“Once settled in this monastery, he translated a great number of books from the languages of diverse peoples”: The Constantinian Corpus

For European science and medicine, the Long Twelfth Century (from roughly 1050 to 1225) is characterized by the eagerness with which translations were made from Arabic and Greek into Latin. Constantine was at the vanguard of this movement, and we have already introduced him as the first translator of Islamic medicine into Latin. But Constantine also stands out among the translators of this period as a rare immigrant to Europe. With one exception, all the others were Europeans who traveled to other language zones, learned a second (or third) language, and then turned those skills toward Arabic or Greek science.1 Constantine, in contrast, was not simply translating texts. He was translating himself.

In proudly adopting the epithet Africanus in his “verbal seal”—ego Constantinus africanus montis cassinensis monacus—Constantine took his immigrant status as a lifelong badge. Indeed, it may be from Constantine himself that his Cassinese biographers got his stories of fabulous adventures that allegedly took him to Cairo, India, and Ethiopia. It is hardly surprising that Constantine’s first biographers at Monte Cassino claimed that, once he joined the monastery, “he translated very many books from the languages of diverse peoples.” We actually have no evidence that Constantine traveled beyond the sea corridor linking southern Italy to Sicily and North Africa. But there remains a pressing question: just how many languages did he know? And how extensive, really, was the corpus of texts he produced at Monte Cassino?

So far as we have yet been able to determine,2 Constantine knew only two languages: Arabic, his native tongue, and Latin, a language for which he required “polishing” from an editor.3 One must guess that he also acquired a bit of the local Italian vernacular of southern Italy, but neither it, nor the form of French spoken by the new Norman overlords of southern Italy, were languages used for medical writing in this early period. It is surprising, therefore, that among the works attributed to Constantine by his biographers—at least two of whom likely knew him personally—there are works that are not translations from Arabic.

The truth of the matter is that we are still in the process of figuring out exactly what happened at Monte Cassino in the years between Constantine’s arrival ca. 1076 and his death, “full of days,” toward the end of the century. Indeed, as we will see in subsequent posts, the development of what we now consider the Constantinian corpus began before Constantine’s arrival and continued after Constantine’s death. At least one element of his corpus apparently wasn’t completed until the end of the Long Twelfth Century. But we get ahead of ourselves.

In a biography of Constantine, begun around 1105 by his contemporaries, Leo Marsicanus and/or his continuator, Guido, and then incorporated into Peter the Deacon’s collected biography of Cassino’s most famous personalities in the 1140s, we find twenty, and then (in Peter’s version) twenty-three, works ascribed to Constantine. Interestingly, these lists do not capture all the works we know Constantine was responsible for. For example, one of the works with his distinctive “verbal seal” that is missing from the Cassinese booklists is his text On the Stomach (De stomacho), which he dedicated to one of his patrons, the archbishop of Salerno, Alfanus (d. 1085).

Constantine’s dedication of his treatise On the Stomach to his patron, archbishop Alfanus of Salerno (d. 1085). This copy was made in England in the later 13th century. Credit: Oxford, Pembroke College, MS 21, f. 1ra.

Why Peter listed three more works than the earlier biographers did is an important question. The reason for Peter’s inclusion of the text on surgery (Chirurgia) may be because, by the time he was writing in the 1140s, the text, which had been left unfinished at Constantine’s death, had now been completed. The Surgery is actually Book IX of the second part, the Practica, of Constantine’s translation of ʻAlī ibn al-ʻAbbās al-Majūsī’s Arabic Kitāb kāmil aṣ-Ṣināʻa aṭ-Ṭibbiyya, “The Complete Book of the Medical Art.” For reasons we’ll hear more about in next month’s post, Constantine only translated the first third of Book IX. Between the time Leo and Guido were writing, soon after Constantine’s death, and when Peter was writing, two other translators had come along to complete his work: one a recent convert from Islam, Johannes, and the other someone named Rusticus, son of Bella “and by profession a physician,” from Pisa. What their connection was with Monte Cassino is unclear, but one of the few manuscript witnesses to the translation still resides in a thirteenth-century copy at the abbey.

This passage falls at the point of transition between Constantine’s portion of the translation of the Surgery (Pantegni, Practica, Book IX) and the completion by Johannes, a converted Muslim, and Rusticus of Pisa. Berlin, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preussischer Kulturbesitz, MS lat. fol. 74, 12th century, f. 261r. This Berlin manuscript, and one still in the library of Monte Cassino (cod. 200), are the only independent witnesses to this completed translation.

The second text added to Peter’s list, but missing from Leo and Guido’s, is more puzzling since we don’t have any reason to think that Constantine didn’t finish it himself. This was the De coitu, on sexual intercourse. It is certainly as Constantinian as many others we ascribe to him, since its Arabic original can be assigned to the 10th-century physician from Qayrawan, Ibn al-Jazzār, whom we have met before. In fact, there is a second book on sexual intercourse (literally called, “The Little Book of Intercourse”) that seems also to come from Monte Cassino, and both texts circulate with other elements of Constantine’s works. We must assume (given the monks’ vows of celibacy) that interest in this topic stems either from lay patrons of the monastery or from debates on-going in the eleventh century about celibacy or marriage.4

The third new text on Peter’s list, the Prognostics, is important to flag for a different reason. Like the De coitu, we have no reason to doubt (in the absence of stylistic analyses) that it is an authentic translation by Constantine; it is certainly translated from Arabic. But it is distinctive in a sense. One of the methods we are using in our work on Constantine’s transformative impact on medicine in the Long Twelfth Century is to look for patterns in the circulation of his texts in manuscripts from the period. The Prognostics almost never circulates on its own, nor is it found in larger collections of Constantiniana. Rather, it is found with one or more of a group of texts historians of medicine call the Articella, the “little art.”

