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.

‘But of the Practica of the Pantegni he translated only three books, for it had been destroyed by the water’: The Puzzle of the Practica

When trying to grasp what Constantine the African achieved in just two decades of labor at Monte Cassino in the later eleventh century, we might conjure up an image of the library in which he worked. Although bombed by the Allies in World War II, the monastery of Monte Cassino was subsequently rebuilt. Thus, when we enter the doors of its library today, we can imagine something of the great house as Desiderius, its most famous abbot after Benedict himself, conceived it in the 1070s.

We, can, moreover, repopulate that lost library with a number of the Latin medical manuscripts that Constantine would have had before him: a collection of texts attributed to Hippocrates and Galen from the tenth century; a copy of Book III of Paul of Aegina’s encyclopedia of medicine, perhaps just recently translated from the Greek; maybe even a copy of the text on medicine compiled by the ancient Roman encyclopedist, Celsus. But of the Arabic manuscripts Constantine used, we have nothing left at all.1

Most likely, he had only one copy of each of his Arabic texts. If they suffered any damage, there could have been no easy way to obtain a replacement. And such a loss does seem to have happened. Writing in the middle of the twelfth century in nearby Salerno, the medical author Mattheus Platearius reports that, when Constantine arrived at Cape Palinuro, on Italy’s “boot” just south of Salerno, “a seastorm broke out, and a great quantity of water came into the boat and destroyed a certain part of the Pantegni, namely the Practica.”2 Mattheus was referring, of course, to Constantine’s copy of ‘Alī ibn al-‘Abbās al-Majūsī’s Arabic Kitāb kāmil aṣ-Ṣināʻa aṭ-Ṭibbiyya, “The Complete Book of the Medical Art.”3 This is just the scenario of loss that Constantine would list as a cause for melancholy in his translation of Ishaq ibn ‘Imran’s treatise on that topic.

This story is supported, moreover, by every eleventh- and twelfth-century copy of the Pantegni we have. Manuscripts from the first century of the text’s existence fall into one of two groups. Some have only the Theorica, the first ten books covering basic physiology, anatomy, and disease causation. It was this section of the text that Constantine dedicated to his patron, the abbot of Monte Cassino, Desiderius, who would go on to serve a brief tenure as Pope Victor III, 1086-87.

The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliothek, MS 73 J 6 (olim 542), last quarter of the 11th century, at Monte Cassino, f. 1ra (detail). This is the oldest known copy of the Pantegni Theorica, and was likely made under Constantine’s supervision. The detail shows Constantine’s dedication of the text to his patron, Desiderius, the abbot of Monte Cassino. The holes (which look huge here because of enlargement) are actually tiny worm holes made by burrowing insects.

Some manuscripts of the Pantegni, in contrast, have both the ten books of the Theorica, and also one, two, or three books of the Practica: Book I on general regimen for maintaining health; the first part of Book II on the types of medicines; and the first third of Book IX, on surgery. It is as Platearius said: “But of the Practica of the Pantegni he translated only three books, for it had been destroyed by the water.”

Yet the “puzzle” of the Pantegni Practica goes deeper than Platearius’s story suggests. When we cast our eyes a bit further, looking into the thirteenth century, we find copies of a complete Pantegni: not simply with the ten books of the Theorica and the three books of the Practica (two of them incomplete), but with twenty complete books, covering all the topics that al-Majusi had included in his Arabic original of “The Complete Book of the Medical Art.”

How do we account for this stunning discrepancy? Where did this “complete” Practica come from? Mattheus Platearius gives us another interesting detail: Alfanus (the archbishop of Salerno who had patronized Constantine early in his career and was the dedicatee of Constantine’s translation on stomach disorders) “wished to reimburse” Constantine for his expenses in completing the Pantegni. Maybe Constantine found a new copy of al-Majusi’s original on Sicily, where the Normans were continuing to claim the island from Fatimid and Zirid control. Or perhaps he obtained it through contacts in North Africa.

But Alfanus died in 1085. What happened to the project of completing the Pantegni thereafter? The answer is, “We’re still figuring it out.”

The first layer of detective work occurred in the 1990s, in the context of an international conference focused on al-Majūsī and his Latin translator.4 Working on Books II and X, Mary Wack untangled the peculiar histories of both of the Practica’s books on pharmacy, the former on simple (uncompounded) drugs, the latter on compound (mixed) drugs. Something odd was clearly afoot. At the same time, I worked on Book VIII, trying to unravel the sources for the sections on women’s medicine. In 2006, Raphaela Veit then did a similar analysis of Book III, on fevers.

