical Literature,” in Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (ed.), Language and Culture in Medieval Britain: The French of England c.1100–c.1500 (York, 2009), 220-232.
  • Green, Monica H. “Medical Books,” in The European Book in the Twelfth Century, ed. Erik Kwakkel and Rodney Thomson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 277-92.
  • Gullick, Michael. “An Eleventh-Century Bury Medical Manuscript,” in Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest, ed. Tom Licence (Cambridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2014), 190-225.
  • Henry of Huntingdon, Anglicanus Ortus: A Verse Herbal of the Twelfth Century. Ed. and trans. Winston Black. Studies and Texts 180. British Writers of the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period 3. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies; Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2012.
  • McLachlan, Elizabeth Parker. The Scriptorium of Bury St. Edmunds in the Twelfth Century. Outstanding Theses from the Courtauld Institute of Art (New York: Garland Publishing, 1986; reprint of a 1965 dissertation)
  • Thouroude, Véronique. “Medicine after Baldwin: The Evidence of BL, Royal 12.C. XXIV,” in Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest, ed. Tom Licence (Cambridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2014), 247-257.

An Eleventh-Century WebMD: The Viaticum of Constantine the African

Up until this point we’ve been somewhat abstract in talking about Constantine the African’s works, as a set of texts that had dramatic effects on other texts. But for a patient who has unexpectedly come down with an unknown illness, of course, the intellectual tradition behind their care is likely to be of little interest: they want to put a name to their affliction and, ideally, cure it. So from the perspective of this hypothetical patient, what good were Constantine’s translations?

To answer this question, we need to have some sense of the places in which medical care occurred, and to understand the kinds of medical training that were available. Medical care was undertaken in multiple settings in the medieval world: in homes, to be sure, and also in monasteries and other institutions that likely attended to both bodily as well as spiritual health. At the highest levels, medical practitioners could be deeply learned and highly skilled experts, but there must have been an entire world of practitioners that is only rarely visible in our written sources.

Only a handful of images depict or illustrate medical practice in the period before Constantine was active in southern Italy; the tenth-century images found in this manuscript, Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana, MS Plut. 73.41 (here f. 122v), illustrate how to cauterize patients suffering from various illnesses.

If we assume that a practitioner from Constantine’s own eleventh century was literate, how did they approach the treatment of a disease they were unfamiliar with? The answer is surprising, and illuminates the ways that medical care has both changed and remained the same in the intervening centuries. Before the mid eleventh century, the textual resources for medical practice had some limitations: for theoretical medicine, only a handful of formal medical treatises or commentaries would have been available, and even these circulated in modest numbers.

On the other hand, a large, fluid, and fascinating set of remedies was in circulation, often written scrappily on the blank pages and in the margins of manuscripts. But even though the remedies from this period that have been passed down to us may appear humble, we should not discount the possibility that they contain hard-earned empirical wisdom, gleaned from long experience with disease prevalence and herbal and other remedies available in a particular region.

In the eleventh century this situation began to change. Of course, as we have discussed, Constantine the African translated a considerable number of works from Arabic into Latin; but renewed attention was also given to texts that already existed in Latin. A work called the Passionarius, for example, combined a group of earlier texts into a handbook of medical practice. This text circulated in considerable numbers in Europe (and especially in Italy) in the eleventh and twelfth centuries—it was about as popular as the Theorica Pantegni—and in some cases was even furnished with several sets of annotations that clarified and explicated the text. Though its earliest manuscripts lack clear authorial attribution, the work became associated with the prominent scholar Gariopontus (died perhaps before 1056), who was praised by the prominent reforming monk Peter Damian as “a most upright man, superbly educated in the arts and in medicine.”1

What made the Passionarius so popular? Some of the work’s popularity must result from the organization of its presentation. While the empirical remedies that accrued over time in a manuscript might be haphazardly organized, this text followed the time-honored anatomical “head to toe” (a capite ad calcem) organizational scheme. For example, the Passionarius began by describing and giving causal explanations for several different subtypes of headache. Additionally, it presented multiple remedies for a particular illness; for the first subtype of headache, these included environmental remedies (avoiding both bright light and deep darkness), bloodletting, dietary remedies, and multiple compound remedies.