This basic Latin medical teaching curriculum, which would go on to form the foundation of medical teaching all across Europe for the next 400 years, was, we know now, assembled at Monte Cassino. And it was a multilingual endeavor. Here are the basic components:

  • Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq’s (Latinized as “Johannitius”) Isagoge – translated from Arabic
  • the Hippocratic Aphorisms – translated from Greek
  • the Hippocratic Prognostics – translated from Arabic
  • the Hippocratic Regimen in Acute Diseases – translated from Arabic
  • Philaretus’s On Pulses – translated from Greek
  • Theophilus’s On Urines – translated from Greek
  • Galen’s Tegni (also known as the Ars parva or “the Little Art”) – translated from Greek

Constantine translated Ḥunayn’s Isagoge, a basic summary of Galenic medicine—though that, too, is missing from the Cassinese biographers’ lists.5 The translation of the Regimen in Acute Diseases was also from Arabic, making Constantine the most likely suspect as its translator. Yet it, too, is missing from the Cassinese lists.

What of the Greek texts in the Articella? We have no reason to believe that Constantine knew Greek well enough to translate them himself, though he may have acquired some limited command of the language in a monastery where Greek speakers were a regular feature. It is surprising, therefore, that his biographers attributed Galen’s Tegni to him. Who was (or were) these other translator(s) from the Greek? That remains one of the great mysteries of medicine in late eleventh-century Monte Cassino!

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS lat. 7102, s. xii in. (Bobbio), ff. 35v-36r, showing the opening of the new translation, from the Greek, of the Hippocratic Aphorisms made, apparently, specifically for use in the Articella collection. Several pages of this copy are a palimpsest over the Old Latin Aphorisms translation.6

The Articella collection is not the only part of what we now consider the Constantinian corpus to display signs of a fusion of Arabic, Greek, and Latin traditions. We will have more to say about these intersections in coming posts. For now, though, we should stress that despite this more complicated picture of the Constantinian corpus, we still believe that Constantine was the guiding presence that brought this impressive new body of medical literature into being. This corpus was Monte Cassino’s signature contribution to medical history, and its “Constantinian seal” would remain fixed on European medicine until the end of the Middle Ages.

Further Reading:

  • Green, Monica H. “Gloriosissimus Galienus: Galen and Galenic Writings in the 11th– and 12th-Century Latin West,” in Brill Companion to the Reception of Galen, ed. Petros Bouras-Vallianatos and Barbara Zipser (forthcoming). (Still in press, but feel free to request an advance copy.)
  • 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.
  • 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. Liber Constantini De stomacho: El tratado ‘Sobre el estómago’ de Constantino el Africano. Estudio, edición critica y traducción (Valladolid: Ediciones Universidad de Valladolid, 2016).
  • Newton, Francis. “Constantine the African and Monte Cassino: New Elements and the Text of the Isagoge,” in Constantine the African and ‘Ali ibn al-Abbas al-Maǧusi: The ‘Pantegni’ and Related Texts, ed. Charles Burnett and Danielle Jacquart, Studies in Ancient Medicine 10 (Leiden: Brill, 1994), pp. 16-47.

1. The other known medical translators into Latin in this period were Rusticus of Pisa and Johannes agarenus, who completed Constantine’s translation of al-Majusi’s surgery, ca. 1113-15; Stephen of Antioch (fl. 1127), a Pisan who worked in the recently established Crusader state of Antioch; Gerard of Cremona (d. 1187), who worked in Toledo; Burgundio of Pisa (d. 1193), who traveled to Constantinople, but made his translations of Galen’s Greek texts once home in Pisa; and Mark of Toledo (fl. 1193-1216). Mark may have originally been from Toledo, which remained a multi-lingual environment for quite some time after its conquest by Christians in 1085.

2. As we noted in the first installment of the Constantinus Africanus blog, the majority of Constantine’s works have not yet been edited. As more works are scrutinized, we will be developing a better sense of Constantine’s characteristic style.

3. As noted by Francis Newton, Constantine was assisted in his Latin by one of his auditors at Monte Cassino. As recounted in the Cassinese Chronicle, “Adto, who attended Constantine the African’s discussions and was chaplain to the Empress Agnes, took the texts that the aforementioned Constantine had translated out of different languages and put them into Latin in elegant style.” See Newton 1994, p. 24.

4. The critical edition of the De coitu, Enrique Montero Cartelle, 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), identified 15 copies of the text. Our project has identified 15 more. See also Enrique Montero Cartelle, Liber minor de coitu: Tratado menor de andrología. Anonimo Salernitano.  Edicion critica, traduccion y notas (Valladolid: Universidad de Valladolid, 1987); and, on the Arabic source of the De coitu, Enrique Montero Cartelle, “Sobre el autor arabe del Liber de coitu y el mode de trabajar de Constantino el Africano,” Medizinhistorisches Journal 23 (1988), 213–23.

5. Newton 1994.

6. For a detailed examination of the text in this copy, including the suggestion that it was made at the Benedictine monastery of Bobbio in northern Italy, see Manuel Vázquez Buján, “Sur les traces de l’ancienne traduction latine des Aphorismes dans le manuscrit Paris, BnF, latin 7102,” Galenos: Rivista di filologia dei testi medici antichi 2 (2008), 107-118.

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