What we found, coming from different angles, was pretty much the same. An anonymous editor had “re-created” the Pantegni Practica. That is, he (she?), feeling that they knew what the full text should have looked like, “re-created” it, using bits and pieces of Constantine’s other writings—the Viaticum, Ishaq al-Isra’ili’s Book of Fevers, etc.—to assemble a text that looked like a “complete art.”

These revelations were stunning, but we still couldn’t explain the genesis of the full ten books of the Practica. Because we were using the Renaissance edition as our reference point, we didn’t realize that there were additional layers we weren’t yet seeing. It has only been in exploring the full corpus of twelfth century manuscripts that it has become apparent how complex the puzzle of the Pantegni, Practica actually is.

In 2015, looking through a mid-twelfth-century manuscript in Pembroke College Library, Oxford, I realized that a hitherto unidentified text, called simply a practica, was in fact a section of al-Majūsī’s original Practica. The passages in the Pembroke manuscript were from Books VI and VII. These, I would later be able to confirm, corresponded with an early thirteenth-century manuscript in Munich that has these books. (The Munich manuscript had been known for some time but only became available for consultation recently). I then discovered a third manuscript, now in Berlin, and a fourth manuscript, now in Uppsala, that had these “lost” pieces of the Practica, too. (You can read about the Uppsala discovery here or, if you prefer Swedish, here.) Additionally, one mid-twelfth century manuscript now in Toledo, discovered by Iolanda Ventura, has a unique copy of the Book X of the Practica, on compound medicines. This, too, seems stylistically to be the work of Constantine.

Berlin, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-Preussischer Kulturbesitz, MS lat. qu. 303a, mid-12th century (Italy), f. 2v (detail), Pantegni Practica Book VI, chap. 5: De raucitate (“On Hoarseness”). This, together with manuscripts in Munich, Oxford, and Uppsala, preserves the otherwise “lost” Books VI and VII of Constantine’s translation of al-Majūsī’s original Arabic.

Interestingly, the Munich and Uppsala manuscripts seem to have traces of what would have been the equivalent of Post-it® notes: that an author or editor had left to themselves to signal where different parts of the text were supposed to go. For example, there seems to be a “note” indicating where Book III, on fevers, was supposed to be added. Later copyists had copied these as if they were part of the main text, never realizing that the work they had in front of them was incomplete. Together, these clues suggest that, as Mattheus Ferrarius had noted, Constantine himself appears to have been engaged on the task of completing the translation he had earlier had to leave unfinished.

Pulling these pieces of the puzzle together, we can see that the creation of the Pantegni Practica fell into at least three stages:

  • Constantine’s original translation of Books I, the first part of II, and the first third of IX from the undamaged parts of his Arabic manuscript5
  • Constantine’s translation of other sections of the Practica, the second half of Book II, all of Book VI, most of VII, and all of Book X (from a new copy or “mended” copy of the damaged original?)
  • An unknown editor’s reconstruction of the remaining sections of the Practica from bits and pieces of Constantine’s other works

Exasperatingly, we still can’t pinpoint when and where this last, unknown editor was working. No extant copies of the “re-created” Pantegni Practica have been found that date before the second quarter of the thirteenth century, well over 100 years after Constantine died. Nor does any twelfth-century testimony—either a scholarly book or a library catalog—witness the existence of a “complete” Practica. For now, we will just have to live with this mystery.

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS lat. 6886, s. xiii med. (Italy), f. 133ra, here showing the beginning of Practica, Book III, on fevers, which is the first book created whole cloth out of other Constantinian materials by an anonymous editor. This manuscript is in the running for being the oldest copy of the completed (“re-created”) Pantegni.6

The “re-created” Pantegni gave the text a new lease on life. Fifteen of the thirty-five copies of the Pantegni that survive from the thirteenth century (there are fifty-three from the “long twelfth century”) present the “completed” Practica. These are often imposing volumes, running sometimes up to 200 leaves or more. However, the thirteenth century was also the point that Constantine’s Pantegni encountered its first real rival: the even more imposing compendium of medicine, the Canon of Ibn Sina (Avicenna, d. 1037). This had been translated into Latin before 1187 by Gerard of Cremona, working in Toledo, and although it experienced an initial period of invisibility, it emerged in the second quarter of the thirteenth century to a position of prominence, soon becoming the bedrock of medical curricula in later medieval universities and the writings of learned physicians.7

The Pantegni, retrieved from the sodden manuscript with which Constantine arrived in Italy, never lost its power to attract readers. The Latin encyclopedia was still being copied as late as 1452, and it was printed twice in the sixteenth century: once with just the Theorica and once with the full twenty-book “re-creation.”8 Constantine’s editorial efforts, and the Pantegni’s success, are a testament to the intellectual power of the “complete art” that al-Majūsī had first assembled in Persia, in Arabic, in the tenth century.