The text and chapter lists of this manuscript of the Passionarius are written in Beneventan, a striking script that flourished in southern Italy in Gariopontus and Constantine’s eleventh century. Vatican, BAV, Archivio Capitolare San Pietro, MS H 44, f. 23r.

But for all its virtues, the Passionarius must have also been challenging. For one, Gariopontus’ terminology had to have been daunting for Greekless readers, describing illnesses with Greek words and phrases; the subtypes of headache it covers are cephalea, cephaloponia, and monopagia. Additionally, the same ailment was sometimes covered in successive chapters, with varying emphases and remedies. This resulted from the way that it combined multiple texts, but it must have stymied those readers who just wanted a quick, unambiguous explanation of a particular illness and some remedies.

If we turn to Constantine the African, whose career in southern Italy appears to have started in the 1070s, we might wonder: did Constantine know Gariopontus’ influential work? This question is harder to answer than we might think: though the Passionarius was listed in a booklist of the monastery of Monte Cassino shortly after Constantine was there, Constantine never referred to it explicitly, and the terminology that Constantine’s works share with Gariopontus was common to the longer history of Latin medicine.

It is tempting to suppose, however, that Constantine’s own handbook of practical medicine, the Viaticum, was intended as some kind of response to the Passionarius. Just as the Passionarius synthesized earlier works, the Viaticum was intended to serve as a handily sized, single-volume handbook of medical practice. Like the Passionarius, the Viaticum presents illnesses and remedies in “head to toe” order. (Instead of headaches, however, it begins with alopecia and hair loss.) The work’s title, Viaticum—which echoes the meaning of the work’s source text, Ibn al-Jazzar’s Zād al-musāfir wa-qūt al-ḥāḍir (meaning “Provisions for the Traveller and Nourishment for the Sedentary”)—suggests it was meant to serve as a portable medical reference for travelers. But where Ibn al-Jazzar’s Arabic text (and the Passionarius) often gave pages of remedies for each illness, Constantine’s translation often condensed these recipes to their essentials: to remedy hair loss from fasting, Constantine tersely lists temperate baths, a moderate diet, the avoidance of salty things, and anointing with poppy or iris oil. At times, however, Constantine’s zeal for compression appears to have led him to cut into the bone, and his text leaves out some of the steps—and sometimes even the quantities!—of the remedies in Ibn al-Jazzar’s text. Was it the case that Constantine felt that Ibn al-Jazzar’s text was a little too long to travel with comfortably? Given Constantine’s book-laden trip across the Mediterranean, he would have been a position to know.

In contrast to the Passionarius’ heavy use of Greek terminology, Constantine’s Viaticum may have been translated with the needs of non-specialist readers in mind. He gave the work a Latin title, and he used more Latin and less Greek terminology than Gariopontus and many of his other predecessors. Constantine spoke simply of “hair loss” (capilli cadentes) and trimmed down the Greek terms for headache’s subtypes. Where the Passionarius sometimes spread its discussion of a single illness over multiple chapters, the Viaticum’s coverage was more tightly focused, with chapters that were more clearly focused on a particular ailment.

The composition of the Viaticum appears to have encountered some “quality control” difficulties of its own. Beyond its occasionally odd Latin and a few nonsensical readings, the earliest copyists of the Viaticum appear to have made one major mistake in producing the earliest copies of the text. Its preface makes clear that Constantine had placed a comprehensive, “omnibus” list of all of the chapters of the entire work at the beginning of Book I (likely drawn from a similar chapter list in his Arabic source), but this preface also states that he intended for the seven books of the Viaticum to have their own lists (an organizational scheme that is found in the Passionarius and the earliest manuscripts of the Theorica Pantegni). In our earliest manuscript of the text, however, these subordinate chapter lists were not inserted; when they do begin to be inserted into later manuscripts, they can be cramped and awkward, given far less space than they really required. It is only in the course of the twelfth century that manuscript designers learned to give the Viaticum’s layout the space it required. We can also see evidence of this “retrofitting” of text and layout in the discrepancies between the tables of contents and the rubrics accompanying each chapter, something Mary Wack noticed some years ago when studying the Viaticum’s terminology for lovesickness.

