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).
  • Montero Cartelle, Enrique. “Sobre el autor arabe del Liber de coitu y el mode de trabajar de Constantino el Africano.” Medizinhistorisches Journal 23 (1988): 213–23.
  • Musallam, Basim. Sex and Society in Islam: Birth Control Before the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

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.