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.