In planning the layout of the Viaticum, Constantine wanted to emulate works like the Passionarius and the Pantegni, as well as the manuscripts of his Arabic source. Like this fragmentary copy of Ibn al-Jazzar’s text, Wellcome MS Arabic A406, the Viaticum gave a list of all of the chapters of the entire work at the beginning.

Even though the Viaticum may not have lived up to its creator’s intentions, this hardly hindered its popularity, and at least 35 full and partial copies of the Viaticum survive from the century and a half after the work’s translation. If it did not prove quite as popular as the Passionarius in this period, it eventually became a massive success: it survives in well over a hundred copies, and was read—and, to all appearances, used—in many of the settings of medieval medicine. It appears to have been used heavily by monks, for example, and received commentaries at universities.

Nor, as we will see next time, was this one of Mark Twain’s little-read classics: as it grew in popularity, the Viaticum would reshape the ways that people thought about the body and its illnesses. More broadly—and although these practices hardly began with Gariopontus and Constantine—their works are echoed in modern attempts to understand and heal the body: like the imagined traveler who read Constantine’s Viaticum, we continue to use the parts of the body as an organizational rubric when we try to self-diagnose on WebMD; just as Gariopontus and Constantine’s readers must have known, words and names can still be sources of comfort to suffering readers.

Further Reading:

  • Demaitre, Luke E, Medieval Medicine: The Art of Healing from Head to Toe (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013).
  • Glaze, Florence Eliza, “Galen Refashioned: Gariopontus of Salerno’s Passionarius in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance.” Ch. 3 in Textual Healing: Essays in Medieval and Early Modern Medicine, ed. Elizabeth Lane Furdell (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2005): 53-77.
  • Glaze, Florence Eliza, “Gariopontus and the Salernitans: Textual Traditions in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries,” in La ‘Collectio Salernitana’ di Salvatore De Renzi, ed. Danielle Jacquart and Agostino Paravicini Bagliani (Firenze: SISMEL/Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2008), pp. 149-90.
  • Glaze, Florence Eliza, “Prolegomena: Scholastic Openings to Gariopontus of Salerno’s Passionarius,” in Between Text and Patient: The Medical Enterprise in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Florence Eliza Glaze and Brian Nance, Micrologus’ Library, 30 (Florence: SISMEL/Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2011), pp. 57-86.
  • Glaze, Florence Eliza, “Speaking in Tongues: Medical Wisdom and Glossing Practices in and around Salerno, c. 1040-1200,” in Herbs and Healers from the Ancient Mediterranean through the Medieval West, ed. Anne Van Arsdall and Timothy Graham (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012), pp. 63-106.
  • Horden, Peregrine, Hospitals and Healing from Antiquity to the Later Middle Ages (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).
  • Wack, Mary, Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: The ‘Viaticum’ and Its Commentaries (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990).
  • Wack, Mary, “‘Alī ibn al-‘Abbās al-Maǧūsī and Constantine on Love, and the Evolution of the Practica Pantegni,” in Constantine the African and ‘Ali ibn al-’Abbas al-Maǧusi: The ‘Pantegni’ and Related Texts, ed. Charles Burnett and Danielle Jacquart (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994), pp. 161-202.

[1]Translated by Peter Blum, in the Letters of Saint Peter Damian(Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1989),p. 108.

He wrote what?

The medieval liberal arts tradition framed a set of questions that introduced the study of a text. Sometimes called the accessus ad auctores, it gave a simple formula for helping readers and students to “approach” an author:

  • Who wrote this? (discuss the author)
  • Why was it written? (discuss the author’s intent)
  • And so forth …

Constantine the African—our Benedictine monk, African immigrant, and translator of Arabic medicine—laid out a list of Accessus questions at the beginning of the Pantegni Theorica: What is the intent and purpose of the book? What is its title? To which part of formal learning does it belong? What is the name of the author? How is the book divided?

The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliothek, MS 73 J 6 (olim 542), last quarter of the 11th century, at Monte Cassino, f. 1va (detail). This is the oldest known copy of the Pantegni Theorica, and was likely made under Constantine’s supervision. This is the beginning of Book I, chapter 3, which does the formal “accessus” analysis of the book, listing the six key questions that needed to be assessed.