Further Reading:

  • Charles Burnett and Danielle Jacquart, “A Catalogue of Renaissance Editions and Manuscripts of the Pantegni,” in Constantine the African and ‘Alī ibn al-‘Abbās al-Maǧūsī: The ‘Pantegni’ and Related Texts, ed. Charles Burnett and Danielle Jacquart (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994), pp. 316-51. Our project has doubled the number of twelfth-century manuscripts reported by Burnett and Jacquart; their survey of later manuscripts, however, is, aside from a few new discoveries, largely complete.
  • Monica H. Green, “The Re-Creation of Pantegni, Practica, Book VIII,” in Constantine the African and ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas al-Magusi: The ‘Pantegni’ and Related Texts, ed. Charles Burnett and Danielle Jacquart (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994), pp. 121-60.
  • Raphaela Veit, “Al-Maǧūsī’s Kitāb al-Malakī and its Latin Translation Ascribed to Constantine the African: The Reconstruction of Pantegni, Practica, Liber III,” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 16 (2006), 133-168.
  • Mary F. Wack, “‘Alī ibn al-‘Abbās al-Maǧūsī and Constantine on Love, and the Evolution of the Practica Pantegni,” in Constantine the African and ‘Alī ibn al-’Abbās al-Maǧūsī: The ‘Pantegni’ and Related Texts, ed. Charles Burnett and Danielle Jacquart (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994), pp. 161-202.

1. An intriguing discovery was made of a tenth-century copy of Ishaq al-Isra’ili’s Arabic treatise on urines, now in the Vatican Library (BAV, MS Vat. ar. 310), that was produced in North Africa. Alas, there is nothing to connect it with Monte Cassino. Instead, it seems to have passed through Spain (and the hands of a Hebrew-literate user) before reaching the Vatican. Our thanks to Arianna D’Ottone for information on this manuscript.

2. The text of Platearius’ account, together with the biography of Constantine by his Cassinese contemporaries, Leo Marsicanus and Guido, can conveniently be found in translation in Francis Newton, “Arabic Medicine in Italy: Constantine the African,” in Mediterranean Passages, from Dido to Derrida, ed. Miriam Cooke, Erdağ Göknar, and Grant Parker (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 115-121.

3. This work actually has two titles, both in Arabic and in Latin. al-Majūsī himself had called it both Kitāb kāmil aṣ-Ṣinā’a aṭ-Ṭibbiyya, “The Complete Book of the Medical Art” and Kitāb al-Malakī, “The Book of the King,” which Stephen of Antioch rendered as Liber regalis.

4. We should, in fact, say “translators” since a second translation of the Kitāb kāmil aṣ-Ṣinā’a aṭ-Ṭibbiyya of ʿAlī ibn al-ʿAbbās al-Majūsī was made around 1127 by Stephen of Antioch, a Pisan notary and philosopher working in the recently conquered Crusader state of Antioch. It is possible that the re-creator of the Pantegni Practica used Stephen’s version as a guide. But neither the chapter numbers or their titles correspond exactly, so any possible influence remains unproven.

5. The completion of the translation of Book IX, on surgery, took a different path and has been understood for some time. For a brief account, see Monica H. Green, “Crafting a (Written) Science of Surgery: The First European Surgical Texts,” REMEDIA, 13 Oct 2015,

6. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS lat. 6886 is also important in being one of three manuscripts that preserve an odd “fourth prologue” to the Pantegni, which connects the text, not with al-Majūsī, but with his contemporary, al-Razi.

7. Joël Chandelier, Avicenne et la médecine en Italie. Le Canon dans les universités (1200-1350) (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2017).

8. Constantine’s Pantegni has received no modern edition. It was printed twice in the Renaissance, and both editions are now readily available in electronic formats: [A. Turinus, ed.] Omnia opera Ysaac, 2 vols. (Lyons: Bert. Trot, in offic. Joh. de Platea, 1515), available at the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Santé, This edition has the complete, 20-book version of the Pantegni. Another digital version can be found in the Wolfenbüttel Digital Library, URL: The second edition of the Pantegni presents only the Theorica: Svmmi in omni philosophia viri Constantini Africani medici Operum reliqua … (Basel: H. Petrus, 1539).

A transcription of one twelfth-century manuscript, now in Helsinki, is available here: Outi Kaltio, ed., Constantine the African, Theorica Pantegni: Facsimile and Transcription of the Helsinki manuscript (Codex EÖ.II.14) (Helsinki: The National Library of Finland, 2011), Note, however, that the Helsinki manuscript has only the text of the Theorica, and even then is missing all of Book I and the end of Book X.