Salvage from an Eleventh-Century Shipwreck: Lost Sections of an Arabic Medical Encyclopedia Discovered in Pembroke College, Oxford



Professor Monica Green of Arizona State University tells the story of her discovery of a lost 11th century text in Pembroke's collection...

'In 1983, the great Oxford paleographer Neil Ripley Ker published his descriptions of the medieval manuscripts in Pembroke College Library. Among them were several medical manuscripts, including part 4 of Pembroke MS 10, a mid-twelfth century manuscript that contained, among other things, a text with the heading “The Sixth Part of the Practica, on [Diseases of] the Throat” (Sexta particula practice de faucibus). But the sixth part of which “practica”? Practica was a common title for many works by medical writers, and Ker had speculated no further on the text’s identity.

The answer to that question, “Which Practica?,” takes us back a century earlier, to the eleventh century. In the 1070s or 1080s, an immigrant from North Africa sat at the abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy translating a large textbook of medicine from Arabic into Latin. Called the Pantegni (“The Whole Art”), the work was modeled on the Kitab kamil as-Sina’a at-Tibbiyya of ʿAlī ibn al-ʿAbbās al-Majūsī (d. ca. 384/994), a Persian physician who worked in Shiraz, south of Rayy (Iran). Al-Majusi claimed to have created the most thorough, and best organized, medical compendium ever produced. The first part, on the theoretical aspects of medicine (basic physiology, anatomy, the categories and causes of disease) had ten books; likewise, the second part, on practical aspects (regimen, diet, specific therapies for individual diseases, surgery, and pharmaceutics) was also laid out in ten books. The Latin translation by our Cassinese monk, Constantine the African, was intended to have all these twenty books. Except it didn’t.

It has long been known that Constantine never completed his translation of the Pantegni. A story circulating some years after he died tells that Constantine was shipwrecked when he crossed the Mediterranean from his homeland of Tunisia to Italy, and in that disaster several parts of the Pantegni were destroyed. Although we now have many dozens of copies of the Pantegni that have survived to the present day (there are at least seven in Oxford libraries), the only portions of the Practica that were thought to be translated by Constantine were Book I (on regimen), part of Book II (on drugs), and part of Book IX (on surgery). In fact, immediately following “The Sixth Part of the Practica” here in Pembroke 10 is Constantine’s text on surgery.

Oddly, though, a ten-book Practica can be found in thirteenth-century and later copies of the Pantegni and in the Renaissance printed edition. But that is because a later editor came along and literally patched together a replacement for Constantine’s lost original. Some material came from other works known to have been translated by Constantine. Adding to the mystery was the fact that there were some hints that some of this “patchwork” seemed to come directly from material that Constantine had himself translated from al-Majusi, but there was no concrete evidence. And even if it was from Constantine, how did it survive? And where?

We’ve had no answers to any of these questions until now. In November 2013, I visited Pembroke College to examine MS 10 and several other medical manuscripts that Ker described as twelfth or early thirteenth century. This was for a large project I and several colleagues have been engaged on, surveying all of Latin medicine in this period. It was not until this summer, however, that I actually went closely through the photographs I had taken in 2013. That “sixth part” of MS 10 nagged me. Fortunately, I was also working at the time on several aspects of Constantine the African’s work, and so I just causally compared the Pembroke text to the printed edition of the Pantegni, and to a retranslation of al-Majusi’s Arabic text that had been made in 1127 in the Crusader state of Antioch by another translator, Stephen of Antioch.

What I found was not simply the sixth Book of al-Majusi’s Practica, but part of the seventh Book, too. Together, they cover conditions of the neck and chest (lungs and heart), and, from the middle of Book VII, conditions of the lower intestinal tract and the liver. There is, in fact, a manuscript in Munich from the end of the 12th century that also has portions of Pantegni Practica Books VI and VII. But Pembroke 10 is significantly older, and is thus an all the more precious witness to the narrow survival of these additional sections of the Pantegni.'