There were other ways to frame these questions, and additional issues that could be raised. But once you covered these basics, you could be said to properly understand a given work.

How might we apply this analysis to the text we would be most inclined to call “incongruous” in the Constantinian corpus: out-of-place, anomalous, not fitting our expectations of what a Benedictine monk would be interested in? That work is the De coitu: On Sexual Intercourse. This was the text (if you’re a regular reader of our blog) whose puzzling omission from the original Cassinese bibliography of Constantine’s works we noted before.

So, to our questions. Let’s start with an easy one: What is its title? Here is our first clue that this work was perhaps not as problematic as we might assume. In the earliest copy, it is called Liber coitus: The Book of Intercourse. No apology, no euphemism. The same holds with every other copy we have examined.

To which part of formal learning does it belong? Medicine, clearly. And that is an important point. Although reproduction (specifically the processes of embryonic formation) and women’s medicine had been topics of discussion in several early medieval Latin texts, there was no medical text devoted solely to sexuality prior to Constantine’s translation of the De coitu. The De coitu examines both the physiology of sexual function and surveys the kinds of dysfunctions and diseases that can occur to the sexual organs. Well, the male organs, at least, since the text has little interest in females.

What is the name of the author? The De coitu translates a work of Ibn al-Jazzār (d. ca. 979), the most commonly translated author in the Constantinian corpus. But we would not know that if Constantine was our only informant. Here, as elsewhere, he suppressed the original author’s name. In 1988, the Spanish scholar Enrique Montero Cartelle discovered that there was another translation of Ibn al-Jazzār’s lost text, found uniquely in a manuscript now at the Vatican Library. This translator preserved the original author’s name.

Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1123, f. 172r. This is a second, anonymous translation of Ibn al-Jazzār’s treatise on intercourse, made in the later Middle Ages. This translator, unlike Constantine, retained the original author’s name.

How is the book divided? We’ll let you explore that question yourselves. An older English-language translation exists,1 but readers would do well to consult the superb modern edition of the Latin text that Enrique Montero Cartelle produced in 1983. (It has a facing-page translation into modern Castillian. One hopes a new English translation might be produced soon.)

Last we come to the hardest question: What is the intent and purpose of the book? What Ibn al-Jazzār’s intent was we cannot fully discern, since the original Arabic version no longer survives. But we do know that Ibn al-Jazzār was hardly unique in focusing on the topic of sexual physiology and health. This was a thriving genre of medical writing in the Islamicate world.2

As for Constantine’s intent in translating it, of that, too, we are still unclear. Yes, Constantine was a monk. But he was a monk at Monte Cassino, the center of Benedictine monasticism, at the height of the debates about clerical and monastic celibacy swirling around Latin Christendom in the mid-eleventh century.3 It may even have been those debates that fostered an interest in the text. After all, it opens very clearly stating that sexual function was established by the Creator himself to ensure the propagation of all species, “for if animals disliked intercourse, all the species of animals would certainly have perished.” Many of the same frank attitudes towards sexuality can be found in others of Constantine’s works. In fact, we find in later manuscripts of the Constantinian corpus a short work on the potential harms and benefits of sexual intercourse, called (again, rather unimaginatively) the Liber minor de coitu (The Little Book of Intercourse).4

To Constantine’s six questions in the accessus, we could add a seventh: What was its fate? The De coitu is known now in thirty extant copies; the Liber minor in seven. In twelfth-century copies, neither text seems at all incongruous: andrology was just a normal part of medicine. But such frank attitudes toward sexuality were not sustained throughout the later Middle Ages. It is no coincidence that the most thorough work done on Constantine’s views on sexuality was by the Chaucer scholar, Mary Wack. For the De coitu became, ironically, Constantine’s most prominent claim to fame.

Mentioned in passing in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Constantine’s star turn comes in the Merchant’s Tale. The story is of an old man (January, which used to be one of the latter months in the calendar, hence depicting “age”) who has taken a young wife. On his wedding night, he needs fortification:

Soone after than, this hastif Januarie

Wolde go to bedde, he wolde no lenger tarye.

He drynketh ypocras, clarree, and vernage

Of spices hoote, t’encreessen his corage;

And many a letuarie hath he ful fyn,

Swiche as the cursed monk, daun Constantyn,

Hath writen in his book De Coitu;

To eten hem alle he nas no thyng eschu.

Soon after that this hasty January

Would go to bed, he would no longer tarry.

He drank of claret, hippocras, vernage,

All hot spices to heighten his love’s rage;5

And many an aphrodisiac, full and fine,

Such as the wicked monk, Dan Constantine,

Has written in his book De Coitu

Not one of all of them he did eschew.

The Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (San Marino, CA, Huntington Library, MS EL 26 C 9, f. 102v, detail). The passage mentioning Constantine appears on f. 108v.

Curiously, in both of his references to Constantine, Chaucer only refers to him by his given name– never mentioning Constantine’s own preferred epithet, Africanus. Of course, Chaucer had a lot to say about sex, but this underscores how Constantine simply serves as a prop in his story. Chaucer seems to have known little about the ways that Constantine modified the sexual ethics of his Arabic sources for a Latin audience (a subject we will return to in a later post). Like Chaucer, we can still be surprised by the extent to which a monk engaged in frank discussions of aphrodisiacs and other sexual matters; and it can be difficult to imagine the importance of monasteries like Monte Cassino as vital centers of intellectual inquiry. The works Constantine translated on sex help us to better understand this, and to see what this translator’s original intent and purpose might have been.

Further Reading:

  • Bassan, Maurice. “Chaucer’s ‘Cursed Monk’, Constantinus Africanus,” Mediaeval Studies 24 (1962), 127-140.
  • Delany, Paul. “Constantinus Africanus and Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale,” Philological Quarterly 46 (1967): 560-566.
  • Delany, Paul. “Constantinus Africanus’ De Coitu: A Translation,” The Chaucer Review 4, no. 1 (1969), 55-65.
  • Green, Monica H. “The De genecia Attributed to Constantine the African,” Speculum 62 (1987), 299-323.
  • Green, Monica H. “Constantinus Africanus and the Conflict Between Religion and Science,” in The Human Embryo: Aristotle and the Arabic and European Traditions, ed. G. R. Dunstan (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1990), pp. 47-69.
  • Matheson, Lister. “Constantinus Africanus: Liber de coitu (Liber creatoris),” in Sex, Aging, and Death in a Medieval Medical Compendium: Trinity College Cambridge MS R.14.52, Its Texts, Language, and Scribe, ed. M. Teresa Tavormina, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 292, 2 vols. (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), vol. 1, pp. 287–326.
  • Montero Cartelle, Enrique, ed. Constantini Liber de coitu: El tratado de andrología de Constantino el Africano. Monografias de la Universidad de Santiago de Compostela 77 (Santiago de Compostela, 1983)
  • Montero Cartelle, Enrique, ed. Liber minor de coitu: Tratado menor de andrología. Anonimo Salernitano. Edicion critica, traduccion y notas (Valladolid: Universidad de Valladolid, 1987).
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1. Delany 1967 translated from the 1536 printed edition of the De coitu.

2. See Musallam 1983.

3. Dyan Elliott, “The Priest’s Wife: Female Erasure and the Gregorian Reform,” in: Constance Berman, ed., Medieval Religion: New Approaches (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2005), pp. 111-140.

4. The Liber minor de coitu is documented in seven manuscripts overall. One of these, the Durham, Durham Cathedral Priory, MS C.IV.12, s. xii med. (England), was unknown to Montero Cartelle when he edited the text in 1987; it now stands as the earliest known copy of the text. The Liber minor de coitu is also one of the handful of Constantinian texts for which there was a medieval vernacular translation, in this case, into Catalan. See Michael R. Solomon, The Mirror of coitus: A Translation and Edition of the Fifteenth-Century ‘Speculum al foderi’ (Madison, WI: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 1990); and Anna Alberni, Speculum al foder (Bellcaire d’Empordà: Edicions Vitel·la, 2007). For the (partial) Middle English translation of the De Coitu, see edition by Lister Matheson.

5. I have slightly emended the translation to better reflect the medieval concept of the “degrees” of medicines. The reference is to pharmaceutically “hot” drugs, not simply warmed-up drinks.